Hide table of contents


As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the fate of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs presented a new type of catastrophic risk: what would happen to all the nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and materials, and the scientists who worked on them? The nuclear weapons were distributed across what were about to become four separate countries (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine). Plus, the thousands of experts in those weapons, many of whom went unpaid for months at a time as the Soviet economy collapsed, could be easily tempted to sell information to, or even work directly for, states who were then seeking to build out WMD programs such as Iran and North Korea.

But, by the end of the decade, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine had agreed to dismantle or return all their nuclear weapons to Russia[1] and joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state.[2] And across all four countries, thousands of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons had been destroyed or deactivated by 2013.[3] All this was achieved via the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), about which a lot has already been documented and written. I’ll aim to summarize its key events here, but the main purpose of this article is to look at some of the key people who have worked on CTR, particularly on the policy side: what are some of the individuals' qualities, behaviors, and approaches that helped to make CTR a success?

I’ve identified three high-level groups of factors; the lines between these groups are  blurry and there’s inevitable overlap between them, but overall it seemed useful to cluster the factors around bigger themes.

The first group of factors is interpersonal skills: this includes building trust and relationships; bringing people together across disciplines and countries; mentoring and getting the most out of others; and communicating effectively.

The second group is strategy and leadership: this includes establishing a vision and energizing others to work on it; big-picture, long-run thinking; an entrepreneurial approach to foundation/NGO work; and modeling good epistemics and norms.

The third group is personal qualities and values: this includes mission orientation; boldness and risk-taking; and a willingness to put oneself forward and embrace responsibility, even in daunting or uncertain circumstances.

Methodology and research notes

Most of my work on this post was desk research; I also conducted a few interviews with experts on CTR which were mostly background / off the record, and mostly not with people who’d worked directly on CTR. This piece is far from exhaustive; its goal is just to infer some of the qualities and behaviors that might have made some CTR contributors successful, not to provide a comprehensive history or analysis of CTR, nor to give a comprehensive list of all of the most important contributors to CTR.

Sources are all linked or in the footnotes; some that I drew on the most were:

A lot of easily-available CTR content is mostly technical or implementation-focused (e.g. the NSA’s Nunn-Lugar resources) rather than people-focused. This makes sense; I only note this because people were more the focus of my investigation, so that informed the type of sources I was looking for. The people referenced in this piece are almost all American; Kutchesfahani highlights four Russians in particular who played important roles in the 1991 passing of the Nunn-Lugar act,[4] but I didn’t find any interviews or sources about their personal experiences of involvement.

I focused less on Nunn, Lugar, and Ash Carter, who are three of the people most often credited for getting CTR started—I thought it would be useful to learn more about people who were either more junior or less often celebrated, e.g. David Hamburg, Laura Holgate, and Jane Wales. There are also some Carnegie oral history interviews with John Steinbruner and William Perry, but I didn’t have time to look into these. Of the foundations involved, I’ve focused mostly on Carnegie as they seem to have played the biggest role and have a lot of resources easily available. The MacArthur Foundation and W. Alton Jones Foundation (now dissolved) both made CTR-relevant grants, but I also ran out of time to look into these in depth.

What is the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program?

The CTR today sits under the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and “works cooperatively with partner governments to reduce the threat to the U.S. and its allies from WMD and related materials, technologies, and expertise, including associated delivery systems and infrastructure.”[5] Its current work spans biorisk, nonproliferation and elimination of WMD, and nuclear and chemical security.

1991: the Nunn-Lugar Act

The program began officially in December 1991 when George H. Bush signed the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act (aka the Nunn-Lugar Act), funding CTR’s remit “to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states.”[6] The events that led up to Nunn-Lugar’s passing were fairly dramatic, and it could potentially not have happened—at least, not at the same moment or with the same level of funding.

