Implementing Senator Jackson’s Values and Vision

Implementing Senator Jackson’s Values and Vision

by Richard J. Ellings
September 30, 2023

In this second essay in a series on the legacy of Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, Richard Ellings considers how Senator Jackson served as the inspiration for the founding of NBR and provided guideposts for those who followed to fulfill his vision. Dr. Ellings is co-founder, president emeritus, and counselor (in residence) at NBR.

As University of Washington Professor Emeritus and NBR Co-founder Ken Pyle wrote recently, Senator Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson “believed that our [the United States’] greatest foreign policy shortcoming in the postwar period was the failure to perceive the Sino-Soviet split…. It was his wish that there be an institution to bring together academic expertise on China and Russia to build an intelligent and informed Asia policy.” Scoop Jackson was indeed the inspiration for what we now call the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR)—and not just for its topical focus. Through his life experiences and approach to international affairs, as well as personal conduct, Scoop provided guideposts for those entrusted with navigating the road ahead in fulfilling his vision.

The first guidepost directed us to concentrate on Russia, China, Asia more broadly, and the related issues and factors that impact America’s preeminent interests overseas. From the very start, our programs also had to consider our nation’s power and values, which Scoop understood as providing exceptional and necessary international leadership.

The second guidepost led us to work with premier people like Scoop did. Specialists outside government may serve as a counterpoint and complement to specialists in the departments and agencies making up America’s national security and foreign affairs complex. A new institution needed to be structured for this, and Scoop wanted the institution to be headquartered in Seattle. From the northwest corner of the Pacific Northwest—or for that matter, from anywhere—how do you harness the talent and energy of the very best people?

The third required that we take the hard road of being effective. Scoop played a critical role in America “staying the course” through the Cold War, despite alternating tides in American politics. How do you bridge expertise outside and inside government? How do you integrate knowledge into policymaking?

A fourth guidepost steered us toward our methodological north star, objectivity. This was based in Scoop’s remarkable bipartisanship and ethical realism. Nearly all think tanks lean politically left, right, diagonally, or some direction—toward some preconceived outcome, and more often than not to please some constituency. How do you pursue and sustain research that is as objective as possible for the broad national interest? Correspondingly, how do you fund an independent institution lacking an ideologically or bureaucratically motivated constituency?

A fifth guided us along the narrow path of integrity. We took this to mean creating a culture of professional integrity displayed by the individuals who constitute the organization as well as by the policies and culture of the organization itself.

Finally, Scoop was renowned for not wasting a penny. How can the new institution make efficient use of resources?

In brief, here is a tortuously abbreviated outline of the key steps that we took with these guideposts in mind. My deepest apologies to the many people not mentioned here but who nonetheless played important roles and in some cases continue to this day to contribute mightily.

The Founding of NBR

In 1986, Ken Pyle lured me back to the University of Washington from the nation’s capital, where I had been working for Senator Slade Gorton, a colleague and kindred spirit of Scoop on foreign and defense policy. The two senators also shared deep personal integrity. I was particularly attracted by Ken’s suggestion that a priority for us would be establishing, if all went well, Scoop’s dream of what the senator called the “Sino-Soviet Center.” In fact, much did go well rather briskly due to the leadership of Bill Van Ness and other members of “Scoop’s troops” (former staff and colleagues). Congress soon appropriated $10 million to the new Henry M. Jackson Foundation.

With an initial grant from the foundation in 1988, Ken assigned me the task of conducting the feasibility and planning study for a center. I investigated 30 research organizations, 17 of which I visited for lengthy, onsite assessments. Today, many of them remain integral parts of the think tank landscape, such as the Brookings Institution, Hoover Institution, American Enterprise Institute, and RAND. Especially noteworthy were two: the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which drew efficiently on the top economists from across the nation, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which sought to engage political leaders on both sides of the aisle.

Impressed with NBER at the conclusion of the planned one-day visit, I asked for a second day and access to the employees. With the permission of the executive vice president, I interviewed all the staff members in the office about their functions, authority, and reporting and also spoke with several resident fellows. Rather than develop an expensive permanent research staff, NBER provided top faculty from across the nation honored appointments and stipends for projects.

