GMF President Craig Kennedy eulogizes Ron Asmus
Thank you, Barbara and Erik, for asking me to speak at this memorial service. For all of us, this service is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Ron’s remarkable life and apply warm and happy memories as a balm for our sadness and sense of loss.
It would be natural for me to talk about Ron as the consummate professional and to honor his enormous contribution to GMF and to the transatlantic community. For the past nine years, Ron’s vision shaped almost every part of GMF and our work in Brussels, Turkey, Poland, Germany, the South Caucasus, Asia and the Middle East will serve as a legacy to his energy and foresight. Pages have already been written about his many accomplishments and I am sure that many more will be penned in the coming months. Suffice it to say, Ron was a force – a creative force and a force for good – in his chosen profession.
But, today, I want to talk about friendship and friends. When I first met Ron in the late 1990s, I would often see him at conferences and other meetings related to NATO enlargement and he was always surrounded by a crowd of ministers, politicians, intellectuals and journalists. In the evening, Ron would take over one part of the beverage facility and essentially host an extension of the day’s meeting. As you observed these evening gatherings, you came to realize that Ron was not only very popular with this crowd, but that most of them thought of themselves as a friend. Indeed, what was truly remarkable about Ron is that he made almost everyone in his vast and sundry network his friend and he made them feel special and close. Over the past days, I have received hundreds of e-mails from Planet Asmus and I have been struck by how many people describe themselves as a “close” or “dear” or even “best” friend of Ron.
How did he do it? How did he accumulate this enormous collection of friends and make them all feel that he had a special connection to them?
Well, first of all, Ron chose friends who shared one of his many passions whether it was political, regional, culinary or intellectual. His deep and longstanding interest in all things German produced a group of friends in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and, of course, Elmau that almost no other American could replicate. His involvement in NATO enlargement at Rand and then at the State Department gave him a flock of Latvian, Estonian, Czech, Romanian, Polish and other Central and Eastern European friends. Remarkably, he turned NATO enlargement into a means for adding friends in Sweden, Finland and other countries outside of the alliance. In the early part of the last decade, he developed an abiding interest in Turkey and the South Caucasus and you can now go to Istanbul, Ankara, Yerevan, Baku and especially Tblisi and find members of the Asmus fan club.
Ron was an activist and a policy entrepreneur but he was also an intellectual and another line of friends centered on his passion for ideas and for history. Famous professors, thoughtful columnists and probing analysts of foreign policy populated this room in Ron’s mansion of friends. In another spot, you could find Sake masters, lovers of good scotch and wine and connoisseurs of raki who counted Ron as their friend and fellow epicure, a man who would rework a business trip to Stockholm so he could shop for herring and aquavit before Christmas or ask a friend to take a three hour flight with a collection of smelly cheeses and questionable salamis carefully hidden in his luggage.
Ron loved people who shared his passions. He was not a casual collector of people or a “networker”; he was a man looking for others who were as deeply interested in the world and its joys as he was.
Ron shared passions with his friends but common interest was just a starting point. Ron doted on his friends, he got to know them and their families and he actively nurtured these relationships. I won’t say that Ron did not have superficial relationships and a vast array of casual acquaintances. But, when he met someone he liked, who shared one of his passions, he did his best to turn them into a friend and then keep them as a friend.
A constant stream of calls, e-mails and texts insured that his friends knew that he cared about them, their families and their common causes. When Ron received his first Blackberry at GMF, our accounting department was convinced that some sort of billing mistake had been made: how could one person communicate so much with so many people? Well, if you ever travelled with Ron, you knew the answer. Waiting for planes was an opportunity to make a dozen calls, some business, some personal and many both. Fortunately for Ron, technological progress kept up with the expansion of his network of friends. I can’t imagine how he would have coped with a world dependent on snail mail and devoid of cellular phones.
He was the sort of guy who called friends to congratulate them on good news but maybe more importantly to console and calm them during difficult times. Again, over the past week, I have heard many wonderful stories about how Ron was there for his friends through births, weddings, failed marriages, professional triumphs and professional defeats. Indeed, for some reason, my most vivid memories of Ron are of his support during a family tragedy or personal setback. In those tough times, he knew how to apply the right mix of comfort to you, outrage at the causes of the problem and common sense about how to move forward.
But, one thing he never did was walk away when things were bad. Ron had a very old fashioned sense of loyalty – a belief that you had a commitment to a friend that could be modified or broken under only the direst of circumstances. A friend in political trouble was never expendable but rather the focus of great strategizing and the mobilization of far flung resources as Ron plotted to rebuild the person’s career or reputation. When a friend had financial problems, Ron was quick to help as well as he could. On more than a few occasions, I would get a call that began “We could use a really great expert on X, couldn’t we?” and I knew that he had a friend, who happened to an expert on X, who needed some temporary work.
In some ways, Ron was at his best when his friends were under attack by intellectual or political enemies. He relished a fight when he believed in the cause and friendship was a cause he believed in passionately. In these situations, Ron would often become his friend’s strategist, battlefield general and chief polemicist. And, believe me; you only had to watch Ron once in this mode to understand how formidable he could be when defending a friend. Ron regularly violated the famous advice of Don Corleone in the Godfather: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. Enemies had no place in Ron’s immediate circle even if there was a good tactical reason to do so.
Ron’s loyalty to friends was generally a virtue and occasionally a vice. A few people would see this big, warm engaging guy and try to use him; a few others accepted his loyalty and all that came with it but didn’t return the same. These rare cases hurt him deeply but it didn’t stop him from adding new friends or from being a very generous and doting friend. Indeed, what is amazing is how rare these anomalous cases were for a man with such a vast array of friends.
Ron will leave many legacies through the ideas he championed, the institutions he built and the causes that he embraced. But, his greatest legacy may be the way he enriched the lives of so many people by being their friend in the first place and then introducing them to one another. He was never possessive of his friends. In fact, he made a point of sharing them. And, it was not a random process for him. Ron was very intentional in the way he interwove these connections within his network. He matched friends according to their passions, tastes and personalities and, based on my personal experience, he was pretty good at it.
If you were coming to dinner at his home, it was always a giveaway if he said “Oh, by the way, so and so will be there and I know you will like him”. At more formal business dinners, I would watch Ron agonize over seating charts not out of a respect for protocol but rather because he wanted to make sure that you met interesting people and had stimulating conversation. And, you know what, his social engineering worked. My guess is that many of us in this room met one or two or three or four good friends thanks to Ron. I know my circle of friends has been enriched greatly by Ron and I am very grateful to him for these relationships.
Ron did many things to make the world better. But his greatest contribution was the example he set in practicing the art of friendship. In a day when casual acquaintances are “friends” and when Facebook lets you accumulate thousands of superficial relationships that are called friends, Ron and the way he lived his life reminds us now and will remind us forever that friendship has a deeper and more profound meeting. I know that, for me, his friendship was one of the greatest gifts that I will ever receive.
Barbara and Erik, thank you for sharing Ron with all of us. Somehow being here with you and so many of Ron’s friends brings back his spirit in a very tangible way and makes me feel just a bit better about our common loss.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.