Henry Owen, foreign policy and economics guru, dies at 91

Henry Owen, 91, a onetime State Department official who organized economic summits in the 1970s and helped shape international economic policies, died Nov. 5 at Georgetown University Hospital.

He lived in the District and died after a heart attack, his son Christopher Owen said.

(Family photo/FAMILY PHOTO) - Henry Owen, a deep thinker on global economic issues, co-founded the Trilateral Commission.

All but unknown to the general public, Mr. Owen exerted a quietly powerful influence on global economic thinking, first at the State Department and later at the Brookings Institution and as an ambassador-at-large for President Jimmy Carter.

He merged the fields of diplomacy and international finance to promote development and cooperative efforts around the world. Under Carter, Mr. Owen organized international economic summits in 1978, 1979 and 1980 that took place in the shadow of earlier oil embargoes and growing unrest in the Islamic world. A variety of trade agreements and expansionary economic policies emerged from those meetings.

Mr. Owen joined the State Department at the end of World War II and worked on developing economic policies for Japan. He maintained a lifelong interest in global trade economic cooperation.

Along with banker David Rockefeller and scholar-diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinksi, Mr. Owen was one of the principal founders in 1973 of the Trilateral Commission, an influential group of non-governmental of international leaders promoting cooperation among Europe, North America and Asia.

The commission’s membership amounts to a who’s who of international movers and shakers and has included Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Madeleine K. Albright, Robert S. McNamara and Cyrus Vance.

Mr. Owen sat at the same table but managed to avoid much of the glare such star power usually attracts.

“The less you are written about in the press,” he told the New York Times in 1978, in one of his few interviews, “the less other people see you as a threat, and the more attention they pay to your ideas on their merits.”

Henry David Oyen was born Aug. 26, 1920, in Queens, N.Y. His Norwegian-born father was a popular author of western ad­ven­ture stories. The young Mr. Owen changed the spelling of his last name in the late 1930s.

He studied for several years at a French-language school in Switzerland and graduated with honors from Harvard in 1941. In the Navy during World War II, he helped a chaplain write letters of condolence to the families of servicemen killed in battle.

“He said it was one of the hardest things he ever had to do,” his son Francis Owen said.

Mr. Owen spent 16 years with the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, which the department describes as an “internal think tank” to look at long-range options in foreign policy.

At the Brookings Institution from 1969 to 1977, Mr. Owen expanded the foreign policy studies program. During those years, he contributed columns on international economics to The Washington Post.

After serving in the Carter administration, Mr. Owen became chairman of the Bretton Woods Committee, an organization that seeks to build grass-roots support of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization.

“In country after country, the World Bank has made a difference,” he told the News-India Times in 1994. “To take but one example, its aid has been a major factor in making India agriculturally self-sufficient . . . . It has transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people on the Indian subcontinent.”

In recent years, Mr. Owen devoted much of his time to Capital Partners for Education, a group he helped found in 1993 to provide mentoring and educational opportunities to low-income students in the Washington area.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Hertha Stockreiter Owen of Washington; two sons, Francis Owen of Blue Hill, Maine, and Christopher Owen of Wilmette, Ill.; and five grandchildren.