Mark Medish

A Smart Neanderthal

Mark Medish describes a most unusual life and career. Friends in Nairobi, political work in Athens and think tank affiliations have kept him busy.

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Keiron Hylton
Bruce Taub
8 Minutes


Of German-Russian and Danish ancestry, and educated at Georgetown, Oxford and Harvard, Mark Medish’s career has spanned law, business and government.  He now advises heads of state on three continents.  Interviewed here by Harvard classmate and Principal Post Advisory Board member Keiron Hylton.

What is Integral Calculus?

Integral Calculus is a way of understanding the world.  It’s a way of integrating finance, politics, law and geopolitics into a constellation of risk and opportunity.  It’s an approach to political science and critical thinking.  Some people are very good at deep verticals but there are other approaches that bridge disciplines.

There is a profound epistemology here.  The world as we actually experience it is integrated.  We are integrated as infants and then we separate into formal studies which we now know as disciplines.  I want to integrate economics, politics, sociology, psychology, biology and medicine.

Where were you educated?

In the states in D.C. and in the United Kingdom.  I went to a parochial school called The Heights which is a pun on the neighborhood where it was founded.  It was modeled on an English Sixth Form and was strongly influenced by Opus Dei.  It was a continental, gymnasium style curriculum, heavy on the classics and history.  I was there for six years and, in retrospect, I think Opus Dei believes that Gen. Franco had it about right.

I then went to Georgetown University which is the opposite end of the spectrum within the Catholic Church.  The Jesuits have been called the erudite rabbis of the Catholic community.  There’s an interesting story that the Vatican suppressed the order in 1783.  Georgetown was founded by Jesuits in 1789, the same year that George Washington became President, but it could not then be officially Jesuit.  Former president Timothy Healy, S.J. once said to me Georgetown was a gift of Catherine the Great.  Eventually I understood that after the Pope’s edict both she and Frederick the Great declined to implement his order out of comity.  They were Enlightenment despots who were nevertheless committed to education.  So, in the period of suppression the American Jesuits were protected by the totalitarian Empress of Russia until the order was reestablished in 1810.  All the early Presidents of Georgetown were educated in Lithuania.

I went to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, which is like Woodrow Wilson at Princeton or the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  I majored in Economics – the School’s mission is not just diplomacy, but a cross-disciplinary approach to public service.  I earned a Mellon Fellowship to do Soviet studies and earned a master’s at Harvard in that subject.  I also had a Fulbright to Oxford where I studied at Merton for the master's in moral philosophy.  That was a transformative year since the professors I most gravitated to were professors of jurisprudence and trained in law, for example Ronald Dworkin and John Finnis.  At the end of my student career, I won a Henry Luce Scholarship to study and work in East Asia.  I went to Japan and worked at a think tank tied to the Japanese foreign ministry.

You were accepted to four Ph.D. programs in four different subjects?

Yes, comparative literature, government, economics and history.

When we were chums in graduate school, I would have projected you to be a future scholar and diplomat.  What happened?

I went to HLS after the influence of those jurisprudence professors at Oxford.  At that point I was interested in the ethics of nuclear deterrence – you will remember the doctrine of mutual assured destruction from the 1980s.  My mentor was Professor Roberto Unger, the Brazilian genius and master of critical legal studies.  Meeting people like you in the JD/MBA program enhanced my interest in business in the world.

Your father was German/Russian and your mother was Danish?

Yes, my father was of Germanic descent living in Russia.  He was born in 1924, my mother in 1921.  From that perspective I believe in plurality because I was born multiethnic and multicultural.  My mother was 100% Danish and raised in a modest background in Copenhagen.  She had a difficult childhood and worked in the Danish resistance during the occupation in World War II.  She had an MI5/S0E handler.  She rose to be a Danish diplomat.  Even in the 1950s, Danish women could rise to responsible positions.

