Richard Fontaine, President of the Center for a New American Security

January 2, 2019


Q. You were a member of the French-American Foundation’s 2015 class of Young Leaders. What were some highlights of your Young Leaders seminar in Denver?

Governor John Hickenlooper had our group over to the governor’s mansion in Denver for a gathering one evening. As we walked in, one of the staff was in the corner playing piano, head down and really jamming in a great way. Upon closer inspection, however, it turned out the piano player was no staffer or friend – it was the governor himself. After a couple of songs he went on to discuss matters of state policy, from technology to guns to budgets. Suffice it to say that not every state executive is as multi-talented.

The best part of the FAF experience in general, of course, was getting to meet and stay in touch with all the other class members. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know some amazing people, and even to inflict my rusty French on a few of them.

Q. You’ve had a long career in foreign affairs—you worked at the State Department and the National Security Council, served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Senator John McCain, spent time at the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, and now lead the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). What attracted you to this field and made you first realize the importance of foreign relations?

Growing up outside New Orleans, I was always interested in the rest of the world and in politics and policy. When I got to college at Tulane, I discovered that there exists this field of international relations, and that people can study it and even work in it. The personal fascination I had with foreign countries, and the sense that international affairs is important, seemed to converge, and I got hooked. I haven’t shaken it yet.

Q. What was it like to work for Senator John McCain?

A privilege, of course, to work for someone with the kind of moral and political courage that Senator McCain regularly exhibited. It was also an adventure. A regular day at work might include negotiating legislation with the White House, writing foreign policy speeches, or flying over Iraq’s Anbar province in a Blackhawk helicopter, and lots of things in between. My five years as his foreign policy advisor was an extraordinary experience that shaped me deeply. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Q. Can you tell us more about your role at CNAS and the goals you have to advance its mission of preparing today’s national security leaders?

I’ve been president of CNAS for nearly seven years now, and I have responsibility for managing our team of brilliant national security experts, personally contributing to the broader foreign policy debate, raising funds for our work, and providing general organizational leadership. I’m extraordinarily proud of the work we do at the Center, and enthusiastic about our continued impact – among today’s national security leaders, in shaping the debate in which policy is made, and in equipping the next generation of national security professionals.

Q. You recently wrote an article in The Atlantic reflecting on George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. What elements of Bush’s approach to policy and diplomacy would you like to see or not see in the current administration?

The 41st president was often mocked for his prudence – that combination of outward calm, reflection, planning, and determination for which he was so famous. But prudence was key to his foreign policy success in a tumultuous era in global affairs. In four years, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunified, the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union disbanded, the Cold War ended peacefully, and a U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait. That’s not a bad record. With an unusually high degree of unpredictability in the current administration’s approach to the world, President Trump would do well to bring a bit more H.W.-style prudence into his team’s policy and diplomacy.

Read an additional article by Richard Fontaine

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