Home The Washington Diplomat July 2009 Fund President Battles CynicismTo Rid World of Nuclear Weapons

Fund President Battles CynicismTo Rid World of Nuclear Weapons


Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, is convinced that he and his fellow advocates for a world without nuclear weapons are approaching a modern-day Battle of Agincourt.

Like the outmanned English troops that confronted and ultimately beat a formidable French army on St. Crispin’s Day in 1415 during the Hundred Years’ War, the anti-nuclear weapons movement faces formidable, even daunting, odds.

But Cirincione believes the vision of a nuke-free world is no longer seen as a fanciful, peace-loving dream, but a tangible, reasonable policy goal. And he believes the movement has the right historical vision, key support from respected members of the American and global foreign policy establishment, and a charismatic new leader, President Barack Obama, who supports their cause.

“There is a confluence of historical currents that are creating a powerful movement — and moment — for change,” he said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat.

“There’s a new generation of global leaders who are less tied to the nuclear policies of the past and are more open to strategies for the future. There’s a recognition of the failure of past nuclear policies. Perhaps more importantly, there is a growing movement of civil society from all political persuasions that is providing leadership for a vision of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The nuclear weapons debate, Cirincione argues, is reaching a critical juncture, with important decisions to be made this year by Obama, Congress and leaders in other nations such as Russia on major nuclear initiatives — namely a successor pact to the U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and American ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, as well as the U.N. Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2010.

“These kinds of policy opportunities don’t come along often and they don’t last long. The window is now open, but it will soon close. I think we can fundamentally change U.S. nuclear policy and in doing so, change the world. But it won’t be easy,” Cirincione said. “The next 12 months are absolutely crucial. This is why at Ploughshares we are throwing everything we have into this battle. This is the time for the Henry V speech. This is the time to throw everything into the breach. Whatever you’ve got, come with it.”

And the Ploughshares Fund has been throwing its weight behind efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons for more than 25 years now. Created in 1981 by San Francisco philanthropist and activist Sally Lilienthal, the Ploughshares Fund is the largest grant-making foundation in the United States dedicated exclusively to security and peace funding. It supports people and institutions with the best ideas for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and building stability in regions where nuclear weapons pose a threat to peace.

For example, an early grant by Ploughshares enabled scientists at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Soviet Academy of Sciences to demonstrate that a nuclear test ban could be verified, removing an important hurdle to a test ban treaty. The fund was also one of the first and most dependable supporters of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Cirincione joined the Ploughshares Fund as president in March 2008. A native of Connecticut, Cirincione studied as an undergraduate at Boston College and then took a job as a community organizer working at low-income housing projects.

Deciding to shift his focus to international affairs, he attended graduate school at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. After completing his graduate studies, he worked for nine years on the staff of the House Armed Services and the House Government Operations committees, specializing in national security and nuclear policy issues.

“This is where I learned everything I know about nuclear weapons,” Cirincione said.

He later worked on nuclear and security issues for three prestigious Washington think tanks: the Henry L. Stimson Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Center for American Progress.

Over the years, Cirincione has published extensively on nuclear issues. He is the author of “Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons” in 2007 and was the lead editor of the 2002 and 2005 editions of the standard reference on weapons of mass destruction, “Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats.”

Since joining the Ploughshares Fund, Cirincione has sought to intensify the group’s commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons through an aggressive strategy that combines high-level advocacy, expanded and strategic grant making, and its own policy expertise.

“We’re uniquely positioned to have a real policy impact on what I see as one of the most crucial questions of our generation. We have a new, more focused strategy that is dedicated to making fundamental changes in U.S. nuclear policy in the next two years,” he said.

And the time for those changes may be right. Growing support in the United States and across the world to sharply reduce, and then ultimately eliminate, nuclear weapons is driven by several forces, according to Cirincione.

“First, the nuclear problem is getting worse. The nuclear threat is increasing. Things are getting worse,” he argues, noting that although total nuclear weapons in the world are down sharply from their Cold War peak of about 65,000 to 23,000, several nations with these weapons are unstable and volatile, such as Pakistan and North Korea. Additionally, nuclear materials continue to be stored in less than secure places in various countries, including Russia. And a number of nations are moving ahead with civilian nuclear programs, which can be transformed into the capability to make weapons.

Second, Cirincione believes the Bush administration’s approach focusing on regime change rather than on nuclear security has been proven to be a failure, so there is broad agreement that a new strategy is necessary.

“You can’t just play nuclear whack-a-mole and knock these guys off one at a time,” Cirincione lamented. “The Bush administration tried that and it made things worse, not better. The threat increased over the last eight years, not decreased.”

Third, Cirincione points out that respected members of the American security establishment have publicly and aggressively embraced the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. He largely credits this shift to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in January 2007 — by former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn — that captured the attention of world leaders when it supported the eradication of nuclear weapons.