Noteworthy as well were the difficult histories that CSIS and the Hoover Institution had with their parent universities. These lessons ran counter to the early assumption by Scoop that the Sino-Soviet Center would be a part of the University of Washington. During the feasibility and planning study, the notion of an independent center began to form. I became convinced that building a national policy institute based at a state university would be extraordinarily challenging, and Ken, who was far more experienced in these matters, arrived at the same judgment.

The study concluded that fulfilling Senator Jackson’s vision required making practical choices. The new organization would need to stand independently as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. It would need to have its own board and executive leadership for ensuring adherence to its mission and nonpartisanship, as well as possess the authority to make employment decisions, manage budgets, operate with speed and efficiency, raise funds, and be effective.

Substantively, the study concluded that the center would address America’s principal strategic challenges, driven first and foremost by the great overseas powers, the Soviet Union and China. It would “stay the course” in this regard through a diversified funding base, avoiding overdependence on the whims and immediate concerns of government, a few foundations, or the private sector.

What’s in a name? “Sino-Soviet Center” did not capture enough of the purposes that our organization would be tackling, nor did the alternative idea of putting Senator Jackson’s name on still another initiative appeal to the Jackson family and members of the Jackon Foundation’s board. Ken suggested one afternoon that the two of us separately mull over the problem and chat by phone the next morning. Perhaps not surprisingly, since we both admired NBER, we came up with the National Bureau of Asian and Soviet Research, which captured both the core purposes of the organization and our approach of coordinating the work of the very best people. The abbreviation NBASR engendered a chuckle and was quite a mouthful, so we opted for NBR. We figured too that when the Soviet Union collapsed on some hard-to-imagine future date we would only need to adjust the proper name of the institution. Little did we foresee that this would happen just a few years later!

The organization would take an interdisciplinary approach reflecting Scoop’s own reliance on counsel from historians, area specialists, economists, business leaders, and others. Our first step in building our network of experts was to create a board of advisors. Before school adjourned in June 1989, Ken and I flew down to Berkeley to invite my mentor Robert Scalapino to serve as the founding member and chair of our advisory board. To our delight he accepted, and subsequently other leading specialists from across the country joined the group as well. Some like Michel Oksenberg and Dwight Perkins were close to Ken, had known Scoop, and, like Ken, traveled with Scoop to Asia.

In accordance with the study’s proposed modest budgets, Ken formally applied to the Jackson Foundation for our founding grant. At $158,600, modest it truly was. Moreover, the foundation decided that we would need to apply for new grants annually. Boeing provided a three-year grant totaling $50,000. I located an office two blocks from campus with an annual rent of $3,000. The bylaws were drafted and soon revised pro bono by attorneys. Inspired by the private sector, I recruited a heart-of-gold, can-do-just-about-anything-at-any-time assistant, and three enthusiastic interns from the University of Washington. And we began to contract with premier people for discrete projects. Scoop would have been thrilled at our penny stretching!

Our founding Board of Directors was intimate, consisting of Ken, Russia specialist Herb Ellison of the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School, and myself. At the outset, in April 1989, we established the Interim Executive Committee, which was chaired by Dick Ford, the recent head of the Port of Seattle, and included as members Senator Gorton, Representative Norm Dicks, Boeing senior vice president Rusty Roetman, the University of Washington provost and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, other Pacific Northwest leaders, and several Asia and Russia specialists. After a vigorous debate in spring 1992 on adapting NBR’s formal name to the post–Cold War world, we dropped the words “and Soviet” but kept to our commitment to include Russia as a core subject in our research agenda, figuring that its strategic importance would endure.

