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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Maurice Sonnenberg

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-03-23

The American republic doesn't have a formal aristocracy, but New York certainly does. And Maurice Sonnenberg, vice chairman of Bear Stearns & Co., belongs to that class. He's one of those self-effacing luminaries -- in times gone by they were known as the "wise men" -- who commute between New York and Washington, gliding effortlessly between the private sector and public service, dispensing sage counsel to presidents, legislators and just about everyone else engaged in policymaking -- and expecting very little in return.

"I'm quite content that people ask me for my views," Mr. Sonnenberg said over lunch. "But does that elevate me to the pantheon of great thinkers? I doubt it. My hat size hasn't changed. If I take a bus, it still costs me $2 a ride, like everyone else. I can say this, however: I've been able to juggle my private life and my government service with ease -- and I've enjoyed every minute of it. I've also had a rewarding social life. So yes, it's all been very interesting. On the bigger picture, it's sometimes helpful to talk to people who're at the levers of power. Perhaps that way one has enjoyed some influence on policy."

As he spoke, various other members of New York's aristocracy, and some visiting dignitaries, stopped off at the table. Former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin said hello. So did former American ambassador to France, Felix Rohatyn. Yale University's management guru, Jeffrey Garten waved. Mrs. John Veronis and Mrs. Robert Preston Tisch, who were dining at the next table, chatted flirtatiously with Mr. Sonnenberg. And then former Senator John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana, greeted him warmly on his way out.

Implicit in the social recognition that Mr. Sonnenberg enjoys is wide respect for his career as one of the nation's leading counter-terrorism authorities, diplomat, legal maven, authority on international finance, U.S. observer at several elections in Latin America, member of the U.S. Commission on reducing and Protecting Government Secrecy, senior adviser to the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the U.S. Intelligence Community, and vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism. He's also served as a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisers Board.

All of which may explain why Mr. Sonnenberg is both an optimist these days, and also a concerned man.

"My optimism is about America," he said. "We're still the engine that motors the world. Our economy remains strong. But does that mean the center of economic gravity won't move to the East in a few decades? Probably. Is that bad? No. The expanding of the global economy just means bigger markets, more consumers, more sellers -- and that's not a bad thing for America. The world is getting smaller because of technology and communications. India is as close to America as, say, Westchester is to Manhattan. All this means greater exchange of ideas, it means more understanding of other societies. And I think this is a good thing."

He's even optimistic about outsourcing, a phenomenon that Mr. Sonnenberg suggested should be view as threatening to the American economy.

"Look at it this way -- how many jobs are we supposedly losing to countries like Indian each year? About 200,000? Or 250,000?" Mr. Sonnenberg said. "But outsourcing works the other way around, too. Thirty years ago, there was just one foreign automobile manufacturer with a plant in America. Now the Europeans and Japanese have plants all over our country. Isn't that outsourcing on their part? Doesn't that create jobs in our economy?"

But isn't he worried that as China and India grow their already large economies, they would become competitive threats for America?

"I don't like the word 'threat,'" Mr. Sonnenberg said. "'Competition,' maybe, but 'threat,' no. If you study the building of nations, trade and competition go hand in hand. If Chinese and Indian companies become bigger, they will become a presence in our country. That means more investment here. That also means more jobs in America. Look at the Germans. They have financed more than 30 factories in the Carolinas. Why would I consider that a threat? Trade is good in all its manifestations."

Mr. Sonnenberg hold steadfast to the notion that greater trade between nations engenders better political and diplomatic relations. That notion was espoused by the English economist David Ricardo, whose works he read avidly as an undergraduate at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and then at law school. But the idea that the study of national and global politics was worthwhile was inculcated in him as a child in the Sonnenberg household.

"My father would insist that we children discuss the political issues of the day," Mr. Sonnenberg said. "He didn't tolerate ignorance. You were expected to be well-read, and you were expected to express your opinions."
One issue about which he also has a steadfast opinion -- and this is also why Mr. Sonnenberg is a concerned man these days -- is national security. He has been conversant with the issue since his days as a young aide to Sen. William Proxmire, Democrat of Wisconsin, who headed the Senate banking committee. "The opportunity to meet leaders, to network, of working on Capitol Hill -- it was the best learning experience a young person could have."

It was also the only "real job" that he's ever had, Mr. Sonnenberg said.
"My desire for independence led me toward becoming an adviser on foreign policy, trade, finance, growth strategy, and, later, intelligence," he said.
What was it about national security that concerned him now?

"The thing that concerns me most is a terrorist attack of great lethality," Mr. Sonnenberg said. "I consider that a paramount subject for policy-makers around the world, and certainly in America."

While he's gratified that 20 of the 25 proposals made by the National Commission on Terrorism -- whose vice chairman he was under chairman L. Paul Bremmer III -- have been incorporated into the U.S. Patriot Act, Mr. Sonnenberg worries that America's enemies, especially in the Middle East, "are out there engaging in plots against us, or financing those plots."

And why do some people out there hate America?

"We're the top dog," Mr. Sonnenberg said. "Everybody hates the top dog. The Europeans, for example, dislike President Bush because he doesn't fit their model of what a European statesman is -- a model, by the way, that I don't see among continental Europeans either. The problem with Europe is that they're insecure. Look at the economic growth rates in Germany and France. Just appalling."

In his lifetime, Mr. Sonnenberg said, he's seen the complexity of the world deepening. "This calls for more enlightened and more sophisticated leadership," he said. "We need more, not less, tolerance of diversity. We need more education. We need leaders with a certain vision and a strong belief in themselves -- like Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan and, yes, George W. Bush. The ultimate test of good leadership is to make wise decision quickly. But for that you need to be very well prepared to understand a world that's getting increasingly more difficult to grasp. People worry about American hegemony. In point of fact, I don't. I really do believe we have the best system of governance in the world, and the fairest. It's not a bad model for an economically interdependent world."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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