Janne E. Nolan, principled adviser on world affairs, dies at 67

Ms. Nolan, who stood out as a woman in a field dominated by men, also wrote nine books.
Ms. Nolan, who stood out as a woman in a field dominated by men, also wrote nine books.Logan Werlinger/George Washington University via The New York Times/THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY

WASHINGTON — Janne E. Nolan, an expert on international affairs and arms-control issues who advised politicians and diplomats and lamented the reluctance of skeptics to speak out against policies they believed to be wrong, died June 26 in Washington. She was 67.

The cause was cancer, said David J. Lane, a former US diplomat and friend who is now president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands in California, where world leaders gather to discuss international issues.

Ms. Nolan, who stood out as a woman in a field dominated by men, acquired her expertise through decades of scholarship and membership in numerous research organizations. She held various teaching positions and wrote nine books, including “Tyranny of Consensus: Discourse and Dissent in American National Security Policy.”


By “tyranny of consensus,” Ms. Nolan meant a kind of governmental ethos that derives from the unwillingness of officials to voice concerns about a policy that they thought mistaken, or even potentially disastrous, once it had been generally adopted and had acquired its own momentum.

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who knew her for many years, said in a phone interview that though Ms. Nolan had been “hard-nosed about the international system,” she had also believed that decisions based purely on realpolitik, without regard for morality and ethics, were likely to be disastrous.

Ms. Nolan lamented that while America trains its military officers to obey the Constitution and to disobey orders they know to be illegal, there is no comparable training to help civilian leaders navigate the difficult terrain where “morality, strategic imperatives, and self-interest” bump up against one another.

Failure to speak up and speak out has been “a source of strategic failure over and over again,” Ms. Nolan said in 2018 in a panel discussion at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, where she was a research professor.


She recalled how Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, whom she knew well, had kept quiet as he continued to send troops to fight in Vietnam even after he realized that the US strategy embraced by President Lyndon B. Johnson and some of his generals was fundamentally flawed. McNamara was left “wracked with guilt,” she said.

Rice said Ms. Nolan had continued to concentrate on nuclear weapons policy even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of international terrorism had made nuclear issues less pressing, perhaps less fashionable, to some in Washington.

She saw curbing the spread of nuclear weapons as “one of the great moral challenges for humankind,” Rice said. “And she was right about that.”

Rice said Ms. Nolan understood that working on nonproliferation of nuclear weapons was hard, unglamorous work, something that “you had to keep chipping away at” without hoping for an “aha” solution.

Ms. Nolan articulated that belief in 1990 in an op-ed article in The New York Times, occasioned by the arrest of six people in Britain who had been attempting to smuggle nuclear triggers to Iraq.

“Denying technology to states like Iraq may, in the end, be an exercise in delay,” she wrote, but “it can buy time to develop policies that address regional ambitions and conflicts that fuel demands for weapons of mass destruction.”

Ms. Nolan was a Democrat (she was an adviser to Senator Gary Hart of Colorado during his unsuccessful 1984 presidential campaign and continued to serve on his Senate staff). But, said Rice, who led the State Department under President George W. Bush, she was bipartisan in dispensing advice. Ms. Nolan was for a time chairwoman of the Presidential Advisory Board on US Arms and Technology Policy. She was also a member of the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, which investigated terror attacks on US embassies in Africa, and a congressional panel that assessed ballistic missile threats.


Janne Emilie Nolan was born Dec. 28, 1951, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, to American citizens, James and Margaret (Claughton) Nolan. Her mother was known as Maggi Nolan when she was the society reporter for the Paris edition of The New York Herald Tribune.

Her parents divorced when Janne (pronounced “jan”) was 4. Three years later, Maggi Nolan moved with Janne and her sister, Cathy, from Paris to London. When Janne was 12, the three moved to the United States.

She received a bachelor’s degree in political science and foreign languages from Antioch College in Ohio, a master’s in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Stanford University, and a doctorate in international economics from Tufts University.

Her academic posts also included professorships at Georgetown University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University.

Her marriage to Barry Blechman ended in divorce. Her survivors include a daughter, Emilie Blechman, and her sister, Cathy Nolan.

Rice said that Ms. Nolan had been able to form opinions about mistakes in US policy, as she perceived them, while remembering that policies are made and carried out by human beings and that hindsight is easy.


In the 2018 discussion at George Washington University, Ms. Nolan refrained from saying that the Vietnam War stood in memory as a national tragedy. But she suggested that for McNamara, with his unwillingness to challenge the White House consensus on the war, it was certainly a personal one.

“Your conscience,” she said, “is a living, breathing organism that you cannot mess with too many times before you become a broken person.”