The Mind and Milieu of John Steinbruner

Remembering a generous mentor, a prodigious scholar, and a bold thinker who contemplated the bad decisions that could get us all killed.


I don’t normally use this column to write obituaries, but John Steinbruner — my friend and mentor — died last week after a long battle with cancer. It occurs to me that no one has had a bigger impact on how I think about nuclear weapons and strategic stability. Most of what I write consists of ideas that I’ve stolen from John, dressed up with some off-color jokes.

John was a giant, even if perhaps he’s not as well known as his contemporaries. There are a couple of reasons for that, some understandable and others less so. But I wanted to share with readers how I think about John’s work and what I think it says about the risk of nuclear war.

That’s a heavy topic and, of course, I am heartbroken at John’s passing, but it’s hard to think of anything but happy memories when it comes to him. So, let’s start with a light one.

The University of Maryland used to host an annual meeting at the Wye resort. The staff goes home after dinner, but you can convince them to leave out the ice-filled tub of beer. If you know me, then you know I secured said tub.

We brought the tub downstairs, where there is a pool table and so on. I don’t think I had ever seen John drink anything other than maybe a glass of wine at dinner. I had rather foolishly forgotten to secure a bottle opener for the beers. (Youth!) Everyone stood there looking at John to figure out what we should do. He wedged the bottle cap on the edge of a piece of furniture — a kind of bureau, if I recall — and whacked it with his hand. But instead of the cap popping off, it made an enormous gouge in the bureau. I recall horrified silence. “Well,” he said with a sly smile, “that’s why we have a security deposit.”

John never worried about anything — and it is easy to see why. He led a charmed life.

It’s really a sort of accident that John ended up writing about nuclear weapons at all. John’s undergraduate degree was from Stanford in psychology. At the time, Stanford wouldn’t take its own undergraduates into its Ph.D. program (and John was too convinced of Stanford’s supremacy to study psychology anywhere else), so he took a little time. After a year studying philosophy at Freiburg in Germany, John settled on a doctoral program in political science at MIT since, as he told me, political science had jurisdiction over the problems that interested him the most. I am pretty sure he said “jurisdiction.”

Cambridge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when John was a student and then a young assistant professor at Harvard, was a pretty interesting place for political science and what has since come to be called public policy.

They wouldn’t say it this way, but I think most of the debates during this period were fundamentally concerned with one question: Why do supposedly rational decision-makers do stupid, destructive things? Although Graham Allison, Mort Halperin, Tom Schelling, John Steinbruner, and others ostensibly wrote about high-minded problems (from nuclear strategy to racial discrimination), from today’s vantage point I see Vietnam dripping from nearly every page. Allison wrote the seminal Essence of Decision during that period, based on a seminar about the Cuban Missile Crisis that was really about the limits of rational actor models. Mort focused on bureaucracies. Tom imagined rational micro-motives that result in undesirable macro-behaviors. And then there was John.

John’s outlook was rooted in his interest in psychology. He was forever interested in how a complex system — like a human brain — might operate according to rules that were adapted to a specific environment and only approximated rational decision-making. The mathematics that explain a winning tennis stroke might be modeled mathematically, he would say, but the best tennis players can barely add and subtract.

He wrote a wonderful book called The Cybernetic Theory of Decision that no one reads, owing in part to its terrible title. John once told me he wanted to call it Decision Under Complexity or, better still, the Bee and the Tennis Player, but the publisher vetoed those and other reasonable suggestions. John, being a bit churlish — one his favorite words, by the way, and one that I use all the time — offered The Cybernetic Theory of Decision as a kind of joke. The publisher accepted it and John was stuck. (His dissertation, upon which the book was based, had the much more welcoming title of The Mind and Milieu of Policy-Makers: A Case Study of the MLF.)

In the 1970s, after a stint teaching at Yale and coauthoring History of the Strategic Arms Competition: 1945-1972, John became the director of foreign policy studies at Brookings. He was, if I recall correctly, 37.