In August 1991, there was an attempted coup against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev; the coup leaders were effectively in power for three days, holding Gorbachev under house arrest. While the coup was thwarted and Gorbachev restored to power, this event underscored the precariousness of the Soviet status quo and made clear to many observers outside the USSR that its collapse was potentially imminent. Sam Nunn, U.S. senator for Georgia and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was one of those observers. An expert on the USSR, Nunn happened to be in Moscow at the time of the coup:

on a crowded street in Moscow in August 1991, all of Nunn’s experience, knowledge and fears about nuclear danger came together once again. Who would protect thousands of small atomic bombs spread all over the Soviet Union? What if the Soviet Union plunged into chaos and civil conflict? Who was responsible for command and control? What if the Russian military were as demoralized as the American soldiers had been after Vietnam? As he flew home, Nunn said, “I was convinced of two things. One, that there would be no more Soviet empire. And two, that they and we had a huge, huge security problem.”[7]

On his return, Nunn worked with the chair of the House Armed Services Committee and fellow Democrat, Les Aspin, to try to secure U.S. funding both to help address the Soviet nuclear risk and to provide humanitarian aid. But they encountered a “firestorm” of opposition and had to withdraw the legislation:

The Nunn-Aspin bill came at just the wrong moment. Polls showed Americans were opposed to sending direct aid to the Soviet Union. Aspin recalled, “You could feel the wind shift.” … The politicians in Washington seemed oblivious to the dangers. Some senators told Nunn they could not explain in one-minute sound bites why they should support his legislation, so they would not vote for it.[8]

Changing tack, Nunn partnered with Indiana senator Dick Lugar: a Republican, a friend of Nunn’s, and an international relations expert. Nunn and Lugar were already engaged in the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Prevention of Proliferation Committee (POP), a group of experts from academia, policy, and politics who “met regularly to talk about what the United States could do in the world to minimize proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”[9] Following the coup against Gorbachev, several of the POP members contributed to a report identifying the precise locations of Soviet nuclear weapons and materials, Soviet Nuclear Fission: Control of the Nuclear Arsenal in a Disintegrating Soviet Union.[10]

On the morning of November 21, 1991, Nunn and Lugar gathered a group of senators for a breakfast presentation in which Ash Carter, one of the report authors, presented the group’s findings and tried to persuade the senators of the urgency of the situation. This meeting was apparently a pivotal moment; within a few weeks, the senate approved the rebranded Nunn-Lugar Act by a vote of 86–8. It was signed by president George H. Bush on December 12, 1991, and committed $400 million of U.S. government funding to reducing the danger of Soviet nuclear weapons and infrastructure.[11]


The CTR has been an ongoing program from 1991 to the present day. I haven’t researched all the CTR work done in that time, but I’ll highlight some notable achievements and developments.

Implementation began immediately after the passing of Nunn-Lugar, with the initial focus solely on nuclear weapons, materials, and human capital (Soviet weapons scientists). It expanded to include biological and chemical weapons as well as WMD raw materials, including 1994’s Project Sapphire where 600 kg of highly-enriched uranium was safely transported from Kazakhstan to the U.S.[12]

Gloria Duffy, who played a leading role in the initial implementation of the CTR as deputy assistant secretary of defense, Special Coordinator for Cooperative Threat Reduction, in the Clinton administration,[13] summarized some of CTR’s main achievements in a 2018 speech:

Over time, we were able to eliminate 2,650 Soviet missiles and bombers capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the US, to see over 11,000 Soviet nuclear warheads dismantled, to better secure the warheads that were allowed to remain in Russia under a previous arms control agreement, to destroy two million chemical artillery rounds in Russia with 5,400 metric tons of lethal chemicals, to eliminate an anthrax biological weapons facility in Russia, and to better protect Russia's remaining nuclear material against terrorists.[14]

In 1998, the CTR became part of the DoD’s DTRA, and in 2001 Sam Nunn co-founded the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which continued CTR-related work outside and alongside the official government program. CTR today works with dozens of countries across Africa and Asia. While continuing its work on reducing the threat from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, it has further expanded to infectious disease control, including Ebola[15] and COVID-19.[16]

Pre-1991: policy origins of CTR

While there was a fairly quick chain of events in 1991 that led to the passing of Nunn-Lugar, several of the key players had been involved in a longer-term build-up of academic and policy work that laid the groundwork for what was to become CTR. According to two people closely involved with events, the “Nunn-Lugar idea came from academics” and “non-governmental thinking under-girded the thought process of CTR.”[17]

Two central figures in this effort were David Hamburg and Jane Wales, who worked together at the Carnegie Corporation of New York under Hamburg’s presidency starting in 1982. Hamburg was an eminent professor of psychiatry who moved into policy in 1975, becoming president of the National Academy of Sciences. In that role, he was one of the organizers of the 1978 Pugwash conference on crisis management and prevention involving US and Soviet scientists, which Hamburg recalled as his first direct involvement in nuclear risk reduction.[18] 

Shortly after becoming Carnegie president, Hamburg brought in Wales, an expert in arms control who had previously served in the Carter administration. Together, they started the Avoiding Nuclear War program at Carnegie which was a brand new policy area for the foundation. From 1982 to 1991, Hamburg and Wales brought together experts from academia, think tanks, and politics, from both the US and the USSR, in a succession of interdisciplinary and international working groups and committees as well as making grants to many related research projects.

