Catherine McArdle Kelleher (1939–2023)

April 2023
By Nancy Gallagher

Catherine McArdle Kelleher, who died on February 15 of complications from atrial fibrillation, advanced the objectives of international security and arms control as a scholar, practitioner, institution-builder, role model, mentor, and friend. She is best known for her work on conventional arms control and cooperative security in Europe, her establishment of Women in International Security (WIIS), and her enthusiastic participation in countless workshops, Track 2 dialogues, and professional meetings. Whatever she was doing, she was always on the lookout for an opportunity to move the ball forward.

Catherine McArdle Kelleher participates in a panel discussion at the 2015 Arms Control Association annual meeting. (ACA photo)After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1960, Catherine spent a year at the Free University of Berlin as a scholar in the Fulbright Program, studying East-West relations during one of the worst crises of the Cold War. That galvanized her determination to earn a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she became one of the first three women in the United States to get a doctorate in security studies. Catherine spent the rest of her career trying to prevent nuclear war, make Europe more peaceful and secure, increase East-West understanding, and help other women make their own mark on the field.

Her research on the politics of nuclear weapons in Germany from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s combined her knowledge of technological-military matters, alliance and bureaucratic politics, and people. Detailed information gleaned from extensive interviews with German elites distinguished her work, making it the definitive treatment. One reviewer, clearly impressed by Catherine’s ability to get powerful people to share information, wrote, “It seems unlikely that, if and when governmental records are available, there will be very much to add to her account.”

Catherine used her diverse professional experiences at small colleges, major research universities, think tanks, military education institutions, and government to envision something that did not exist in the early 1980s but was sorely needed and to create it at the University of Maryland: an interdisciplinary school of public policy. This involved bridging multiple gaps, not only between government and academia but also across the deep disciplinary divisions that kept professors of political science, economics, philosophy, history, and physics from working together. She never wanted to be cloistered in an ivory tower; she wanted to work across silos to generate research and educate students to change the world.

Catherine founded the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and filled it with people who cared as much as she did about security, alliance politics, defense spending, and international cooperation. U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s rapid military buildup and his “evil empire” rhetoric were stoking concerns that conventional military confrontation in Europe could lead to a global nuclear war. Yet, few academics saw security policy as an appropriate subject for rigorous scholarly research or wanted to soil their reputations by trying to reason with government officials. Catherine took it upon herself to change that. She helped convince the Carnegie Corporation and the MacArthur Foundation to provide start-up funding for a network of academic centers where professors, researchers, and students would do rigorous interdisciplinary analysis of critical security challenges, then publish their findings, make presentations, and provide confidential advice in ways designed for maximum policy impact. Many of the most influential scholars and practitioners in the field spent formative time at one of these centers.

One of Catherine’s great frustrations was how much more difficult it was for women than men to make an impact on security policy. She and a small group of women who had gotten doctorates in the 1960s, including Angela Stent and Enid Schoettle, felt that doors that had opened briefly for them had closed again by the 1980s, turning security studies back into a “boys club.” WIIS was established at CISSM to pry those doors back open by mentoring young women and creating professional development opportunities for them. Many of the women who now hold top security-related positions in government, academia, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) gained self-confidence, strategic skills, and practical tips for handling sticky professional situations through their association with Catherine and other formidable women in the WIIS network. My own career got a much needed boost when I was offered a year-long WIIS fellowship at CISSM in 1995 to turn my dissertation into a book and organize a workshop featuring women who were bridging the gap between theory and practice of arms control.

Catherine spent the early 1990s at the Brookings Institution, where she worked in a consortium of scholar-practitioners using the rapid evolution of security in Europe from crisis in the early 1980s to cooperation in the late 1980s to generalize a new paradigm for post-Cold War global security. She argued that institutions established during the Cold War, especially the European Community and NATO, transformed long-time adversaries, particularly France and Germany, into a vibrant “security community rooted as much in shared values, intentions, and attitudes among like-minded states as in effective fighting capabilities positioned against a common enemy.” For this, she credited the time- and resource-intensive process of building and operating many different institutions with overlapping responsibilities, developing a multiplicity of cross-cutting relationships providing mutual reassurance, pursuing a commitment to transparency, and fostering broad popular support for multilateral solutions as being at least equal in legitimacy and effectiveness to national security strategies.

European efforts to start developing these political elements in East-West relations began in the 1970s, when the United States was primarily focused on military determinants of strategic stability. By the early 1990s, Euroatlantic countries that had been part of competing military and ideological blocs during the Cold War were successfully building the core of a cooperative security system, including “offensive force limitations, defensive restructuring, confidence building operational measures, overlapping organizational arrangements facilitating transparency and verification, and joint controls on the proliferation of military technology.”

Catherine argued that the prospects for deepening and broadening cooperative security in Europe and beyond depended at least as much on successfully addressing political challenges as on military-technical forms of arms control. In her capacities as personal representative in Europe for the U.S. secretary of defense, defense adviser to the U.S. ambassador to NATO (1994–1996) and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia (1996–1998), she worked discretely to address sensitive political issues. These included the U.S. willingness to grant other countries a truly equal role in decision-making, the pace of Russia’s democratic transition and economic reform, and the ability of state-based European institutions to adapt to security challenges that crossed national borders and involved nonstate actors. The Clinton administration’s accomplishments and frustrations involving nuclear and conventional arms control and cooperative threat reduction got the lion’s share of attention from government officials and NGOs, but the political challenges that Catherine was trying to address were equally important.

Much of Catherine’s impact came from her tireless efforts to promote dialogue among government officials and nongovernmental experts from different countries in a wide array of forums. She played this convener role most formally as the director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin during 1998–2001 and also for 15 years as vice chair for international dialogues on the National Academies of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control. She served on a lengthy list of editorial boards, advisory boards, commissions, panels, and leadership bodies of professional organizations. These included the Arms Control Association’s Board of Directors in 2001–2019 and the Deep Cuts Commission.

“She was sharp and witty. Her creative ideas and works expanded our thinking on arms control matters and she advanced peace and security for all of us,” said Daryl Kimball, the association’s executive director. For this work and more, Catherine was given the 2017 Therese DelPeche Memorial award for exceptional service to the nongovernmental nuclear policy community.

Catherine returned to academia for the final two decades of her career, first as a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a senior fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University, then as a College Park professor at the University of Maryland. She used her association with the Navy to evaluate the security value and opportunity costs of sea-based systems for regional missile defense. She used her academic affiliations to raise fundamental questions about how to ensure that the global elimination of nuclear weapons would actually make the world a safer place. In these projects, Catherine always included young scholars who could bring fresh perspectives and benefit professionally from interacting with more seasoned professionals, helping lift up the next generation and the next. We serve as her living legacy.

A memorial service will be held for Catherine later this spring. The University of Maryland maintains the Catherine M. Kelleher Fellowship Fund for International Security Studies, which supports an exceptional graduate student pursuing a graduate degree at the School of Public Policy.

Nancy Gallagher is the director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and a research professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.