His work at Brookings developed the implications of how John thought about decision-making. If decision-makers only approximate rationality by operating according to learned rules, that raises an interesting question: What happens in an unexpected or unusual circumstance? And by “interesting,” I mean terrifying. Would the rules still work, or could they conspire in some perverse way to bring about disaster? In particular, John wonder about the incredibly complex nuclear forces the United States and Soviet Union were building. They were designed to produce deterrence in peacetime, but what about in a crisis? Placing these systems on alert would dramatically alter the environment under which they operated. They have never been released into the wild, he would say, comparing peacetime to the safe, controlled environment of a wildlife sanctuary.

I think we owe much of our modern framing about the concern about nuclear accidents to John and the scholars he hired at Brookings, including Bruce Blair and Janne Nolan. It occurs to me that we might not have Nena’s “99 Luftballons” if not for John’s work. I am heartbroken that I’ll never get to tease him about that.

John himself was especially interested in the issue of nuclear decapitation — the notion that a nuclear strike could destroy command-and-control systems. John worried that command-and-control systems weren’t up to the tasks required by nuclear planning and that, in a crisis, policymakers might make some very bad decisions. You’ll notice that I write columns about Russian fears of decapitation and how important it is for the United States to invest in command and control. Yeah, well, guess where I stole that idea from.

John eventually left Brookings, settling at the University of Maryland in time for the 1999-2000 semester. Lucky me! John wasn’t on the faculty when I applied to the Ph.D. program at Maryland’s School of Public Policy. We arrived at the same time. John spent his years at Maryland broadening the conversation about nuclear issues to include civil conflict, climate change, synthetic biology — ideas he had developed in his last book, Principles of Global Security, which was the basis of the first class I ever took from him. He gave us all bound copies of the galleys. “Don’t tell anyone at Brookings,” he laughed. I suppose it’s OK to mention now; John, you got away with it. He was increasingly interested in whether we might design better rules for global security than the implicit ones that he had studied for so many years. 

I learned so much at Maryland from John. Ever notice that I tend to write by establishing a central fact and then explaining how that one thing determines the rest of the argument? That’s John. My interest in decision-making? John. My interest in open-source information? John. The classes I teach? Shamelessly modeled on John’s history and evolution of arms control course.

The one thing I could never imitate — the thing that no one can — is John’s supreme confidence. Washington is a town of insecure people who do a lot of unpleasant things to one another. John, on the other hand, was more than merely secure by local standards. He was the most confident, calm person I have ever met. I rode with him to National Airport once. We left far too late, he drove far too fast, pulled into a parking space at what seemed to be full speed — the trick is to know where the edge of your car is, he explained — and we somehow made the flight at the last possible moment. (Oh, and he was serene, too. I borrowed that car once and someone backed into it in Cleveland Park. He laughed it off.)

In the various tributes to John that I’ve read, the authors invariably mention how dedicated John was to his students — even the ones who dinged his car. That’s not just a line. In fact, it would be hard to exaggerate how much time John had for his students. But more important than time was how much confidence he placed in us.

I think back to that night at Wye. John had wanted to create a community of younger scholars. Lots of people try to do that, of course, but what was special about John was that he was happy to let us carry on past a reasonable hour. If we wanted to hang out into the wee hours, then show up bleary-eyed to his meeting the next day, he sincerely did not mind. He wanted us to build a community. How we did that was up to us. It’s no wonder that his scholars at Brookings and students at Maryland flourished. How could you fail working for a guy like that?

I started the blog Arms Control Wonk when I was John’s student. He never once told me that it would distract me from writing my dissertation or that my occasionally ill-tempered blogging style would kill my career. This column wouldn’t exist without John.

That confidence, in himself and in others, is what I already miss most. He was the person who told me to have confidence in what I think. To not worry about what other people might say. To worry about the quality of the work, not what people want to hear. And definitely to never, ever, ever worry about the security deposit.

World Affairs Council of Northern California/Flickr

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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