This network eventually linked many of the main players in developing CTR as a policy concept and getting the Nunn-Lugar Act passed, including Nunn and Lugar themselves, Ash Carter, William Perry, John Steinbruner, several Soviet scientists and politicians including Evgeny Velikhov and Andrei Kokoshin, and a collaborative partnership between the Carnegie and MacArthur Foundations. By 1991, the network’s endeavors over the previous nine years contributed to its members having the policy, networks, and resources to act quickly to address the imminent “loose nukes” threat.

I haven’t found precise documentation of the chronology of the various groups and committees, but the following comes from David Hamburg’s oral history interviews with Carnegie in the mid-late 90s. The 1978 Pugwash conference on crisis prevention that Hamburg helped to organize brought together “a small group of U.S. scholars and Soviet scholars and West European scholars.” Then, “after the '78 conference there gradually evolved -- rather quickly evolved -- a pattern of interaction between some of us [US scholars] and some of them [Soviet scholars] about how to learn more of what to do in preventive terms with respect to crises.”[19] 

Next, Hamburg recounted:

we had these interdisciplinary groups working at a number of universities and research institutes, and then pretty quickly moved to get some joint study groups between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, mainly through their Academy of Sciences, the only chance we had to have some stature of independence beyond the political control of the dictatorship … We got working groups starting with arms control and crisis prevention.[20] 

Elsewhere in the Carnegie oral history interviews, Hamburg dates the crisis prevention group starting soon after he became Carnegie president in 1982:

It was twice a year formally meeting, once here and once there, and a lot of flow back and forth of younger scholars in between to prepare for the meetings and exchange materials. It got to be a broader discourse of not only crisis prevention, but ways to wind down the Cold War. That's what evolved from it. I think it was a significant part of the mechanism, with feedback to Gorbachev years down the road.[21]

Hamburg also described work over the course of the 1980s cultivating “linkage with policy-makers:”

getting independent experts together with policy-makers in our own country, in both houses and both parties in the Congress and with the administration -- Reagan, Bush, on up -- and then after Gorbachev came to power [in 1985], with policy-makers in the Soviet Union.[22]

Scott Kohler notes a joint U.S. group starting in the mid-80s funded by three foundations including Carnegie (this may be the same group as one of the above?):

Soon after Gorbachev became the Soviet president, the Carnegie Corporation of New York joined with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, as Jane Wales, then a Carnegie program officer, recounts, “in supporting a group of U.S. and Soviet scientists that served as a brain trust to the Soviet president developing options for nuclear arms control and disarmament.” This partnership marked the first time nuclear scientists from the two nations had had any sort of sanctioned collaboration.[23]

Finally, Hamburg was also part of a steering committee on “Prevention of Proliferation:”

The steering committee consisted of me and William Perry, who was then a professor at Stanford, later to be Secretary of Defense, and John Steinbruner from the Brookings Institution, who headed their international program, a very respected scholar, and Senator Nunn and Senator Lugar, the five of us. We met regularly to talk about what the United States could do in the world to minimize proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.[24]


CTR participants at a 2016 event commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. L-R: Gloria Duffy, Jane Wales, Laura Holgate, Susan Koch, Ash Carter, Sam Nunn, Dick Lugar. Public domain photo by Adrian Cadiz.

This is a non-exhaustive list of some of the people involved in the origins and implementation of CTR from 1978 to the present day.

Les Aspin

(1938–1995) Democratic Chair of the House Armed Services Committee in 1991. Partnered with Sam Nunn to put forward the initial, unsuccessful Nunn-Aspin legislation that preceded the Nunn-Lugar Act.[25] Later Secretary of Defense for Bill Clinton’s first year in office.

