Ron Asmus: Our colleague, our friend
Many have written eloquently this week about GMF Brussels Office Executive Director Ron Asmus and the mark he left on foreign policy, on transatlantic relations, and on Central and Eastern Europe. Ron died at a young 53 after battling cancer for several years, but this outpouring of anecdotes, appreciations, and stories about his accomplishments shows that his too-short life was a full one. What those tributes don’t tell is what it was like to work with him and to have him as a representative throughout Europe and around the world.
Several of Ron’s obituaries have led with his well-regarded service as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, but for the last nine years of his life, Ron worked for the German Marshall Fund. But he was more than mere employee: He was a driving force, a public face, a gravitational pole. He was a big guy, but he loomed even larger.
After three years as a fellow in Washington, where he helped put GMF’s policy work on the map, he moved to Brussels to lead our office there. He was 4,000 miles from GMF’s headquarters, but he kept his hand in major decisions and strategies affecting GMF’s growth and mission at a critical time in our 40-year history. At the same time, he grew GMF’s Brussels presence from four staffers to 14. In addition to spearheading GMF’s EU- and NATO-related work from his Brussels perch, he focused GMF as a whole on critical new regions including the Black Sea, Asia, and the Caucasus. Where Washington and Berlin had long been the twin anchors of our transatlantic presence, Ron made room for Brussels.
Ron was also a central figure in the conceptualization, execution, and success of Brussels Forum and our series of major conferences. At GMF’s first NATO conference in Istanbul in 2004, and at the first Brussels Forum in 2006, Ron was in the middle of everything, shoes off, sleeves rolled up, working on dinner seating charts. He would pause frequently to address his buzzing BlackBerry, on which he would type ferociously (spelling be dambned!) and which he would inevitably lose or break.
Although Ron was a crucial presence at those big events, he preferred small roundtable dinners, where a diverse set of actors -- policymakers, scholars, journalists --could tackle specific issues from all angles. In this element, his element, he was master of ceremonies, framer of debates, inveterate gossip, sympathetic ear, devil’s advocate, and Scotch pourer all rolled into one. Life should always be a dinner party with the smartest people at the table.
Many people -- many of you -- know of the German Marshall Fund because of Ron. He was an ambassador for the organization. “Who are you with-- The German Marshall Fund! You know Ron Asmus. How is my friend Ron?” Ron had many friends. He earned the respect of many of those friends through his diligent work on behalf of those in the eastern reaches of Europe. He made those friends over a glass of wine or two at the hotel bar in Tallinn, or Tbilisi, or Tokyo, while solving frozen conflicts or the hole in the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line. Those friends are now taking time out of their busy lives to remember him.
Ron always remembered GMF, to which he was fiercely loyal. And he was especially loyal to the staff who worked for him. If you gave him your best -- and, like a parent, he would expect nothing less -- he rewarded you with opportunities to expand your work, to meet influential people, to see new places. Age didn’t matter, but persistence, ability, and commitment did.
He was a man of many mantras, often repeated by him, and often cited by others within GMF. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” “Balance is a slippery slope to mediocrity and decline.” “It’s sometimes easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” Bringing Ron in on a project meant complicating your life, but it also meant the final product was likely to be bigger, better, bolder.
When word of his death came, we were shocked. Yes, he had been ill, but he had been ill before and he always came back. He had learned toughness as the son of German immigrants in Milwaukee, and that toughness helped him get to where he was. Surely it could get him through cancer.
But it couldn’t. Cancer took him away from his beloved wife Barbara and son Erik, and from GMF, where he felt like family. For the last nine years, Ron was a living part of GMF. That does not end with his death. His influence runs so deep that he will continue to be a driving force in our mission and our work.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.