“That was the moment where the elimination of nuclear weapons went from a rallying cry at demonstrations to the consensus view of the American security elite. That’s when it moved from the left to the center. That op-ed is when the debate tipped,” Cirincione said. “When you have rock-solid realists like Henry Kissinger say we have to eliminate nuclear weapons, you know the center has shifted. It’s just taking a while for the general body politic to catch up with the shift. There are now dozens of card-carrying Cold War warriors who believe that the nuclear empire they helped build is now obsolete and has to come down.”

Since that op-ed, in fact, more than 70 percent of the living former U.S. secretaries of state, defense secretaries and national security advisers have endorsed the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Cirincione said the arrival of new leaders in France, Germany, Russia and Japan has also been critical. Most important, he said, is Obama’s clear and specific embrace of a world without nuclear weapons. This policy was articulated during his 2008 presidential campaign and proclaimed during his widely noticed April 5 speech in Prague in which he declared: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The president added: “I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’”

Cirincione describes Obama’s plan for a nuclear weapon-free world as a monumental change for the international system. “Barack Obama fervently believes in the need for transformational politics and decided to make the issue of nonproliferation as perhaps his top foreign policy priority,” he said. “What is different about Obama is that he marries this beautifully articulated vision with a series of practical steps that the government can carry out that are completely realistic.”

Cirincione said that Ploughshares supports a nuclear strategy that echoes the plan Obama presented. It backs a series of tangible steps to confront pressing nuclear challenges, paving the way to a world without nuclear weapons.

“We have a very detailed, strategic plan for how we get from here to there and it begins by realizing some very near-term objectives whose victory could unleash the broader security agenda,” Cirincione explained, outlining his agenda. “By this time next year, we believe we can help secure one arms reduction treaty with Russia, set the direction for another treaty that cuts down to 1,000 the total nuclear weapons on each side, get the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test-Ban Treaty, and see a Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that strengthens barriers to the emergence of new nuclear states. The challenge will be to extend these victories into a real commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons and to bring the other nuclear states into the reduction momentum. That we will do in year two.”

Cirincione said the United States can start by making it clear that it views the only purpose of nuclear weapons as a deterrent from nuclear attack — an important definition that should be included in the nation’s nuclear posture review that will be published by the end of this year.

Then, there is the critical need for the United States and Russia to slash their nuclear arsenals, which still constitute about 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Cirincione believes a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) can be reached by the end of 2009 — when START-1 expires — that would commit Russia and America to eventually cut their nuclear arsenals down to about 1,000 weapons each.

In addition, Cirincione says it’s necessary to get the U.S. Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) by May of 2010, banning all nuclear explosions in any environment, whether for military or civilian purposes. If the United States ratifies the CTBT, Cirincione believes India, China, Pakistan, Israel and other holdovers will feel challenged to ratify it as well.

And for those countries that haven’t at least officially crossed the nuclear weapons threshold, Cirincione says it will be crucial to contain, and then roll back, the nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. If this isn’t achieved, regional arms races would ensue and “a new wave of proliferation would kill the effort at arms reduction and disarmament,” he warned.

Finally, there is a need to ease regional tensions, such as in the Middle East, and build trust on security matters to help prepare the foundation for an eventual world without nuclear weapons — which may take 10 to 20 years to achieve.

“This is a realistic, realizable set of policy objectives,” Cirincione insisted. “Getting down to hundreds of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals would make us safer. Increasing the barriers to prevent new countries from getting nuclear weapons would make us safer. Securing, and eliminating where possible, all the loose nukes in the world makes us safer.

“There is broad agreement, across political and ideological lines, that the U.S. and Russia could get down to the low hundreds in their arsenals. Let’s go there. And while we are going there, let’s talk about zero. Is it feasible? Can you verify it? Would it really be safer? What we are talking about is transforming international security policy. It is going to take a lot of work and lot of debate. It takes a while to change people’s vision and to get people to realize that what is doesn’t have to be always.”

And to convince skeptics, Cirincione believes there is an important role for Ploughshares and other civil society groups to shape the nuclear debate, offer analysis, and build public support for their vision.

“Governments can’t do this by themselves. They need the active involvement of independent experts, philanthropists and the push from a healthy segment of the population,” he said. “There are so many other problems and this issue is so difficult. It’s almost inevitable that politicians, confronted with the frustration of trying to implement this agenda, will be tempted to abandon it and give in to fatalism — which is what Barack Obama calls our deadly adversary.”

Cirincione acknowledges there will be many adversaries ahead. The weak global economy could distract policymakers and anger the public. Hard-line supporters of nuclear weapons as a deterrent are unlikely to easily accept a world that is so different than their vision. Divisions within the Obama administration between what Cirincione calls the “transformationalists” and the “incrementalists” have already arisen. And finally, there is a pervasive skepticism, even cynicism, from the media and others about the practicality of fighting to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.

But Cirincione notes that global leaders in recent decades have effectively eliminated biological and chemical arsenals, so it is not far fetched to envision a similar agreement on nuclear policy.

“There is a surprising consensus on this. People might differ on how long it might take, or the sequence of certain steps, or if can we really get to zero. But almost everyone agrees this has to be the goal and we got to at least try,” Cirincione said. “As we start walking down the road, more and more people are going to realize that the only true security for nuclear weapons is when we eliminate them completely.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.