Jim Townsend is a decorated, respected, and seasoned political dynamo hailing from the U.S.A. His expertise has graced global universities, the halls of the Center for a New American Security, and even The White House, where he sat as Deputy Assistant Security of Defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration. In 2017, Jim also added podcast host to his long list of accomplishments when he started Brussels Sprouts, a show that details political opinions on NATO, transatlantic relations, and all things Europe. We sat down with him to discuss life inside the Pentagon, his relationship to political reporting, and his newfound love for podcasting.
Jim! Introduce yourself and your podcast to our readers.
I’m Jim Townsend and I’m the co-host of Brussels Sprouts alongside Andrea Kendall-Taylor. Both Andrea and I work at the Center for a New American Security which is a bipartisan think tank in Washington that focuses on defense. I founded the podcast alongside my longtime colleague Julie Smith, however, she’s been succeeded by Andrea who came to us from the CIA.
Where are we getting coffee today?
I would like to get coffee in the Pentagon where I worked for many years. I would bring you in through security and we would walk through the concourse of the Pentagon and head straight to our Starbucks, sit down, shake our heads at the state of the world and drink coffee.
So between acting as an adjunct senior fellow at the center for a New American Security (CNAS), serving as Deputy Assistant Security of Defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration, and hosting the Brussels Sprouts podcast, you’re an incredibly established and busy individual – is being busy your preferred state?
I ask myself that all the time. I do like being busy when I am doing things I enjoy, but I do have a limit. If I overcrowd myself too much I feel unhappy.
On the other hand, if I wasn’t racing around so much I think I would feel paranoid that what I was doing wasn’t substantial enough to bring about change and I would begin to feel insecure and paranoid. I suppose you could say I’m in a perpetual state of being too busy and being unhappy about it!
There tend to be different camps of podcasters, ones who podcast because they love podcasting and others who love a particular topic and wind up making a podcast about it. Which camp do you live in?
That’s a great question. When I worked in the Pentagon I was so buried in that world and limited by its security systems that I never used social media or anything like that. When I left that role in 2017, I felt like Rumpelstiltskin, you know? I came out and was like ‘What is happening?’
I wasn’t familiar with podcasts nor had I any interest in starting my own so when Julie suggested that we start Brussels Sprouts I was apprehensive, but now, I would consider myself a fan of podcasts. I’ve come full circle.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a big talker, but I enjoy the focus of our podcast, and Julie and I had a great rapport. We really filled a niche that previously had been lacking. There weren’t many transatlantic, European, NATO-type podcasts around at the time.
Was that gap in the market the inspiration behind Brussels Sprouts?
Well, that’s a question for Julie Smith, my previous co-host. Before becoming the ambassador for NATO she was my co-host and the brain behind the entire podcast.
When we first started the podcast we intended to do it around a lunch table in a restaurant. We wanted to invite our guests, choose a great lunch menu and just bring along some microphones to the restaurant, order, see what happens, and record. However, now that I’m more familiar with the intricacies of podcasting I’m relieved we never did this. Between recording, securing guests, and navigating a global pandemic, that setup would have been a real nightmare.
Meanwhile, my contribution to the project was deciding on a present to give each of our guests. We gift our interviewees a Brussels Sprouts coffee mug. We had a great graphic designer at CNAS who created a mug with a NATO flag on one side and brussels sprouts on the other. It’s very quirky.
It must feel peculiar to be on the reporting side of politics as opposed to amid its inner workings. Can you describe how it felt to be on the other side of political reporting?
I’m more aware of reporting now than I was when I was working in those spheres. When you work in government and there’s a crisis going on, you’re entirely focused on the complicated issues and inner agencies at hand. You don’t have time to think about what’s going on in the outside world until you’re driving home.
I remember I used to turn on national public radio in my car and hear them discuss a crisis or issue that I had been working on that day. That was always a strange sensation. When you work insularly in those circles you forget the outside world doesn’t know what you do nor do you know what they’re thinking either.
