In Memoriam: Henry Owen, Director of Foreign Policy at Brookings, 1969-1977

Henry Owen, who died on November 5, 2011, did much to expand and transform the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings to respond to the brave new world of foreign affairs emerging in the 1970s—a changed Washington landscape where Congress and journalists were gaining in power, and a changed international system where post-Vietnam America was turning away from the Cold War to confront new challenges like economic interdependence, the energy crisis, and North-South relations. Because he was able to adapt his program to this new environment, Henry Owen put Brookings at the center of U.S. foreign policy debates in the 1970s, and presided over ground-breaking studies and initiatives.

Budget figures tell us a part of this story: Under Owen’s watch, the Foreign Policy Program expanded more than three-fold, from $589,000 in 1969 to $2 million in 1975, thereby approaching the size of the then-dominant Economic Studies program. His ability to attract new capital was also true in human resources. After his years as director at the “Policy Planning Council,” as the Policy Planning Staff was called under Lyndon Johnson, he hired young experts with government experience like C. Fred Bergsten, Morton Halperin and Leslie Gelb. Among significant books of that period, Halperin published Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy in 1974, while Gelb wrote, with the help of Richard Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, which argued that the decisionmaking process for Vietnam had actually performed as it should have—and had largely responded to the dominant preferences of Americans.

Beyond the regular staff, which also included Seyom Brown, Ernest Lefever and John Newhouse, Owen lauched a number of task forces which involved external experts like Samuel Huntington of Harvard, Robert Bowie of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs (Owen’s predecessor at the Policy Planning Staff under Eisenhower), Harold Brown of the California Institute of Technology, and Zbigniew Brzezinski of Columbia University.

The center of gravity of the Foreign Policy Program under Henry Owen was on the liberal side, although he made efforts to hire Republicans and engage with policymakers in the Republican administrations. Nevertheless, Brookings was seen as part of the new foreign policy establishment that included other think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, foundations like Ford, and journals like Foreign Policy magazine. This new establishment was increasingly contested by a string of more conservative think tanks, including CSIS, AEI and the newly formed Heritage Foundation.

The Nixon White House viewed the Brookings Foreign Policy Program as a hotbed of subversion. In June 1971, Nixon instructed his chief of staff to send “plumbers” to steal files from the office of Morton Halperin and Leslie Gelb (who had worked on the Pentagon Papers). “I want the Brookings safe cleaned out!” he ordered. Had it not been for the vigilance of Roderick Warrick, the guard at the front desk who stopped the unwanted visitors, Brookings might have been the first Watergate.

It was precisely the Watergate scandal and the post-Vietnam mood that accelarated the shift in foreign policy power and influence from the Executive to the Legislative branch and to the press. Henry Owen perceived this shift, and while still responding to the sollicitation of government agencies like ACDA or AID, he directed Brookings efforts towards journalists and Capitol Hill. He organized monthly seminars for Congressional staffers on national security choices, and lunches for journalists on defense analysis.

Henry Owen also struck a remarkable balance between traditional foreign policy themes and the new issues of that era. Upon his arrival in 1969, he launched the Defense Analysis Project, which aimed at linking U.S. grand strategy with budgetary choices, independently from government funding, and with an annual publication available to the public. The project, strongly supported by Robert McNamara (then a Brookings trustee), had a prestigious advisory board which included Dean Acheson, Paul Nitze, Henry Rowen and General Matthew Ridgway, and it produced the first independent review of the costs of various U.S. force postures and a detailed analysis of the defense budget. Henry Owen also launched various studies on the U.S. forces (Air Force, Navy, Reserve, military pay), on U.S.-Soviet relations, and on regional security themes.

One of these studies generated much interest. In 1975, after six months of debate, one of the Brookings study groups he launched published a report, “Towards Peace in the Middle East,” which recommended, among other measures to aim for a comprehensive settlement of the conflict, Palestinian self-determination (subject to Palestinian acceptance of the sovereignty and integrity of Israel within agreed boundaries) and resulting in either an independent Palestinian State or autonomous Palestinian self-government in Jordan. The task force included various experts and personalities like Harold Saunders, Rita Hauser, Philip Klutznick, William Quandt, Nadav Safran and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Its conclusions were much discussed in the United States and in Israel and when Brzezinkshi, Quandt and Saunders joined the Carter administration, the report became the blueprint for Carter’s approach to Middle East peacemaking.

Owen also encouraged studies in the new problems of international relations and new aspects of power, including technology, the oil market, the use of oceans, the food crisis, the environment, non-state actors like multinational corporations, and the rise of economic interdependence. Seyom Brown’s book of 1974, “New Forces in World Politics,” is a good reflection of this new perception of international realities.

In that context, a particular note should be made of Owen’s initiative to launch in 1971, along with Phillip Trezise whom he had recruited to Brookings, the “tripartite dialogues” with Europeans and Japanese (Max Kohnstamm and the Kiel Institute for World Economics; and Saburo Okita and the Tokyo Economic Research Center). The tripartite dialogues, which reflected Japan’s recent meteoric rise and the need to update the too-limited transatlantic dialogue, centered on international economic problems like North-South cooperation, trade tensions and monetary policy.

These dialogues provided part of the inspiration for the creation of the storied Trilateral Commission. Indeed, Henry Owen, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Bowie, brought their “tripartite” idea to David Rockefeller in the Spring of 1972, and the Trilateral Commission was founded shortly afterwards, with Owen’s contribution.

It is in the Trilateral Commission that Henry Owen came to meet Jimmy Carter, whom he helped advise during the 1976 presidential campaign. That led him to be appointed ambassador-at-large for international economic summits in 1978. He then became the de facto coordinator of the administration’s international economic policy. In the meantime, between the State Department and the White House, he had made the Brookings Foreign Policy Program a major player in the Washington policy debate.