Posted in Speeches
555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C.
Good evening everyone.
Welcome to all our friends and leaders, including former SAIS deans Jessica Einhorn and Stephen Szabo, and the members of the Nitze family with us this evening, to Director of SAIS Europe Mike Plummer, and Co-Director of Hopkins Nanjing Adam Webb, alumni, and supporters from SAIS and the broader community. Your presence here this evening speaks powerfully to the profound and enduring impact of this great school.
SAIS, as you know, is one of the glittering jewels in the crown of our university.
And, of course, it is particularly moving that we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of SAIS in its majestic future home, 555 Pennsylvania Avenue. Tonight, we are renting by the hour, but in just a few years’ time, we will be back as the owners of this extraordinary place. We can’t wait.
But as we look forward in brave anticipation of the next chapter of SAIS, I want to take a moment to look back. To the fall of 1944, in fact. A time when victory against the Axis powers was still not fully assured. It was then that a young State Department official named Paul Nitze found himself in the middle of an “operational disagreement” (which I believe is government-ese for “screaming match”).
His direct superior had requested that Nitze return 50 fellow employees whom he had surreptitiously “borrowed” for a project he believed to be imperative to the future of Europe.
Nitze refused, resigned from his post, and hopped in a cab to the Pentagon.
Two hours later, he had secured a new job.
He would be spearheading a large-scale effort to assess the effectiveness of US bombing raids. In his words, the task was to “put calipers” to the carnage of the war—from Berlin to Nagasaki.
And by measuring – systematically, punctiliously— the economic, infrastructural, and human impact of the raids, Nitze came to understand its truly horrific and unfathomable scale.
And so, as he stood in the charred and blood-stained rubble of city after city, Nitze could not help but focus on the ways in which civilized society would need to immunize itself from the prospect of yet another devastating military conflagration.
There would, of course, have to be physical reconstruction of the buildings, parks and roads that undergird human flourishing.
But bricks and mortar alone would not suffice.
The moment demanded a more ambitious architecture of intricately crafted institutions, laws, and norms that would nourish international comity.
Nitze had, in fact, already seeded the ground for the creation and perpetuation of such an architecture in 1943 when he and his friend Christian Herter founded a postgraduate school here in DC: a school fueled by the then novel notion that rigorous academic inquiry into international relations—paired with practical experience—could help usher in a more peaceful, more secure, more just world.
They called it the School of Advanced International Studies.
Time Magazine irreverently called it “the school with the sesquipedalian name.” Time was a more high-brow publication back then.
Perhaps, for obvious reasons, we call it SAIS.
From its inception, SAIS embraced the challenge of providing the ideas that would help shape and define the architecture of the post-war world. And, true to the spirit of its founders, it accomplished this by putting “the calipers” to international affairs and building the frameworks for transnational cooperation and peace. A truly extraordinary enterprise – evoked in the memories of so many of you – executed by a group of visionary faculty and dedicated students working in the most humble and mundane of circumstances.
Like the faculty member who scheduled classes at 7:00 am so that he could catch a bus to New York to hammer out the first resolutions of the UN Security Council. Or the students who commented on an early draft of the North Atlantic Treaty, many of whom became diplomats and policymakers themselves. Or the towering public intellectuals—leaders like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich—who dropped in for casual discussions.
And the steady build of these efforts, from D.C. to Bologna to Nanjing, worked.
But today—as this room knows all too well—the postwar global order that SAIS helped birth is fraying. And the stress fractures are occurring in a far different geopolitical context than that of the 1940s. Ours is a multipolar world where fiber-optic cables spreading disinformation can compromise our core institutions more effectively than any air strike; where neo-authoritarianism cloaks itself in democratic clothes; and where political polarization tears at the very fabric of our polity.
We are clearly in urgent need of a new architecture for a new epoch.
And I know that all of you who have been an integral part of SAIS’s first 75 years would agree that SAIS is obliged to contribute—with every fiber of its being—to this monumental task.
And it must do so within a physical infrastructure and institutional framework commensurate to the challenge.
555 Pennsylvania Avenue is such a space, a building with its eye on the globe but situated at the very heart of this nation, mere steps from the US capitol (and, I might add, in close proximity to some – one of – of our closest international allies).
A place designed to ensure that a new global architecture is inspired, enriched and tested by encounters and exchanges from virtually every part of our great university.
A place, in short, that allows SAIS to reconsecrate its critical mission for a new century.
Back when SAIS was still teaching language classes in retrofitted bathroom, Paul Nitze quipped that “the intellectual quality of any institution is in inverse relationship to the magnificence of its buildings.”
This might resonate with many of you, especially those who graduated during our latter days at Mass Ave.
There is little doubt that at SAIS, the ascending trendline has decidedly been in favor of the quality of its amazing faculty and students rather than the grandeur of its buildings.
I see people looking around. We have set a pretty high bar, it’s true. But never fear.
Because I think it’s high time we revisited the equation. Soon the magnificence of its physical home, will be in direct, joyous proportion to the towering quality of this school’s intellectual capital.
Of course, as in every era, guiding SAIS towards our lofty aims will take exceptional forethought, planning, and leadership. For these reasons, we are so fortunate to have one of the world’s leading strategists at the helm: Dean of SAIS Eliot Cohen.
A brilliant educator, thinker, and scholar, Eliot is also a brave and principled writer who has summoned his incisive intellect, wit, and integrity to respond to the challenges of our time. And I have had the privilege to see him in the field, on two of his famous staff rides, fearlessly leading students and faculty through Europe’s battlefields, urging them to feel the weight of history, the choices made, the consequences felt.
But above all, it is clear how fervently Eliot believes in the power and potential of a SAIS education. A faculty member here since 1990, I can think of no one more devoted to the idea and the possibilities of this school and no one better to lead it into the start of its next 75 years than him.
Please join me in welcoming Dean Eliot Cohen to the stage.