John Steinbruner, who died on April 16 after a decade-long battle against cancer, was one of the greatest and most important Brookings scholars in the century-long history of our institution. We were both lucky enough to work for and with John here at Brookings, and were immeasurably helped, inspired, and taught by him over the years.
John was an academic superstar from his earliest days. He wrote a Massachusetts Institute of Technology dissertation and book on the “cybernetic theory” of decision-making that remains a lodestar in the field. With a track record of scholarly brilliance, as well as a personality that was both gentle and driven, he was a natural choice to lead the Foreign Policy program at Brookings even before reaching the age of 40. He ran the program from 1978 through 1996 and created the foundation upon which it has operated ever since. He was—literally—the father of the modern Brookings foreign policy tradition of rigorous scholarship in the service of public policy. The pantheon of greats who worked and wrote under his guidance here includes some of the most impressive names in the history of American public policy research—Bill Kaufmann, Harry Harding, Raymond Garthoff, Bill Quandt, and Bruce Blair, to name just a few. And while John’s academic credentials were second to none, his motivations were fundamentally about public policy—about making the world a better place.
The context for most of John’s work, and the concern that drove much of his passion for foreign policy research and writing, was the Cold War, along with its attendant grave dangers. He was riveted by the importance of the nuclear arms control agenda, the promotion of U.S.-Soviet détente, and the mitigation of violence that the Cold War produced or exacerbated around the world. The scholarly pursuits that he championed focused on military policy and defense budgeting and arms control, the resolution of civil warfare, and savvy analysis of the challenges faced in many specific regions of the world from East Asia to the Middle East to Latin America and Africa. In his later years, he also delved deeply into issues of climate change and their links to security challenges.
Perhaps the most important lesson that John both imparted and embodied—which is also an essential underpinning of Brookings’ unique role among think tanks—was to think beyond established disciplinary and political boundaries and time frames. He surely did that in his own work. And it is not surprising that one of us ended up involved in the effort to challenge standard economic metrics with those that include broader dimensions of human well-being and psychological elements of decision-making (which John was, of course, completely enthusiastic about!).
John willfully passed on his passion, intellectual rigor, and sincerity about the role of public policy to the next generation. At University of Maryland, John was a dedicated and inspiring teacher, as is evidenced in his many current and graduated doctoral students. His dedication to that effort was embodied in many forms, perhaps best in the last months by his spending his few remaining healthy hours in the class room—literally arranging the timing of his medical treatments so that he could teach his weekly seminar.
John was a rare gem, among the most dignified and nobly-minded and kind persons that either of us has ever encountered, professionally, and personally. No one combined the twin traits of academic rigor with human and humanitarian passion better than he did. He was one of the smartest people we ever knew, and, more importantly, one of the best. Not only will he be missed by us, but the world has lost someone truly irreplaceable. He will live on, however, in his work, through his family, friends, colleagues, and students, and through the standards of excellence that he promoted both at Brookings and at the University of Maryland.