My father was from the von Kleist family, an old-school aristocratic German family.  In that tradition he was a Baron.  The von Kleist family has produced more generals than any other Prussian family.  My father was a prisoner of war at Stalingrad where he was captured by a unit led by his cousin, the general.  He wisely did not mention this at his interrogation.  The other famous individual in that line is the romantic poet and playwright Heinrich, who was a modernist in the 1790s.

To return to that multicultural and multiethnic mélange, Russia is a big country; Denmark is a small tribe.  Denmark is a transit country between Scandinavia and mainland Europe and is very good at hosting people.  They have excelled in the ways of a small open economy and have made the transition to a knowledge economy easily.  What I have learned from this mixed ancestry is that if you come from many tribes it can help overcome the illusion of tribalism.  As Amartya Sen has argued, all of us have plural identities and should embrace that reality of inner diversity rather than impose over-blown differences on ourselves and others.

Most law partners stay law partners.  What happened?

To return to that earlier multidisciplinary theme, the law core is still not the alpha or the omega.  I continue to practice.  I consider the discipline of law akin to the scientific method and think that law constitutes an empire of human knowledge.  At my law firm I rebelled more against the organization than the discipline.  Most of the great law firms have evolved from partnerships into corporations and there are inherent conflicts, for example, billing by the hour as opposed to charging for results or value-added. Inevitably one is penalized for efficiency.

There are two ways to make partner at law firms.  One is the traditional treadmill for eight to nine years.  The other, less well-known path is to start doing well, then do something else, then offer to come back.  I took that latter path.  I left as a third-year associate and returned as an equity partner after working for the government for seven years.

There is a developing tradition of law in the family.  For example, my father-in-law, that good old boy from Alabama, was of counsel at Sherman Sterling for many years.  He was a professor of law at Columbia and a pioneer of legal educational exchange with China over a period of decades.

What’s the most important problem facing the world?

There are two.  One is the global commons having to do with climate, health, poverty and the challenges of collective action.  The second is governance.  Obviously, you and I are big believers in democratic systems, but there are those who are tempted by the authoritarian model.

What’s the most important problem facing America?

I founded Keep our Republic as a nonprofit organization to help save our republic.  The election cycle of 2020 revealed great strengths in our democratic system and some deep flaws.  We need a revitalization.  We have an 18th-century constitutional architecture and are a society divided.  This is an opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration.  That’s our enduring strength, both as a democracy and as America.  We look messy and there’s always the boom-bust cycle, but we face stress tests well.  We are resilient.

Are there any geopolitical theorists with whom you agree?

Other than Sun Tzu, whose wisdom is peerless, there is Hans Morgenthau.  I am mostly in the realist camp although I’m somewhat sympathetic to the highly idealist view.  Morgenthau’s famous aphorism was that there are three tools of foreign policy: force, bribes and logic.

Why is Nairobi important to you?

Well, there are all our roots 75,000 years ago.  I look at that red clay soil and I see that’s where we came from.  I also have friends in Nairobi who are concerned about regional security there.  I fell in love with the city and country.  I’m personally invested in a water management company to provide clean eco-friendly water in an eco-friendly way.

Are there other second homes?

Yes, Copenhagen through my Danish mother (I’m a Danish citizen), London, and Athens where I am also invested and have done some political work.

East Africa is a new horizon though.  What’s happening in Kenya is interesting.  They’ve built on British colonial policy but also made their own space.  They don’t feel themselves under the colonial thumb.  They’re now trying to build a Kenyan identity since, as you remember, the borders drawn in any post-colonial situation were arbitrary.  There is a plurality of identity among the tribes one can be Luo or Kikuyu, and Kenyan, so there is a fundamental question of how the tribes get along.

You’ve said that our views on China are exaggerated and subject to mood swings.  Why?

