Janice Stein – 2023 Testimonial Dinner Award Honouree
Date: Thursday February 16, 2023
Janice Stein: “It’s a profoundly encouraging thing that so many people want to understand more than they currently do.”
Janice Stein is the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and one of Canada’s most important public intellectuals
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Janice Gross Stein found herself on television a lot.
Stein, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, had decades of experience in the Middle East.
As a young woman, she did her doctoral dissertation on the October war of 1973, trying to understand why Egypt and Syria had invaded Israel when they knew they were unlikely to beat the superior Israeli military. She travelled repeatedly to Cairo, taking the time to get to know senior Egyptian officers, trying to understand how traditional cost-benefit models failed to anticipate the actions of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
The experience taught Stein that it was necessary to have a “deep understanding of the people, the history and the culture” to properly analyze such a situation.
That deep understanding of Middle East politics and the military, as well as her many contacts in the region, gave her unusually useful insights into the TV spectacle of the Gulf War, when the United States, Canada and other countries pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
Stein found herself writing op-eds for newspapers, appearing on television and briefing journalists who needed to understand the war.
“It was remarkable for me,” she says. “I understood for the first time there was an insatiable appetite among the public to learn more about something they knew they didn’t really understand, which is a very, very encouraging thing in a democracy.”
Stein found herself playing a new, public role, and has been doing so ever since. Unlike some professors who are disinclined to popularize their work, Stein found it energizing, in part because of the way the public reacted.
“I’m not a cynic. I’ve never been cynical about the public. I’m still not. It’s a profoundly encouraging thing that so many people want to understand more than they currently do.”
In the decades since, Stein has become one of Canada’s most important public intellectuals, working with policymakers in Canada and around the world. She has delivered lectures and speeches, including the 2001 Massey Lectures for CBC, written bestselling books, and earned a reputation as an insightful, open thinker and talented communicator. The Belzberg Professor of Conflict Management in the Department of Political Science, she is also a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, as well as a senior fellow of the Kissinger Center at SAIS at Johns Hopkins University and an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 2000, when businessman and philanthropist Peter Munk approached the
University of Toronto to discuss funding a centre for studying global affairs, President Rob Prichard asked Stein to be its founding director. She ran the centre until 2014, working to make it “the front door of the university;” a place where researchers could work across disciplines, scholars could work with leaders from government, business and the non-profit sector, and the university could reach out to the world beyond its gates.
Munk quickly became recognized as a place where important debates about policy could take place, with the quality of its public discussions setting a new standard for intellectual life in Canada.
“We would have arguments, we would have discussions, and out of that would come a better understanding,” Stein said. “It’s nobody’s turf but it’s everybody’s turf, and that’s why I think it has done so well in convening public policy discussions.”
Last year, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly appointed Stein co-chair of the Indo-Pacific Advisory Committee, along with a dozen prominent Canadians, including Frank McKenna, Hassan Yussuff, Rona Ambrose and Dominic Barton. The panel helped Canada lay out a new policy approach to the Indo-Pacific region, proposing more intense engagement with friendly countries and a more aggressive response to the challenge from an “increasingly disruptive” China.
Stein is proud of the result, and believes the approach can serve as a model for policymaking.
“Ideas came out of the committee that were not on anybody’s agenda before. And why did that happen? Because we had those kinds of discussions. Somebody would put an idea on the table, and somebody would chime in and say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that work there.’ And a person from a different sector would say, ‘Well, pay attention to this.’ The quality of that discussion was so excellent that it really was able to infuse ideas into the policy process.
“What does that tell me? We had really accomplished civil servants, but the best products come when you get leaders from outside the government to inject new ideas. And that is the future of public policy in this country.”
Stein was born and raised in Montreal in a home where intellectual discussions were prized. Both her parents were lawyers, although her mother was not able to practise because women were not allowed to join the Quebec bar until 1946.
“I said to my mother, ‘Why did you go to law school if you knew you wouldn’t be able to practise law?’ And she said, ‘It was so interesting! I loved every minute of it.’ Now, with a mother like that, what do you expect?”
Stein credits a family sense of gender equality with helping her to smash through glass ceilings in her career.
“There were almost no women in my field, international security. I grew up in a family where there was no discussion that you could or couldn’t have because you were a woman. It didn’t come up.”
Stein is enthusiastic about the research she is conducting now. She has just finished a paper, for instance, on how the United States and Russia are managing risks that the war in Ukraine could spin out of control. And she is excited about her next topic, the policy implications of technological change — the Artificial Intelligence revolution, “an all-encompassing revolution.”
“We have periods where a technological breakthrough changes the relationship we have to ourselves, to our community, to our society, to our work,” she says. “We’re at the early stages of one right now, and public policy always lags behind revolutionary change.”
As Stein toggles between developments in AI and how policy can respond, she’ll be taking her students along with her; a job she considers a privilege.
“I still love teaching. I really do. I love it. We have a very diverse student body at the Munk school. There is no greater privilege, if you think about it this way, than to spend your life with young people. I plan to continue. I’m in the middle of writing and doing research, and I find that the opportunities to engage with government both here in Ottawa and in Washington, the demands are more rather than less,” she says.
“Public policy remains front and centre in my life.”
Profile by Stephen Maher