By mid-1992, NBR had strong research programs in place. One sought to understand the extraordinary reformulation of international relations in Asia due to the collapse of the Soviet empire and included delegations from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and Kazakhstan. Other programs dealt with post–Cold War U.S. defense strategy in the Asia-Pacific, Russian-Japanese relations, U.S.-Russian relations in Asia, the demography of North Korea, the causes of the Cold War and reasons for its successful conclusion, and the re-establishment of cooperation on Asia-Pacific issues between the U.S. intelligence community and academia. One project grappled with U.S. relations with China following the Tiananmen Square massacre. Senior National Security Council and State Department staff reached out to NBR to gather key scholars for a half-day session with full, interagency participation. This remarkable meeting was held on the seventh floor of the State Department.

With these programs in place, we disbanded the Interim Executive Committee in favor of expanding the Board of Directors under the leadership of Boeing senior vice president Larry Clarkson. We soon added to the board George Russell and in turn an extraordinary group of private sector leaders together with policy leaders such as Robert Zoellick, Tom Pickering, Jon Huntsman Jr., and retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili. Our longest-serving private sector board member is our current chair John Rindlaub, who has selflessly stayed the course with NBR for three decades.

Continuing the Legacy of Scoop Jackson

To be a true legacy of Scoop, NBR needed to bridge expertise outside the government and decision-making within the executive branch and Congress. Leveraging our many contacts among Senator Gorton’s network, Scoop’s troops, and others, we assembled a bipartisan congressional advisory board that eventually included 35 Senators—17 Democrats, 17 Republicans, and one independent (Scoop protégé Joe Lieberman)—and nearly 90 Representatives. Though NBR was headquartered in Seattle, from the very beginning most of our programs held briefings in Washington, D.C.—in executive branch offices, congressional offices, or close-by venues. Later we established the Senate Chiefs of Staff dinner series.

Organizational culture was not lost on us. If you’re going to spend the bulk of your weekday waking hours with coworkers, thrive in a competitive market, and have inspirational models like Scoop and Slade, upholding high but felicitous professional values is a requirement. This entails attentive, careful staff recruitment and advancement based on solid standards: “heart of gold” integrity, a sense of humor, dedication to being effective, loyalty to NBR’s mission and team, a strong work ethic, responsibility, and out-of-the-box thinking and initiative. In several cases, employees came in at entry-level positions and worked their way up to senior vice president. When the chair of NBR’s board was George Russell, and George’s wife Jane developed terminal cancer, Jane convened NBR’s staff to flesh out and codify our values in official documents.

And the culture incorporated funding. From the outset we took with dead seriousness Scoop’s drive to understand the world objectively. My answer to any potential funder who asked me whether NBR is “balanced” was always, “No. NBR’s ‘niche’ is the truth—as best we can determine it.” NBR’s job was not to please one side or both sides of an argument. Whenever I detected biased intent in a potential funder, I would go over our principles, which included allowing no power of a funder to vet or prevent the publication of research.

Fifteen years into our history and under George Russell’s inspiring leadership of the board, we opened an office in downtown Washington, D.C., to expand our engagement with the White House, government departments and agencies, and Congress. Then new to NBR, our current president Roy Kamphausen helped implement that effort.

Today, almost uniquely among research institutions, NBR has over three decades of experience on Sino-Russian relations, which, as in the early days of the Cold War, pose the principal overseas threat to the United States and other democracies. Through our Strategic Asia Program, launched in 2001, NBR sustains Scoop’s approach of working with premier specialists to tease out what matters most to U.S. interests. Through our peer-reviewed journal Asia Policy, we encourage scholars to address urgent and long-term issues facing the United States. Through our collaboration with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, we sustain research on the People’s Liberation Army. Through our Center for Innovation, Trade, and Strategy, we address challenges to the industrial and technological bases of American power, including the protection of intellectual property. Through the Energy Security Program and Pacific Energy Summit, we facilitate high-level meetings on energy and environmental security. Building on 34 years of work in Asia and with counterparts there, NBR obtains the very highest-quality and most timely information and analysis possible.

In so many ways, NBR is Scoop’s “Sino-Soviet Center” and legacy.

Richard J. Ellings is Co-founder, President Emeritus, and Counselor (in residence) at the National Bureau of Asian Research. He is also a member of the NBR Board of Directors. For many years, Dr. Ellings was affiliate professor of international studies in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Read more essays in this series.