We find ourselves in a situation where, twenty years ago, the big ascendant theory was that we would converge through globalization and economic forces would create democracy.  Now, twenty years later, the bipartisan view is that China is, at best, a strategic competitor and, at worst, a mortal enemy.  I think, in a sense, both views are exaggerated.  China has certainly come into the world beginning with the WTO and I certainly don’t rule out a harder-edged continuing entry.  They have done a 180° shift from their agrarian communitarian style of life, and can we really blame them?  Now there’s another systemic pretender to the throne and are offended by this.  Are we really only comfortable if we have a monopoly on power?  Wasn’t that the view of the British Empire?

What are you up to nowadays?

I started a new law firm named Mosaiq.  It’s really law and consulting.  It’s a small firm with just a few partners.  We do complex cross-border transactions by applying the methods of integral calculus and I’m fortunate to have some kindred spirits in that regard.

I also co-founded Keep our Republic with some venerable figures in the Democratic party like Dick Gephardt and Tim Wirth and several Republicans such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and Congressman Charlie Dent.  We were concerned about the integrity of the 2020 election, and we see this as really a basic civics organization.  We have three guiding premises: Let all citizens vote; Let all votes be counted; Let the count stand.

We see our task as education and we’re still in business.  The fight for democratic values in 2022 and 2024 is on.

In my youth, I started out as a centrist Republican – think Rockefeller and Bush the elder - then became an Independent and eventually went to work for the Clinton administration in 1993.

Why was the Guggenheim job your favorite?

I was President of the international division.  We had $200 billion in assets under management which is a boutique by comparison with the current behemoths.  Because of the strong balance sheet there was room to maneuver and there were opportunities to perform integral calculus with interesting deals across borders.  For example, there was one interesting deal involving solar energy for the EU in Greece.  All the heads of state of the EU agreed to this, which is an unusual achievement, and it was a cool project, but it wasn’t implemented because of pure political risk within the Greek electoral situation.

Why do you think Harvard, Stanford and Chicago are now the big three in US higher education?

My second son went to the University of Chicago, and he loved it.  I was very impressed. The Chicago school of Economics has always been world-class, but a new cluster of talents and dynamic researchers has emerged.  In the endowment contest, Chicago is on pace to overtake several of the Ivys.

I recently met someone from Sweden about our age who describes himself as a Viking.  Are you a Viking?

Yes, broadly speaking, through my mother.  I also have significant Neanderthal blood.  I’ve done four or five genetic tests and I have more Neanderthal blood than 90% of the world’s population.  They were hardy survivors.

Tell me about your children.

Four, aged 27 to 16.  Three boys and one girl.  Absolutely great kids.  My wife is half Chinese and half American, so we have further broadened the genetic mix.

We have lived with a tragedy regarding my eldest.  He was brilliant - a scholar, artist and musician.  In his freshman year at Harvard, he was diagnosed with a rare disease.  We have cared for him at home since 2014.  We developed a daily blog since 2013, now updated monthly, on a website called CaringBridge.  The web has certainly helped us to find sub-communities with whom we can share this challenge.

How is [your wife] Sue doing?

Sue went to Harvard undergrad, as you did, and is an architect and designer by training.  She was also an editor at the Harvard Lampoon.  She gets all the credit for our great kids.  She has become the chief medical officer of the family and that’s a full-time job.  She’s a remarkable survivor through it all including losses and severe burdens.

I should say on behalf of my son that he teaches us every day.  He is a superb example of what, in a different context, Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless”.   The human spirit knows how to fight dictatorship in all its forms, whether political, economic or disease.

What does it take to be married a long time?

That’s a secret.

The Danish pre-existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard once said that “love builds upward.”  Love, friendship and marriage compound and grow exponentially, and can withstand stress tests, just as our democratic republic survived a stress test in the last year.

I’m reminded of Montaigne’s essay on friendship and, even further back, of Aristotle’s teaching on friendship.

Any closing thoughts?

Be kind.  Be kind.  Many of us are skilled and ambitious.  Kindness is a rare quality, and the ability to be selfless is still more rare.