Now that I’m properly on the outside I am experiencing the new challenge of just relying on reporting as my source of news. While I think my experience has given me a sixth sense in terms of noticing certain things or picking up on certain details in the political climate, gauging what’s going on from the outside via reporting is an entirely different experience than being involved on the inside. When I first left the Pentagon, this used to make me feel quite out of the loop.
However, the rise of social media has created its own kind of political experts and this new wave helps me to stay in the know. These guys know really know their stuff, sometimes even better than the experts do. Nowadays days you can go on Twitter, scroll for an hour, and probably know just as much information as those who are working on the inside. This kind of intelligence, pop-intelligence, is brand new and is really going to impact the way we handle things in the future.
Of course, right now, Russia is at war with Ukraine and this immediately concerns and involves NATO. In the past, you’ve used an analogy that described NATO’s role in this dispute as the host of a potluck – Could you expand on that?
Believe it or not, I first used that analogy on the very first podcast episode that Julie and ever did of Brussels Sprouts! I described NATO is two things. Firstly, it’s a potluck dinner in that it is the host, and secondly, it’s an organizer. It both convenes Western nations and pinpoints what tools we collectively need to gather to rise to a particular challenge.
If you’re the host of a potluck, you’re not generating all of the food, but you’re deciding what food your invitees have to bring. NATO decides what each nation needs to contribute based on the threat the West is facing in the same way that the host of a potluck will decide on the dishes of its attendees based on the kind of party they’re having. Each ally is assigned capability goals based on their capacity and wealth. For example, NATO might ask America to bring steak to the dinner whilst it would ask Luxembourg to bring something like potato chips. Then, NATO convenes and all its members bring the food they have been asked to organize.
Next thing you know, you’re at a table with Iceland who has brought bread, America and their steak, Luxembourg’s potato chips, and pretty quickly, you’ve got yourself a very effective, well catered, and I guess violent dinner party.
Right now, your content is primarily focused on the crisis in Ukraine, however, in the past, your podcast has discussed and reported on a myriad of issues – how do you usually decide on topics for the podcast?
Well, we’re a pretty small team. It’s basically just me, Andrea, our great research assistants who double up as assistants, an intern, and our senior research associate, Carissa. That’s really it.
The small size of our team makes it pretty easy to hop on a call, kick around some ideas, and decide on a topic. Sometimes there might be something happening in real-time that we would like to report on, other times there might be a great guest in town that we might want to come on and discuss a particular issue. It varies. When the fighting began in Ukraine we started releasing a singular podcast solely dedicated to that every week. Later, we increased that frequency to every day. This caused our listenership to shoot up.
Releasing an episode every day is time-consuming, but right now it’s necessary. We get told all the time that listeners rely on us as their informant on what’s going on over there and we take their trust extremely seriously.
Your show has also hosted an incredibly decorated and impressive array of guests, from representatives from the European Union to Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers alike. How do you choose your guests?
We primarily utilize the contracts that we’ve met through our own work in government, politics, and think tanks. However, in the beginning, even these people weren’t as willing to come on board as they are now. People weren’t as familiar with podcasts back then and they were curious about what we were trying to do. Also, the name of our podcast is a bit frivolous and not incredibly reflective of the heavy topics we discuss such as nuclear weapons, war, and foreign policy. To me, that didn’t matter because I loved the name. I think it’s funny.
Nowadays, however, it’s much easier to secure the guests we want and the name, well, it’s still funny.
To finish, what is your favorite sound?
I love that you have a final question. I have a usual last question too.
What is your favorite last question?
I ask my guests what the biggest takeaway from their career has been. You see, in fields such as foreign service and defense, there can be a lot of preconceived notions about what your career is going to look like and these differ pretty intensely from reality. Comparing those two things can lead to some really interesting reflections and I love that.
Anyway, my favorite sound… It has to be my kids’ voices. I think, more than anything else, it has to be that.
interview by Alice O’Brien for Bear Radio.