Remembering Ron Asmus: An Atlanticist with a Commitment to Japan
June 13, 2011
Ronald D. Asmus died on April 30, 2011, at the age of 53. Serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 1997 to 2000 under US President Bill Clinton, Ron Asmus is primarily remembered as someone who pushed for NATO's enlargement toward the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In 2002 he joined the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a Washington-based think tank dedicated to transatlantic cooperation, as a senior transatlantic fellow. Named executive director of GMF's Brussels office in January 2005, he oversaw key NATO and EU-related programs and helped launch the Brussels Forum, a large-scale annual policy conference.
Ron's contribution to NATO enlargement has already been much praised in obituaries and eulogies carried in the US and European media. Rather than reiterate what has been so eloquently stated elsewhere, I would like to offer my own personal appreciation of Ron, focusing on his involvement with Japan.
I first got to know Ron in 2006, when I was serving as a special adviser for NATO at the Embassy of Japan in Belgium. Although his work was by no means unfamiliar to me, the sheer energy and dedication he brought to his job each day was a revelation. At that time he had just turned his attention to NATO's role in international security and potential partnerships with non-NATO countries. As a result, I fortunately had many opportunities to exchange ideas with him on Japan-NATO relations, and I learned a great deal about NATO from him. Out of this contact came an invitation for Ron to visit Tokyo in November 2006 to speak to the Japan-NATO high-level seminar, hosted by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with Jamie Shea, director of policy planning at the Secretary General’s Private Office, NATO Headquarters. Around the same time, Ron began thinking of organizing a GMF workshop on NATO-Japan/Asia relations, a project in which I became involved in my dual capacity as a scholar and embassy official.
After visiting Tokyo in the company of GMF President Craig Kennedy in the summer of 2007, Ron began to dedicate himself in earnest to building ties with Japan in the context of GMF's Asia program. Tadamichi Yamamoto, then director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Public Diplomacy Department (currently special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan), arranged for Ron to call on the Tokyo Foundation, and that meeting ultimately led to the current partnership between the Tokyo Foundation and GMF.
Ron was a dyed-in-the-wool Atlanticist with an unshakable belief in the importance of transatlantic cooperation. He was also an open-minded and visionary "policy entrepreneur" who had begun advocating the integration of Central and East European countries into NATO at a time when the idea was still considered unorthodox at best. At the same time, he saw that the rise of Asia—epitomized in the rapid growth and development of China and India—was the single most important trend in twenty-first-century international affairs. He grew increasingly convinced that, even within the context of transatlantic cooperation, promoting understanding and dialogue with Asia was of critical importance. As executive director of the Brussels office, Ron played a key role, along with GMF President Kennedy, in convincing the board members of the need for an expanded Asia program at a time when not a small number of them were wary of extending the organization’s scope of activities beyond the transatlantic area.
It is worth noting that it was an American who had spent his whole career working on NATO and US relations with Europe and Russia (Soviet Union)—the mainstream concerns of America's foreign-policy community—that played such a pivotal role not only in widening the scope of GMF's activities to include Asia but also in installing Japan as one of the pillars of GMF's Asia program at a time when many Western think tanks were shifting their Asian resources to China and India from Japan. Given GMF’s mission of fostering transatlantic cooperation, the case for developing the Asia program was surely more persuasive coming from a confirmed Atlanticist than it would have been from someone specializing in Asia. The idea to feature Japan in the program, meanwhile, reflected Ron's fundamental belief that the transatlantic community on which he—and GMF as a whole—placed such emphasis was built on shared values like democracy and the rule of law. (It was this same focus on values that drove GMF's involvement in the democracy movements in the Balkans and the Black Sea region.) The basic understanding that the Japanese, too, share these values led to a realization that strong ties with Japan would be more important than ever as Asia's international clout continued to grow. Ron became convinced that an Asia program focused solely on China and India could never be balanced or complete. From the Japanese standpoint, this development could not have been more welcome, coming at a time when many people were fretting that the international community—Europe and the United States in particular—was losing interest in Japan.
In March 2008, a group of Japanese experts and policymakers, including a couple of Diet members, participated in the Brussels Forum for the first time. It was Ron who worked hard to realize it and helped organize a special lunch session devoted to Japan. It was around the same time that people gradually became aware of Ron's illness. Still, Ron remained active, campaigning for NATO’s further enlargement and transformation even from his sickbed.
As a special adviser for NATO at the Japanese Embassy in Brussels, I was involved almost from the outset in the Asia program that Ron developed at GMF and above all in the emerging partnership between GMF and the Tokyo Foundation. From January to March 2009, moreover, I was given the opportunity to work under Ron at the GMF's Brussels office as the first recipient of a GMF–Tokyo Foundation Fellowship. It was a tremendously valuable experience, in no small part because it gave me the opportunity to observe at close hand the combination of passion and rigor that Ron brought to his work. My research project, focusing on ways to rebuild links between Japan and the transatlantic community, closely coincided with Ron's own interests, and a portion of my study was later published by GMF (see links below). After a little interval, the fellowship program has resumed, and Ryo Sahashi, associate professor at Kanagawa University, is currently pursuing his own research as a second Japanese fellow at the GMF. Neither this partnership nor GMF's Asia program as it exists today would have been possible without Ron's insight and leadership.
In December 2010, in cooperation with the Tokyo Foundation, Ron's long-deferred plan for a GMF seminar on Japan-NATO relations in Tokyo, first hatched back in 2006, was finally brought to fruition—albeit in a somewhat different form from that originally envisioned owing to exigencies within NATO. (See <www.tokyofoundation.org/en/t/suwpc> for a summary of the public session.) As the originator of the project, Ron continued searching for a way to participate until the very eve of the seminar, and only doctor's orders prevented him from fulfilling his wish. I saw him in Brussels in November, shortly before the event. He was physically weakened, but his conversation was as sharp and penetrating as ever. "Don't worry," he laughed, seeing the concern in my face. "I'm not going to die or anything."
It is my wish that GMF's Asia Program and its partnership with the Tokyo Foundation will continue to develop and grow, for surely that is what Ron would have wanted. I am also determined personally to do whatever I can to contribute to that development. At the same time, I wish the fact that Ron Asmus committed himself in his final years to building bridges with Asia and Japan, a country with which he had no earlier ties, will be long remembered in Japan.
GMF press release
Links to media sites
Statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Eulogy by GMF President Craig Kennedy
Michito Tsuruoka, “Linking Japan and the Transatlantic Community in the Age of Asia’s Rise,” Policy Brief (Washington, D.C.: German Marshall Fund of the United States, September 2009)