Matthew Bunn

(born 1961) Staff member at the White House Office of Science and Technology during the 1990s. Worked on CTR efforts to secure nuclear materials in the former USSR.[26] Currently a nuclear energy and policy analyst at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Ash Carter

(1954–2022) Originally a physics professor who switched to international security policy, Carter co-authored the 1991 study, Soviet Nuclear Fission, building the case for a US policy of cooperative threat reduction.[27] Later held numerous roles in government including Secretary of Defense from 2015 to 2017.

Gloria Duffy

(born 1953) Played a leading role in early CTR implementation as deputy assistant secretary of defense, Special Coordinator for Cooperative Threat Reduction in the Clinton administration. According to Ash Carter, “without the effort of Gloria Duffy … those nuclear weapons would not have been removed from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.”[28] Received the Nunn-Lugar Trailblazer Award in 2016.[29]

David Hamburg

(1925–2019) President of the National Academy of Sciences from 1975 to 1982 and the Carnegie Corporation of New York from 1982 to 1997. Connected and funded many of the key people involved in the policy origins of CTR and the passing of the Nunn-Lugar Act in 1991.

Anne M. Harrington

“From 1990-2005, Ms. Harrington served at the U.S. Department of State as an expert on nonproliferation and cooperative threat reduction and was responsible for developing policy and implementing programs aimed at preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missile expertise in Russia and Eurasia.”[30]

John Holdren

(born 1944) Science advisor to the Clinton administration, 1994–2001. Helped revise US policy on protecting Russian nuclear materials and managing the US’s own weapons-grade plutonium.[31]

Laura Holgate

(born 1965) Part of the research team behind 1991 study Soviet Nuclear Fission. Joined the Department of Defense working on CTR implementation in 1993 and has served in all Democratic administrations since. Founding employee of nonprofit The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) in 2001. Currently US Ambassador to the UN International Organizations in Vienna.[32] Received the Nunn-Lugar Trailblazer Award in 2016.[33]

Susan Koch

(born 1943) “From 1982 until 2007, Dr. Koch held a series of senior positions in the White House National Security Council Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of State and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, focused on nonproliferation and arms reduction policy.”[34] Received the Nunn-Lugar Trailblazer Award in 2016.[35]

Andrei Kokoshin

(born 1946) First chair of joint US-USSR committee on contributions of behavioral social sciences in avoiding nuclear war that arose from the 1978 Pugwash conference in Geneva.[36] One of four senior Soviet representatives who helped persuade US senators to vote for CTR in fall 1991 visits to the US.[37] 

Dick Lugar

(1932–2019) Republican senator for Indiana, 1977–2013. Partnered with Sam Nunn to help pass the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Act, which first established CTR as US policy. Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations 1985-1987 and 2003-2007. Founded nonprofit The Lugar Center.

Sam Nunn

(born 1938) Democratic senator for Georgia, 1972–1997. Partnered with Dick Lugar to help pass the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Act, which first established CTR as US policy. Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 1987–1985. Co-founded nonprofit the Nuclear Threat Initiative in 2001 and is one of its current co-chairs.[38]

William Perry

(born 1927) Co-director of the Stanford Preventive Defense Project, which was part of a collaborative "Cooperative Security" project in the run-up to the passing of the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Act, working with Ash Carter at Harvard and John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institute, and funded by Carnegie.[39] Served in Carter and Clinton administrations, including as Secretary of Defense, 1994–1997.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall

(born 1959) Played a key role in denuclearization of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia in the Clinton administration. Currently United States Homeland Security Advisor. Received the Nunn-Lugar Trailblazer Award in 2016.[40]

John Steinbruner

(1941–2015) Helped to develop the concept of cooperative security as Director of the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution from 1978–1996.[41] Led a Brookings research team as part of a collaborative "Cooperative Security" project in the run-up to the passing of the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Act, working with Ash Carter at Harvard and William Perry at Stanford, and funded by Carnegie.[42]

Evgeny Velikhov

(born 1935) Russian nuclear physicist and member of collaborative US-USSR arms control group along with David Hamburg starting in 1980; introduced Hamburg to Gorbachev.[43] Currently president of the Kurchatov Institute.

