It was December 1, 2008. Atlantic Council president and chief executive officer Frederick Kempe gathered what was then his tiny team into a conference room to watch some breaking news unfolding on the television. US President-elect Barack Obama, fresh off his historic election victory, was introducing his national security team, among them his first national security advisor: retired US Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, Jr.
At the time, Jones was serving as chairman of the Atlantic Council. This was exciting news for the team!
Even as he assumed his new role at the National Security Council, Jones did not forget about the Atlantic Council. In May 2009, he gave his first public speech as national security advisor at the Atlantic Council.
Two years prior, in June 2007, barely six months after he had stepped down from the post of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), Jones was elected chairman of the Atlantic Council. His election was part of a major talent overhaul that retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft helped orchestrate by recruiting Kempe as CEO and Jones as chairman.
On December 14, the Atlantic Council announced the election of John F.W. Rogers, a Goldman Sachs executive and government service veteran, as chairman of its board of directors effective January 1, 2019. Rogers will succeed Jones who will remain on the executive committee of the Atlantic Council’s board as executive chairman emeritus.
The ethic of Semper Fidelis has animated Jones’ service to the nation in civilian life as it did as an officer of forty years in the US Marine Corps. His longstanding service to the Atlantic Council has been characterized by unwavering faithfulness to the cause of freedom and democracy that undergirds the transatlantic alliance.
At the Atlantic Council, Jones hit the ground running. He put his stamp on the institution with the creation of the Strategic Advisors Group. This group brought together think tank experts, former generals, and policy officials from across the transatlantic alliance.
The Strategic Advisors Group quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with in shaping the political discourse in the United States and key allied nations. Its flagship effort was an Atlantic Council report, “Saving Afghanistan: An Appeal and Plan for Urgent Action,” which Jones presented to Congress in 2008.
“Make no mistake, the international community is not winning in Afghanistan,” Jones told lawmakers. His briefing helped shape the debate about the war in Afghanistan during the 2008 presidential campaign and reinforced thinking within the Obama administration that a greater military effort was needed to shape the deteriorating situation on the ground. The multinational members of the Strategic Advisors Group gave the report a huge impact in NATO capitals and also helped build support in chancelleries across the Alliance.
Jones worked to grow the Atlantic Council’s regional responsibilities and helped to kick off the explosive growth that has defined the Council over the past ten years.
Jones likes to say: “Vision without resources is hallucination.” He has played a critical role in delivering those resources. As chairman of the campaign to develop, build, and fund the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security in 2011, Jones played a critical role in delivering the resources to position the Council to have a greater voice on strategic initiatives.
He understood that the Atlantic Ocean touched Africa as well and that African equities were key for the transatlantic community. He brought about the initial funding for the Africa Center, which still exists today.
And during his time as chairman, he played a key role in securing funding and host-country support for the Atlantic Council Young Leaders Summit on the margins of the NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008.
Leadership comes naturally to Jones. A four-star general and decorated combat veteran, he is well respected on both sides of the aisle—and has served with distinction in Republican as well as Democratic administrations. During his four decades in the Marine Corps, Jones rose from a platoon commander in Vietnam to Commandant of the Marine Corps, a position he held from 1999 to 2003. In 2007, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appointed Jones special envoy for Middle East security.
Jones was particularly prescient in his early advocacy for the need for greater attention to issues such as energy security and economic interests, which he believes play critical roles in strategic decision-making. He was instrumental in developing the concept around and the implementation of the Three Seas Initiative for energy security in Europe.
Jones chaired the initial “Completing Europe: From the North-South Corridor to Energy, Transportation, and Telecommunications Union” report published by the Atlantic Council in 2014. The report calls for the development of infrastructure networks that bind together the economies of Central Europe with the rest of European Union. To this end it recommends the accelerated construction of a North-South Corridor of energy, transportation, and communications links stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic and Black Seas. Jones championed this message traveling to Three Seas Initiative summits in Dubrovnik (2016), Warsaw (2017), and Bucharest (2018) all the while engaging with government officials across the United States and Europe.
After stepping down as national security advisor in 2010, Jones returned to his old home—the Atlantic Council—where he played a key role as chairman of what was then the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security and is now known as the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Besides chairing studies on serious subjects such as a more whole-of-government approach to national security, Jones has lighter side. His close friendship with Toby Keith resulted in the country singer agreeing to accept the Atlantic Council’s Distinguished Leadership Award in 2015.
Introducing Keith at the awards dinner, Jones recalled how Keith, who has performed for US troops around the world since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, would often slip away on a Blackhawk helicopter after many of his performances and fly to a forward operating base in more dangerous areas to perform to the small group of troops who were unable to attend his concerts.
In 2017, when US President Donald J. Trump tapped then Atlantic Council Chairman Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. to serve as the US ambassador to Russia, Jones agreed to step into the role of acting chairman.
Upon his retirement in 2010, Obama said of Jones: “Jim has always been a steady voice in Situation Room sessions, daily briefings and with meetings with foreign leaders… the American people owe the general a debt for making the nation safer.”
We here at the Atlantic Council owe Jones a similar debt of gratitude for his steady leadership.