Marshall Bouton arrived in Chicago in August 2001 to take the helm of the city’s premier international affairs organization, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Less than a month later, America experienced domestic terror that changed it forever. Bouton, now 70, stayed on through the rest of George W. Bush’s two terms and beyond Barack Obama’s first, but he’s not sticking around for all of the second.
On July 1, Bouton hands the presidency of the 91-year-old organization to Ivo Daalder, 52, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO since his appointment by President Obama in May 2009.
In a telephone interview from Washington, where the Council was releasing its report on immigration reform and its importance to the Midwest, Bouton said that it was time for him and his wife, Barbara, to return to the East Coast to see more of their sons and their families, who live in Massachusetts and New York. They are in the process of readying their Lakeview apartment for sale.
I had spoken to the New York-born and mostly East Coast-educated (Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago for his PhD) policy wonk in November 2009 when I was writing a profile of Chicagoan Lou Susman just after the new President appointed Susman, a bundler extraordinaire, to be Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Bouton told me back then that he knew early of his friend Susman’s appointment to the most prestigious of diplomatic postings. This time he says he has no idea who Obama will tap to replace Susman, but that he knows that Susman and his wife plan to return to Chicago this spring.
Here’s an edited and abbreviated transcript of our conversation:
CF: What’s next for you?
MB: I have a… career-long interest in Asia and India in particular…. [And also] food security issues, so I plan to focus a good bit of time on those areas.
CF: Food security?
MB: Issues of how the world is going to feed itself….. The consensus estimates are that the world will have to increase food production by 70 percent to meet global food demand by 2050…. In the largest and most rapidly growing populations in the world, China and India, demand for food is going to grow, if not exponentially, then certainly geometrically, and that’s going to present a great challenge… [it’s] something we’ve been working on at the Council a lot over the last several years, and I plan to continue working in that arena.
CF: So you’re leaving Chicago?
MB: Were it not for [grandchildren and children] we would be happy to stay in Chicago. We’ve loved the city and I plan certainly to be back to Chicago on a regular basis…. I’m not walking away from Chicago and never turning back…. The city has been transformed and I have been privileged to play a small part in that, and I certainly want to continue that association.
CF: How did you play a small part?
MB: The Chicago Council is really the only organization… in the city of Chicago for almost all of its 91 year history that’s devoted expressly to connecting Chicago to the world and the world to Chicago.
CF: Why did the Council on your watch change its name from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs?
MB: First of all in just sheer language… “Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.” Now in the globalizing world, what does the word foreign mean? Foreign is often used as a pejorative, “so foreign to us"…. We’re a nation of immigrants; we’re a nation of foreigners. We just felt that the name was anachronistic in the 21st century. And the second reason is that… our agenda ought to embrace a wider spectrum… beyond the typical foreign policy, foreign relations topics; beyond national security and diplomacy. We ought to be looking at things like immigration and migration, like food security, like women’s rights.
CF: You say you’re going to come back to Chicago a few days every month. Will you be involved in work with Mayor Emanuel and municipal issues?
MB: Oh sure, absolutely. In the first few months [of his administration], with the knowledge of [his] office, we convened a study to examine how Chicago as a global city could attract more foreign direct investments. That’s something that we had identified as a need for Chicago back when we did our big study of Chicago as a global city in 2006-07…. We came out with…recommendations which were released as a report this past September. The mayor saw it and found it very helpful. We proposed that World Business Chicago, which the mayor chairs, implement those recommendations and they are moving forward to do that. We were… cohosts with the city of the NATO Summit [in May 2012]. So that was another way in which we were very directly involved with the city and Mayor’s office.
CF: Any difference working with Rahm as opposed to Rich Daley? Daley seems to have had a strong global perspective. You think of Rahm as more….
MB: [Rahm] was chief of staff in the White House. He’s very internationally minded. He understands entirely… that this is a world that’s really going to be dominated by cities that are more or less successful in the way they engage with globalization. His priorities as mayor in the first year or two are the ones he has chosen to pursue; he has to focus on crime and education…. Somehow he finds time to come to a number of our events.
CF: When Rich Daley was mayor, he seemed really to like to travel to other cities around the world and collect ideas and bring them back here.
MB: My impression is that during the first 10-12 years, 10 years anyway of his time as mayor, he didn’t do that much. It was when he got his key proprieties in terms of the city’s development kind of in place then he began to do that. I took him for his first ever trip to China. That was 2004. By that time he’d already been in office almost 15 years.
CF: You told me that the NATO summit went “swimmingly well.”
MB: I think it was fabulous. All the naysayers and worriers and hand wringers were very wrong. The so-called demonstrations were tiny…. I think the summit was a great way for Chicago to show off to the world what a sophisticated and beautiful city it is…. We demonstrated to ourselves and to the world that Chicago can host with great success the highest level international gatherings…. There were a lot of people who doubted that Chicago could do this and were imagining blood running in the streets, terrible traffic jams, and the need to evacuate buildings because of tear gas. Nothing even close to that happened. I think the next time that this mayor proposes to have a major international meeting in Chicago we will not see that kind of anxiety and doubt.
CF: Did the summit have an actual policy result? Can you point to: We had a NATO summit here and now…. A, B, C.; anything like that cause and effect?
MB: The city made a lot of contacts out of this. I was present at one occasion with the Dutch Prime Minister where Mayor Emanuel was there and had a conversation with [the P.M.] about his [Rahm’s] plans for renovating Chicago’s water system. And because the Dutch are obviously the world’s foremost experts in water management systems…. that’s just one tiny example of how we made connections.