Jane Wales

(born 1948) Served in the Carter administration[44] before joining the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1982, where she was program officer for the new “Avoiding Nuclear War” program. Worked closely with David Hamburg to connect and fund many of the key people involved in the policy origins of CTR and the passing of the Nunn-Lugar Act in 1991. Later served in the Clinton administration and is currently a VP of the Aspen Institute. Received the Nunn-Lugar Trailblazer Award in 2016.[45]

Andy Weber 

(born 1960) “Mr. Weber served for 13 years as an Adviser for Threat Reduction Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He played a key role in Nunn-Lugar operations to remove weapons grade uranium from Kazakhstan and Georgia, and nuclear capable MiG-29 aircraft from Moldova. Mr. Weber also developed and oversaw the Department of Defense Biological Threat Reduction Program.”[46] Served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs, 2009–2014.

Brief analysis

You could write a whole separate long article (or book) evaluating the impact of CTR over the last 30+ years—I won’t attempt that here for space and time reasons. The main focus of this piece is considering the qualities of some of the individuals who helped to make CTR a success, for which it’s enough to start from the widely-accepted premise that CTR has been impactful. With that caveat aside, the following is a non-exhaustive summary of points around CTR’s impact and limitations, and some of the factors behind its origin.


As Andy Weber puts it, “you don’t get credit for the catastrophe that didn’t happen, but [CTR] is an extraordinary story.”[47] The collapse of the USSR happened relatively quickly and unexpectedly; David Hamburg recalled an episode after a 1988 meeting with Gorbachev:

Senator Nunn and I chatted with [Gorbachev] together at the end of the process. I said to him something to the effect, "If you keep on the path you're now on, the Cold War could be over by the turn of the century." … When I was walking out, I said to Sam Nunn, "Do you think I got carried away by the occasion?" And he said, "No, you're exactly in the right direction, even though you might have been a little optimistic in your time scale." And of course, that's what we all thought -- maybe if he could stay in office long enough, maybe by some time early in the [21st] century, it could be over.[48]

That Hamburg and Nunn, two contemporary experts, shared these expectations suggests that the U.S. could easily have not been ready to take the kind of action that it did at the end of 1991. The actual level of readiness that enabled CTR was at least in part due to the preparatory work and relationship-building conducted by Hamburg, Nunn, and their network.

Also, passing Nunn-Lugar was one thing, implementing CTR another. A counterfactual reference point here is the 1992 Trilateral Agreement between the US, UK, and Russia which “reaffirmed the three states’ commitment to full compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention” and noted that Russia had ceased biological weapon research and production. Dr. David Kelly, a British participant in the Trilateral-related inspections, wrote that the agreement “failed dramatically.”[49] While Russia signed it, they refused to uphold their commitments and continued a bioweapons program that may still be active today.[50]

To give a contrasting sense of some of CTR’s implementation successes since 1991, here’s Laura Holgate’s sample list of counterfactuals in a world without CTR:

What if we’d had to contend with four post-Soviet nuclear successors instead of just one? What if the trains shipping warheads back to Russia had been hijacked, like in the famous Peacemaker movie? What if Iran had purchased the plutonium-laden spent fuel from the BN-350 reactor in Kazakhstan? What if Libya had held on to their centrifuges? What if criminals had stolen biological strains from a veterinary clinic in Georgia? What if there were still 50 kg of HEU in Kharkiv, Ukraine today [2017]? What if we had failed to intervene in West Africa with combined military and development contributions to halt the spread of Ebola? What if terrorists had stolen HEU from the research facility they appear to have targeted in Belgium? What if there were still 1300 tons of chemical weapons in Syria?[51]

It’s plausible that CTR might not have happened at all if some of the individuals or organizations involved had made different choices, or that it might have happened later or on a smaller scale—either of which could have increased the risk of more WMD knowledge and material leaking out of the former USSR, and of potential nuclear escalations.


A critique of CTR in recent years has been that, in helping bring about a situation where Ukraine had no nuclear weapons, CTR left it vulnerable to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and invasion in 2022. In 2023, Bill Clinton said of Ukraine:

I feel a personal stake because I got them to agree to give up their nuclear weapons … They were afraid to give them up because they thought that's the only thing that protected them from an expansionist Russia … I feel terrible about it.[52]

However, Mariana Buderyn of the Belfer Center, has said:

I would say after having researched this topic for nearly a decade, Ukraine did the right thing at the time. It did the right thing by itself and also by the international community. It reduced the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world. That makes everyone safer.[53] 

