Former U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger often noted that “Washington is a town in which the urgent always overtakes the important.” It is also true that in Washington, we need all the mensches we can get. We lost one today with the untimely death of Sandy, 70, who succumbed to the cancer he had long been battling.
Sandy was important not just because he was one of the most effective national security advisors in recent U.S. history. He was important not just because of his great career as a lawyer and as one of the founders of Albright Stonebridge Group, an enterprise now located at the forefront among Washington’s consultancies. He was important not just because of his charitable work that resulted most recently in his being awarded World Food Program USA’s first Global Humanitarian Award on Dec. 1.
In fact, as important a public figure as Sandy was, he was far more important for who he was than for what he did. In her statement about her former partner at Albright Stonebridge, Madeleine Albright referred to Sandy as “one of my dearest friends and among the wisest people I have ever met.” Having known Sandy for 20 years, since we first served together in Bill Clinton’s administration, and proud to call him a friend and a mentor, I agree with Madeleine. But I might shift the emphasis a bit.
As wise as Sandy was — and he was among the wisest people I have met in this town — what really set him apart was his heart.
When I arrived in Washington, I was young and had very little government experience. Sandy took me under his wing and on many occasions made a special effort to help teach me not just how things worked, but the right way to get things done. In a town where many people are driven by ambition — and you don’t get to where Sandy got without ambition — for those of us who were close to him, he distinguished himself through his generosity of spirit. He was humane. He was often very kind. He was warm. He did not just think about taking care of business or taking care of himself or those close to him. When grappling with big decisions while in government or when considering them in the long term, he always thought of the human consequences of the policies he devised or advocated.
That is what is hinted at in his comment about the urgent and the important, not just tactics vs. strategy, not just expediency vs. the big picture, but the issues that really matter to average people vs. the ones that primarily resonate inside the Beltway.
That is why he worked so tirelessly on food security, development, and trade issues. But it is also why he long sought a just solution between Israelis and Palestinians, why he helped work to end the bloodshed in the Balkans, why he sought to find sustainable long-term relations with China and Russia. (Sandy, formerly a leading trade lawyer, was a rarity among national security advisors, one who understood economic issues as well as those in the area of security. It’s a skill mix that future presidents would do well to seek.)
These special characteristics resonate with me in reflecting on his loss and the great void it must leave for his family and other friends. But they also resonate as a result of an experience I had this week as Foreign Policy celebrated the 2015 class of our 100 Leading Global Thinkers list. We held an event with them at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington — where I would often solve the world’s problems over breakfast with Sandy — which consisted of a daylong conference and then an evening gala at which all of those selected who were present introduced themselves and their work to the crowd.
The event was noteworthy in many ways. We had a great turnout. Almost 100 Leading Global Thinkers from this year and past years attended, plus hundreds of other invited guests. It was the first year the majority of the members of our list were women — a fact that reflects less on the quality of women out there than it does that we at FP have finally gotten a clue. We focused on the biggest problems the world faces, and we tried to direct the conversation toward solutions rather than critiques. But perhaps the most striking thing to me about the event was the powerful message it sent about what is really important in shaping global affairs and how great a gap there is between what that is and what is usually discussed.
Over the years, as we have searched for those who met our Global Thinker criteria of translating ideas into action that impacted large numbers of people across borders, the list has gone through a metamorphosis. Earlier lists had more politicians and diplomats. The current list has some of those, but what really distinguishes it are the number of scientists and artists, entrepreneurs and activists who dominate it. (To take a look, go to our microsite offering biographies of the winners here.)
During our event, the members of the new class introduced themselves during roundtable discussions and then at the gala. I know I am speaking for everyone who was present when I say that the cumulative effect was not just being dazzled by the intellects and talents of each and every one of the winners. We were moved by them. When Jim Obergefell told how his love for his dying husband led him to challenge state laws against same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court and win the right to marry for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation, we wept. When Christopher Catrambone spoke of his work with his wife working to prevent refugees and others from drowning on the high seas and saving 12,000 lives in the process, we were stirred. We were humbled by the quiet strength and humility of Wai Wai Nu, who endured brutal incarceration in Myanmar because of her political and personal beliefs and has emerged as a leading spokesperson for the Rohingya people of her home country. We were inspired by the sacrifices endured by the team of Ebola fighters that Robert Garry helped lead toward finding new and vital diagnostic tools for helping to combat that disease.
When Sonita Alizadeh, 19, of Afghanistan spoke and then rapped about the fate of child brides, we applauded but were also deeply stirred. And when we listened to the risks willingly undertaken by the truth-tellers about the Islamic State from the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, our admiration came with deep chills.
These stories illustrate the feelings that virtually every single winner in attendance stirred with their interventions, with the displays of their work they presented, and, for some, with their uplifting performances. But beyond how they made us feel, when we spoke of the best ways to produce change in the world, a powerful case was made that in order to change minds, we must first change hearts. Inspiring human stories can do this, it was argued, better than polemics. They touch people in the places that motivate them to action more effectively. The artists in the group went further. They spoke of issues that seldom arise in policy discussions. Of love and of soul. And it was instantly clear when listening to them that this is why they could be so effective in challenging the status quo, standing up to authority, mobilizing change. They reached deep down within people, past the welter of thoughts associated with the urgent and the workaday, to the literal heart of each matter, to what was really important.
Policy professionals are notoriously shy about dealing with “soft” issues.
Most would never dream of using a word like “love” or “soul” in a high-minded discussion of how to defeat a dictator or battle back prejudice. And that is precisely why so many of them and their policies are so impotent. Because every war, every political struggle, every great global challenge is at its heart about people, and therefore the critical tools we have in understanding and addressing them are not the ones you most often find in the policy repertoire. They are compassion, understanding, connections, the search for the universal elements that bind people together, and the desire to bridge the divisions that keep them apart. They are love and soul and courage and inspiration.
No one left our Global Thinkers event untouched by the profundity of this message. But few at the highest levels of the policy community are even open to such thoughts. Those who are therefore are rare and invaluable. Sandy Berger was one of them, and he will be deeply missed by all who understood this. Fortunately, among our Leading Global Thinkers, most of whom are young and starting out in their careers, there is a new wave of champions of global change and well-being who know the difference between the urgent and the truly, enduringly important.