International affairs professor known for ‘irreverent’ humor dies at 67

Updated: July 5, 2019 at 9:34 a.m.

Janne Nolan, a research professor of international affairs, died last week of an unknown cause. She was 67.

Nolan joined GW’s faculty in December 2011 with a focus on the politics of national security, institutional development and military strategy. Friends and colleagues who wrote tributes to Nolan in the days following her death said she helped bring more women into her field and provided sound analysis on top national security issues.

Nolan earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and foreign languages from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and received a master’s in law and diplomacy and a doctorate in international economics from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

At GW, Nolan chaired the Nuclear Security Working Group, a nonpartisan collection of experts that provides policymakers and nongovernmental organizations with information about nuclear policy issues.

Before arriving at the University, Nolan served in numerous senior roles with the U.S. government, beginning with a three-year stint at the Department of State as a foreign affairs officer from 1980 to 1983. From 1983 to 1987, she served as national security adviser to the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, and she later served as chair of the White House Presidential Advisory Board on U.S. Arms and Technology Policy under President Bill Clinton.

Nolan, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow at the Brookings Institution for more than a decade, also served on several private boards and committees, like those of the American Middle East Institute, the Arms Control Association and the Center for Climate and Security.

Francis Gavin, the chair of the editorial board at War on the Rocks, a national security publication, said Nolan prioritized mentorship and made her relationships with young people entering her field a focus of her career.

“There are literally dozens of people who Janne adopted and raised, encouraged, supported, gave the first chance to,” Gavin said. “And she did it in a way where she never made you think she was mentoring you – she was more like a friend.”

Gavin said he became friends with Nolan when she wrote a “generous” review of a book he published. He said wrote her a letter thanking her for the review, sparking a friendship.

Nolan penned or edited nine books about decisionmaking in international relations and policy issues related to weapons of mass destruction. But Gavin added that Nolan’s personality was just as notable as her numerous accomplishments listed on her curriculum vitae.

“Even though she studied serious topics, she never took herself too seriously, which is always made her the most fun person at any event,” Gavin said.

Lorelei Kelly, the director of the Resilient Democracy Coalition, an organization that studies ways to modernize how Congress functions, said she first met Nolan after she was assigned a textbook of hers to read in graduate school. She said that when she moved to D.C., Nolan became a mentor and close friend.

Kelly said Nolan had a very “holistic” approach to life and had many friends from diverse backgrounds. She said Nolan saw the world as “linked rather than ranked.”

“I can remember the last time I had Thanksgiving with Janne – I went early to help do the turkey, and I brought extra chairs, and I remember sitting at the dinner table I had a Soviet dissident on one side and somebody she knew from walking dogs on the other side,” she said.

Narang Vipin, a friend of Nolan who met her through the Nuclear Scholars Research Initiative, said she had a “huge impact” on the field through her distinguished work.

He added that Nolan brightened their trips to Australia and West Virginia with her constant jokes. Vipin said their trip to Melbourne, Australia, was where he discovered Nolan’s love for “stiff drinks and sharp humor.”

“I think I’ll probably remember her most for her irreverent wit and humor, which kept us laughing through these conferences,” Vipin said.

He said Nolan’s confidence in a field dominated by men showed other women that they belong in the national security policy space.

“By example, she encourages the women in the room to speak up and, more than anything, that encourages women both into the field but also not to sit back in conferences or panels,” he said.

Jane Vaynman, who worked at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies with Nolan, said Nolan was down-to-earth and immediately friendly. Vaynman added that Nolan, unlike others in her field, never gloated about her accomplishments and approached issues from multiple perspectives.

“She was very different from a lot of the policy folks I encountered,” Vaynman said. “Really, it was amazing to have met her and have a chance to be friends with her.”

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