REVIEW: Article

Engines of the Center

As I was chairing a meeting of the Wilson Center’s Board of Trustees recently, a hubbub erupted in the hall outside as dozens of people poured out of a conference on “aid for trade” in the auditorium next door. It was just another day at the Wilson Center, where it is not unusual to have four or five events stretching into the evening. But in fact there is nothing ordinary about what the Center does, I thought at that moment, and especially about the staff that makes it happen.

Lee Hamilton, the Center’s President and Director, rightly serves as its chief public face. But the team that works under him includes people of great and diverse talents. The aid for trade conference was put together in cooperation with other institutions by Kent Hughes, who came to the Center after a varied career in public service capped by a stint as Associate Deputy Secretary of Commerce. Kent, who holds a Ph.D. in economics, heads the Center’s Program on Science, Technology, America and the Global Economy (STAGE), and his particular accomplishment in this conference was to get scholars, senior figures from corporations and international institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, and top trade officials from developing countries together to find ways to help those countries build the infrastructure needed to liberalize their trade.

As this impressive throng jammed the hall outside, another Wilson Center Program Director addressed the Board. Historian Christian Osterman has overseen the Center’s History and Public Policy Program for nine years, spearheading its work to secure and make available to scholars and the public the archives of formerly Communist states and other countries, and to analyze the new materials. This is foundational scholarly work of the first order, with fruits that you read about in your daily newspaper. It has spurred a complete reinterpretation of Cold War History—as reflected in The Cold War: A New History (2005), by Yale Historian John Lewis Gaddis, who chairs the program’s advisory board—and has prompted policymakers to reconsider what they thought were settled lessons of history.

Christian and Kent are two of the scholar administrators who head the 22 programs at the Wilson Center, and they are complemented by a small but highly effective administrative team—all under the supervision of Michael Van Dusen, the Center’s indispensable Deputy Director. Many of them were sitting in on the Board meeting, from Leslie Johnson and John Dysland, the Heads of Administration and Financial Management, respectively, to Robert Litwak of the Division of International Studies and Cynthia Arnson, who oversees the Latin American Program, to Wilson Quarterly Editor Steven Lagerfeld, and Dialogue Host George Seay. Also among those attending was Middle East Program Director Haleh Esfandiari, an accomplished journalist, administrator and scholar who taught at Princeton after the revolution in her native Iran, with whom I have worked particularly closely and productively because of my deep interest in the Middle East.

Christian was preceded before the Board by Robert Hathaway, Director of the Center’s Asia Program. Bob detailed his large menu of activities and joked that a program concerned with half the world’s population surely deserves half the Center’s financial resources. That got a chuckle from the room, and it also crystallized the spirit of this very unusual place.

In my long career in business and diplomacy, and in my association with many nonprofit organizations, I have never seen an institution in which so many people combine intellect, entrepreneurial ability, and a capacity to work together collegially. And in a city all but defined by partisan divisions, the Center is notable for the absence of such considerations in its work. The commitment to excellence and open inquiry that the Wilson Quarterly’s readers see in its pages is the same commitment that animates the Center every day, making it that rare Washington institution where one can be sure the hubbub in the hall is not all sound and fury, but the sound of something good happening.*

* Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 edition of the Wilson Quarterly. It is reprinted by permission.

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