CF: Why did the G-8 meeting get moved, last minute, from Chicago to Camp David.
MB: What was not said publicly by any officials was the Russians decided that they did not want to attend. That’s a broader geopolitical issue because of what the Russians wanted from us in terms of missile defense deployments in Europe. Had the G-8 meeting been held, separately, very publicly, as it would have been in Chicago, then that issue of the Russians not being there would have dominated a lot of the press coverage, a lot of the discussion. So the administration I thought wisely decided to hold it at Camp David and… there were a few journalists there, but it was not a big public happening.
CF: You mentioned that Lou and Marjorie Susman are coming back to Chicago in the spring. Do you think they’d like to remain in the ambassador’s post?
MB: Everyone in those jobs understands that it’s a four-year gig. You move on. That happens with the professional foreign service officers; that happens with political appointees.
CF: We talked about this last time; presidents posting political as opposed to career foreign service people, the fundraisers as opposed to the professionals, to European and Asian capitals.
MB: I think it [making political appointments] works very well…. The political appointees… in many senses they are more truly representative of our country because they come from the citizenry of our country; obviously a certain segment or stratum of the citizenry of our country, but that would be true in any event. These are personal representatives of the president of the United States, so these individuals by virtue of their relationship with the President, as a candidate, they know him better than any career foreign service officer [would]. So to have them represent us with our closest allies in Europe and elsewhere, I don’t see what the problem is. The reality is that underneath the politically appointed ambassador is, starting with the number two person at every embassy, this wonderful structure of career foreign service people who can support an ambassador. Furthermore the relations such as we have with the UK or with France or Germany or Japan, the relationship is carried on in so many ways at so many levels directly between the two governments it doesn’t require someone in the job… who has a lot of deep knowledge of foreign policy.
CF: When we last spoke you said that President Obama’s choice of Jon Huntsman to be our ambassador to China was a “superb appointment.” Who could have predicted events since he resigned as ambassador and ran for the Republican nomination for president?
MB: Anybody who knew Jon knew he had presidential ambitions and you haven’t seen the last of him.
CF: You think he’ll make another run at the White House?
MB: I would be very surprised if he didn’t.
CF: Will he run as a Republican or a Democrat?
MB: I have no reason to think that he would leave his party.
CF: Back to Chicago. What specifically will you miss about the city?
MB: The people. Chicagoans are welcoming and open and warm and friendly…. I’ll miss just the sheer excitement of the city. It’s a city on the move. I’ve been saying for years it’s the most dynamic city in North America and maybe even in the western hemisphere today…. It’s a city that is changing the most and the fastest. It’s a city that is reinventing itself, still in the process of reinventing itself, from capital of the industrial and agricultural heartland during the 20th century to a truly global city in the 21st.
CF: You and your wife live half a block from the lake. Did you ever swim in it?
MB: No, I just never got around to it, but a lot of walking and bicycling with my wife on the lake and I’ll miss that as well. It’s gorgeous.
CF: Most proud achievement in this job?
MB: I think we’ve taken the Chicago Council to a whole new level of reach and reputation and impact. In terms of sheer metrics, it was an institution with less than a $2 million budget; we’re closing out this fiscal year with a $10 million budget. Staff has gone from 15 people to 50; membership from 5000 to 7000. But the audience has gone from 5000 to 25,000—by that I mean the number of people who attend our events in a given year.
CF: Biggest disappointment?
MB: I’m a guy who spent most of his career involved with Asia both intellectually and in terms of my living and jobs and so forth. I came here believing strongly that Chicago’s connections to Asia needed to be strengthened because Asia is the fastest growing region of the world. The 20th century was the American century; the 21st may well be the Asian century. The good news is the United States is still both an Atlantic and a Pacific nation, so we have had an opportunity to participate in that, but Chicago, being in the middle of the country, having an immigrant history that is almost entirely from Europe, Chicago needs to bolster its understanding of Asia and its connections to Asia, and I don’t think I was able to do as much of that as I would have liked to do.
CF: How are George W. Bush and Barack Obama similar and/or different in their approach to international affairs?
MB: There was a lot of commentary during the campaign that Barack Obama’s foreign policy was not that different from George Bush’s, and I happen to think that’s the case. In many areas, one saw a great degree of continuity…. I think that the most important thing is that during the early Bush years there was more an emphasis on the… U.S. acting alone and expecting others to follow. I think the Obama administration has put more emphasis on the U.S. acting with others and having them moving along with you rather than behind you…. By the second term the Bush administration was playing down that earlier rhetoric and rationale. I think that’s part of the reason for greater continuity.
CF: Has America’s place in the world shifted across these two administrations?
MB: The basic answer is no, except that not because of what either of the administrations did, but, because of events, the U.S. is now very internally focused—basically because of the financial crisis and recession. We are necessarily really seized with what we need to do first and foremost with our economy and our fiscal situation and along with that our infrastructure, educational system, our health system. I think that the U.S. is less inclined to stake itself on major changes in the international system. But that’s not a decision of an administration. That’s the force of events. Nevertheless, the U.S. is still, in Madeleine Albright’s wonderful old phrase, “the indispensable nation.” If we’re not indispensable, we certainly are the only nation in the world that still has the capability of leading on so many issues, and everybody still looks to us to do that.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune