Civil Society United States and Canada

The Atlantic Council at 60

November 9, 2021

How the Atlantic Council reinvented itself

By James Joyner

Speaking at the gala celebrating the Atlantic Council’s golden anniversary in 2011, then-US Vice President Joe Biden (whatever became of him, anyway?) declared: “For five decades, the Council has enriched the public debate on both sides of the Atlantic—and, not incidentally, helped forge consensus not just among the political leaders but consensus among the elites and the populations of all our countries to deal with some of the hardest, most difficult and divisive foreign-policy issues we have faced and will continue to face.” 

But the truth was, the organization, much like the transatlantic alliance it was formed to bolster, had floundered in the decade and a half after the Cold War, struggling to find a purpose. Most of what the late Donald Rumsfeld dubbed “Old Europe” saw little incentive to invest in its security, and NATO’s expansion into the former Warsaw Pact made forging consensus more challenging. And, of course, the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing War on Terrorism channeled the attention of the US national-security establishment elsewhere. 

When I came aboard as managing editor at the Council in September 2007, it occupied half a floor of run-down office space. The entire staff, from the CEO to the interns, was seventeen people. And the most common question I got when I told people where I worked was: “What’s the Atlantic Council?” 

By the time I left to rejoin academia six years later, nobody was asking that anymore. The organization had just moved to gleaming new offices across the street and needed two floors to house a robust staff that numbered well over a hundred. Indeed, it was growing so fast that we outgrew the new offices while they were under construction and needed to lease half of another floor. More importantly, the Council had gone from mostly hosting speeches and convening meetings of outside players to become a major voice in the DC policy debate. 

At the core of the Council’s message is that the world would be a better place if the United States and its European allies worked together to solve problems. That has remained central to the organization’s mission and message to this day.

And while I like to think I played some small part in that, the die had been cast months before I came aboard when the late, great General Brent Scowcroft hired Fred Kempe away from the Wall Street Journal to become the Council’s president and CEO. Fred’s vision of a “Think Tank for the Twenty-First Century” seemed wildly ambitious considering where the Council was then. But he understood from decades in the news business that cranking out white papers was no longer enough to stand out from the information glut. Leveraging nascent new-media platforms, from blogs to Twitter and Facebook, was vital to amplify the organization’s message and gain traction in the policy debate.

More importantly, the Council had to become more than just a cheerleader for NATO. Years before the pivot to Asia and return to great-power competition, Fred understood that Europe was no longer the center of US foreign policy. So the think tank needed to expand its focus beyond the transatlantic relationship and bring in experts on other parts of the world and other issues.

At the same time, the old mission remained. At the core of the Council’s message is that the world would be a better place if the United States and its European allies worked together to solve problems. That has remained central to the organization’s mission and message to this day.

Additionally, the Council has been something increasingly rare in Washington—a body dedicated to ideas that have credibility on both sides of the aisle in an ever more acrimonious policy debate. General Jim Jones, who was chairman when I came on board, left to become Barack Obama’s national security advisor—a position he might well have held had John McCain won the 2008 election instead. Jones was replaced by former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who left to become Obama’s third secretary of defense. Hagel, in turn, was ultimately replaced by former Republican Governor of Utah and Obama administration Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who left to become Donald Trump’s ambassador to Russia. Now at the helm is John F.W. Rogers, who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush before becoming a banker. It doesn’t get more bipartisan than that.

As much as leadership and vision matter—and they matter a great deal—organizations are ultimately the product of their people. Fred has continued to invest in top-flight talent to serve as program directors, staffers, and fellows. As the Council’s reputation and footprint have grown, it has been able to attract extraordinary people with stellar connections, experience, and credentials. 

The Atlantic Council at sixty has grown enormously from the fifty-year-old start-up that hosted Biden a decade ago, and it continues on an upward trajectory. I wish Scowcroft, who passed away last year, were still with us to celebrate this special anniversary. But I’m happy he lived to see his bet pay off. 

James Joyner is a professor of security studies and the head of the Security Studies Department at the Marine Corps University’s Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Image: 50th Annual Atlantic Council Awards Gala. Photo © Tony Powell. May 3, 2011