The American republic doesn't have a formal aristocracy, but New York certainly does. And Maurice Sonnenberg of Bear Stearns & Company and Greenberg Traurig LLP 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 policy-making - 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. 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 John Breaux, a former Democratic senator 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 counterterrorism authorities, diplomat, legal maven, authority on international finance, official American observer at elections in Latin America, co-chairman of the National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs for the Intelligence Community, member of the Commission on Reducing and Protecting Government Secrecy, Senior Adviser to the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the Intelligence Community, and Vice Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism. He's also served as a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory 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, it will. 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 not be viewed as threatening to the American economy.
"Look at it this way - how many jobs are we supposedly losing to countries like India 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 manufacturing 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 invested in more than 30 factories in the Carolinas in the past decades. Why would I consider that a threat?" Did they panic about 'outsourcing' from Germany?"
Mr. Sonnenberg holds steadfast to the notion that greater trade between nations engenders better relations. That notion was first espoused by the English economist David Ricardo, whose works he read as an undergraduate at Georgetown University. 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 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."
He has been conversant with the issues since his days as a young aide to Senator 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.
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. What was it about national security that concerns him now?
"The thing that concerns me most is a terrorist attack of great lethality," Mr. Sonnenberg said. "I consider that the paramount subject for policy-makers around the world, and certainly in America."
While he's gratified that 20 of the 25 proposals made in 2000 by the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism - where he served as vice chairman under chairman L. Paul Bremmer III - have been incorporated into the U.S.A. Patriot Act, Mr. Sonnenberg worries that America's enemies, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, "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. Furthermore, 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. Another problem with certain parts of Europe is that they're insecure and struggling with labor reform and low economic growth. Look at the low rates of growth and high unemployment in Germany and France, for example. It's 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 Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan and, yes, maybe even George W. Bush. The ultimate test of good leadership is to make wise decisions 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 one of the best systems of governance in the world, and the fairest. It's not a bad model for an economically interdependent world."