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Donald Mahley

BS 1964, Philosophy
MS 1971, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Ambassador, Special Negotiator for Nonproliferation, United States Department of State, Washington, DC

They tell Donald Mahley he’s retired—but he doesn’t necessarily believe that, and neither do we. In his most recent assignment, Special Negotiator for Nonproliferation and Conventional Arms with the rank of Ambassador, he drew from his more than 40 years of experience as a United States Army officer, a faculty member at the United States Military Academy and National War College, and multiple government positions in defense, disarmament, weapons control, and threat reduction. But the hardest part of that job, jokes Mahley, might be “getting 160 countries in a room to agree on anything, including what day it is.” 

He counts himself lucky to have had several moments at work and in life when he almost needed to pinch himself to believe he was there. “And most of those were when I was someplace that, when I graduated from high school in 1960, I didn’t even know existed, let alone that I might be there,” notes Mahley.

But the one he remembers most “is when I stepped off the plane in Tripoli, Libya, in January 2004 to be the personal representative of the President in negotiating with Mohammar Qaddafi about how he [Qaddafi] was going to carry out the promise he had just made to destroy all his programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction. I kept thinking about how United States citizens were forbidden to travel to Libya, how in an earlier job I had recommended approval of U.S. aircraft bombing Libya in an effort to kill the same Qaddafi, and how there were no ways I could call somebody back in the U.S. for real-time advice on whether the proposal I was about to make really made sense. That was really a time when I thought to myself, ‘How did an Indiana farm boy ever get here?’”

Donald Mahley passed away in March 2014.

Purdue Influences

Three of my professors/mentors at Purdue had a unique impact on my future career. First would be Ronald Reid, in the Department of Speech. I never took a formal course from him, but he was also the intercollegiate competitive debate coach, and I was on the varsity debate team all four years of my undergraduate tenure. What I learned about debate applied directly to the persuasion and logic of negotiating, which I did at the capstone of my career. But it also taught organization, looking “outside the box” as we would say today, conciseness, and understanding that in such things as public policy there is no right answer, just ones that promote some good features at some cost elsewhere. All of those lessons are fundamental precepts of what I have done since Purdue. Calvin Schrag taught my first course in philosophy and introduced me to the whole field. Both he and Ron Reid taught me the joy and importance of thinking about difficult, perhaps even intractable, problems for the simple value of trying to get it right, or at least better. Finally, I have to mention William Gass, who taught me ancient philosophy, and with it the need to pursue inquiry of what you don’t understand, even if it means also challenging the “proper” hierarchical way of doing things and even challenging authority, all the while being very aware of the cost of being wrong. I will also mention Thomas Bruce, who was the Professor of Military Science and Tactics, and who convinced me to take a Regular Army commission out of ROTC. Without that exposure, who knows where I might have ended up?

Purdue Memories

I will cite two traditions; the first is the Mock Political Convention. When I was on campus, it was a fully acted out nominating convention combining all parties in the year of a presidential election. It gave me my first inside look at how politics works with involvement, rather than just hearing it on the radio or seeing it on TV. Also, I remember being the live “tower” announcer for PRN for the Grand Prix, an experience that taught me why I did NOT want to seek a career in sports broadcasting.

Purdue Now

I grew up in a farming community of 13,000 in Indiana. I was the first, and am still the only, National Merit Scholar from my high school. Everybody in town conceded I was really smart. At Purdue, there were a whole lot of other smart people—which is good—and I had a lot of mental adjusting to do. Purdue provided an environment to do that without immediate pressure and with an embracing atmosphere. It also provided the degree of sophistication to teach me quickly—outside the formal classroom—about some of the dimensions of the “outside world” I had not considered before. I came to Purdue to be an engineer, partly because that was what everybody at home thought I ought to be. That lasted a whole two days at Purdue, and the University not only offered me several alternate paths that I could pursue, but the flexibility to pursue a number of them and still make regular progress toward going out into the world.

Greatest Achievement

The best answer to this one would be “convincing my wife of 44 years to marry me.” A much more cynical view would be “escaping those who were shooting at me as a young US Army officer in Viet Nam.” That has to be valid, for otherwise there would be very few other choices to consider. But my answer today is completing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992, realizing for perhaps the first time during my government career that without my personal efforts and input, despite the fact that others by the hundreds around the world contributed much more of the content of the final document, there would not have been such a Convention, and chemical weapons would still be an ordinary part of military inventories.

Living Person I Admire

One is Colin Powell. I have had the privilege of working with him both when he was in uniform and was Secretary of State. He has more integrity than any three other politicians I know, and his achievements merit the books written about them. The other, completely unknown to most of the world, is Paata Tsikurishvili. He is the artistic director of Synetic Theater in Arlington, VA, and is a creative genius. His theater group uses “motion-based theater,” sometimes almost a form of mime. He comes from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, and emigrated here without much more than his dream when the Berlin Wall came down while he happened to be on tour in Germany. Since then, he has created the entire theater group, with a consistent vision, sacrifice, and work ethic that would put almost anyone to shame. 

Idea of Perfect Happiness

A glass of 1963 vintage port and a truly magnificent cigar? A challenge to devise the program with guaranteed funding that will eliminate social injustice, at least in the United States? (Assuming, of course, that anyone can agree on what social injustice is.) In fact, I think “perfect happiness” is a state to be avoided studiously, which is one of the reasons I have never given it much thought. But consider: if I achieve perfect happiness for me, unless I am much more universalist and on a plane well above other humans, my happiness is going to mean someone else is profoundly unhappy, either because I have preempted resources he/she needs, or simply from jealousy. So I prefer to stay in the “struggling” category. Also, to be “perfectly happy” means no further challenges ahead of you, and that, I fear would be utterly boring.

What I’m Reading

On the non-fiction side, I am currently reading What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louise Roberts, The Time-Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Constitutional Myths: What We Get Wrong and How to Get it Right by Ray Raphael. In fiction, I’m reading The Admiral’s Game by David Donachie and Send Me Safely Back Again by Adrian Goldsworthy about the Napoleonic Wars period, along with A Wanted Man, the latest Lee Child saga about the fictional character Jack Reacher. If somebody wants a really good science fiction series, I highly recommend the David Weber series on Honor Harrington or what is known as the Safehold series.

Profession I’d Like to Try

Since I have frequently been accused of practicing law without a license, if given a second career path choice—and being able to know what I know now—it would be the law, although as a litigator, not as a corporate lawyer. (Yeah, I know. Combined with my actual history of working for the U.S. Government, somebody is going to say I have an aversion to making money. That may be true, but there are other things that are so much more fun.) I have suggested to some of my colleagues that a member of the Supreme Court does not have to be a licensed lawyer, so perhaps I could fit in there—but thus far, nobody has seen fit to nominate me to the U.S. Senate.