Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Role of Higher Education in Transforming Nuclear Weapons Policy

“The one thing we know about policy windows is that, as sure as they open, they close. If you think change is permanent, you don’t understand change…If we miss this moment, we fail.” -- Joseph Cirincione, President, The Ploughshares Fund
Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione gave a rousing and incisive presentation to an audience of fifty at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs last night on the topic of “Barack Obama’s New Nuclear Policy.”

Highlighting the importance of what the New York Times editorial page had earlier in the day called a “Watershed Moment on Nuclear Arms,” Mr. Cirincione described the extraordinary political momentum in the United States and internationally, the activity of new and important validators (including George Shultz, Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger, and Bill Perry) of moving toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, the agenda and team that the Obama Administration has put in place to lead a transformation of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, and the challenges this transformation will face in the window of a year or two in which the conditions remain right to make it happen. On nuclear weapons policy, he observed, “this Administration is going to be characterized as a struggle between the transformationalists and the incrementalists.”

Mr. Cirincione offered specific thoughts about the role that universities can and should play in the debate over the future of nuclear weapons policy, nonproliferation, and disarmament. First, he observed the extraordinary contribution of Stanford University, where faculty members George Shultz and Bill Perry have convened an ongoing discussion among scholars and practitioners about “Steps Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons” under the heading of “Reykjavik Revisited,” recalling the summit meeting between then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986. Mr. Cirincione pointed out that “this whole movement was hatched at a university.”

Universities “change the paradigm; you change the way people are thinking about this,” argued Mr. Cirincione, who also encouraged universities to support scholars with breakthrough ideas and to do serious research in the area of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. He emphasized that universities should provide fora for public debate on nuclear weapons policy, including opposing viewpoints, and also provide venues for U.S. Government officials to connect with the public.

Finally, Mr. Cirincione included students specifically in his call to “get involved” and make political leaders care about nuclear weapons policy. He encouraged students to use the newer media – including blogs, Facebook, and twitter – to tell others what they’re thinking and “demand that your professors organize more meetings….join Global Zero…there are a hundred things that you can do about this.”

In closing, Mr. Cirincione reflected on the late President John F. Kennedy’s observation upon banning explosive testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere: “if I’d known it was so popular, I would have done it a long time ago.”


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