Janne E. Nolan (1951–2019) Mentoring a Generation of National Security Experts

October 2019
By Jane Vaynman 

Janne E. Nolan left a legacy of ideas, scholarship, mentees, and humor that few will forget following her passing on June 26, 2019. In conversations on national security, she was a presence when she was in the room and when she was not, her work being constantly interwoven into the fabric of our collective knowledge on nuclear security, bureaucracy, foreign policy, and domestic politics.

I met Janne at the Elliott School of International Affairs, where she was a member of the faculty and I was associate director of the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies. Our professional connections expanded at George Washington University (GWU), through the Nuclear Studies Research Initiative, and at Janne’s Nuclear Security Working Group dinners and quickly grew to a friendship. Over white wine and oysters, Janne’s preferred setting for all Track II discussions, she was a mentor, a confidant, and a co-conspirator.

Janne was a mentor who gave different advice than everyone else, advice rooted in trusting your own voice. At GWU, Janne once spoke to a group of pre- and postdoctoral fellows about how to conduct “policy-relevant research.” This topic comes up constantly for young academics and the advice is usually the same: pick questions that policymakers want to understand, present your work in a way that policymakers can understand, and write ever shorter pieces. Janne, however, told a different story. She argued that policymakers often do not know what they need, and no one knows what will be relevant tomorrow. So, she advised, aim first and foremost to be an expert in your subject matter, focusing on the thing that you think is important. Then, convince others that they should be paying attention to it too. Finally, be patient because the world will come knocking on your door when you are the one expert on an issue no one valued until a war broke out.

She described what happened with her book, Trappings of Power: Ballistic Missiles in the Third World. She had been working on issues regarding intermediate-range missiles for some time and had been warning of the threat of their proliferation to smaller countries. At the time, however, the dominant perception was that the policymaker focus should be on strategic arsenals. Her work was dismissed, and she was counseled that she was working on the wrong question. But just as she was finishing her book in 1990, the Gulf War started, and everyone was very interested in Iraqi Scud missiles and Scud missiles more broadly. As she put it with typical Janne-style humility, she got lucky in publishing her book at that exact moment. Being policy relevant can sometimes be a matter of timing, so you should not let other people or the trends of the time dictate what is relevant. Your work is making the case for what should be relevant.

More personally, Janne was once elated to discover that I am what she would later call a “Jackson-Vanik baby.” The Jackson-Vanik amendment tied Jewish emigration out of the Soviet Union with trade status by the United States, and it helped my family and I to leave the USSR in 1988. Janne had worked on issues related to the amendment during her time on the staff of Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), but she had never met anyone who had benefited directly from the law. I showed Janne a clip from a 1989 episode of “Nightline” that featured my parents, waiting in Italy with two little kids, talking about their desire to make a life in the United States. Perhaps she felt that her earlier work had directly affected my success and my work in the nuclear field. If so, she was exactly right. I would be a very different person today if my family had not come to the United States. I like thinking about how Janne helped me get here before I even knew her.

In a world often divided between policymakers and academics, left and right, emerging voices and wise elders, Janne was nonpartisan. Her mix of colleagues and friends, often coming together at dinners or over drinks on the sidelines of some conference, were a vibrant and ever evolving whirlwind. I hope we all continue to create that kind of space in work and play. I will be there, at least every now and then with a black dress and pearls in Janne’s honor.

Jane Vaynman is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University. 
Janne Nolan served on the Board of Directors of the Arms Control Association from 1994–2019.