The counterfactual seems pretty uncertain here; if Ukraine had retained its nuclear weapons, perhaps Russia might not have acted as aggressively as it has in recent years, but perhaps also conflict with Russia might have escalated sooner with the heightened tension of another nuclear weapon state on its western borders. Recently declassified documents also suggest that, while Ukraine was under U.S. and international pressure to acquiesce, they also had some intrinsic motivations to do so:

Ukraine lacked the resources to maintain the nearly 1,700 Soviet nuclear weapons on its soil, many of them on intercontinental ballistic missiles that were nearing the end of their service lives. … [Ukrainian president] Kravchuk and almost all Ukrainian politicians were eager to dispose of the weapons, fearing that their nuclear cores might melt down in a manner reminiscent of the Chernobyl power-plant disaster.[54]

Early criticisms of CTR centered included “implementation delays, which have been commonly caused by funding problems, procedural disagreements, lacking coordination between U.S. agencies, or difficulty in negotiating appropriate access.” Some viewed its development and expansion as “mission creep,” with one critic describing CTR as a “program that began as a response to [the U.S.'s] most urgent national security challenge has simply become another Pentagon bureaucracy and foreign aid boondoggle."[55]

Another concern has been the challenge of measuring its impact: “as the programme expanded and developed a life of its own…it became increasingly complex, and...few objective standards of success could be applied to it.[56] More recently, Laura Holgate has argued for a need to move beyond the concept of CTR to a mindset of “cooperative risk management” that better reflects the realities of the 21st century:

I really am trying to move the way we think and talk about material security from a threat reduction model to a risk management model … [There are] nine countries [with nuclear weapons] and they're going to have nuclear materials for the foreseeable future … It's not about threat reduction, it's about risk management, and a number of other countries have ongoing civilian uses of highly enriched uranium … so we really need to stop thinking exclusively about the notion that threat is something that begins and ends, and that you reduce it in kind of a binary “you got it or you don't” kind of way, to the notion that this is an enduring problem: that risks are going to exist whether they're terrorist risks, whether there are other kinds of risks that we haven't been able to perceive … the risks change, but your ability to manage those risks is going to be the hallmark of success.[57]

Given the scale and duration of CTR, it’s unsurprising that it’s had many challenges and limitations along the way, and that it may need to evolve in the near future. But none of this seems to significantly undermine the premise that CTR has been at least somewhat impactful.

The role of philanthropy and academia in CTR’s origins

Another relevant premise to this piece is that the academic and policy work conducted from roughly 1978 onwards was at least a somewhat significant factor in both the passing of Nunn-Lugar and the CTR implementation successes that followed. According to a senior U.S. official interviewed by Sarah Kutchesfahani:

Without the ready availability of the project‘s [Soviet Nuclear Fission][58] early findings and analytical support, Congress may not have had the content with which to fill its legislative response to a very real and dangerous problem, but without the wisdom and legislative skill of Nunn, Lugar, Aspin and others, we at CSIA [Harvard Center for Science and International Affairs] would certainly never have been [able to] bring our ideas into law or policy. And of course, without a platform of established prior relationships among the principal actors, these two elements may never have connected at all.[59]

Relatedly, Benjamin Soskis writes:

Philanthropy-funded research likely convinced a number of other senators to sign onto the Nunn-Lugar initiative; it might have also convinced Lugar himself. And clearly the content of the final Nunn-Lugar legislation was highly indebted to that research, but to what extent is still an open question for me.[60]

Scott Kohler notes that while foundation funding and activity was evidently not solely responsible for CTR, it was nonetheless a key factor:

To draw a straight line from the grants made by Carnegie and MacArthur to the passage of the Nunn-Lugar Act would be a gross oversimplification, and would probably exaggerate the foundations’ role in a story that is far bigger than any one of its parts. But it is undeniable that, from at least the mid 1980s, those two foundations were promoting strategic collaboration between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., particularly in the area of WMD control. The foundations helped shape the research agenda as described in a Brookings report stating that “the purposes of the MacArthur Foundation effort have been made integral to our research planning. . . .” They organized and supported the consortium that produced a groundswell of research and analysis, culminating in the work of Carter, Perry, and Steinbruner to propose a cooperative threat reduction plan. The two foundations also helped to orchestrate the crucial meeting at which the arguments of the former were presented to Senators Nunn and Lugar.[61]

Soskis also considers the counterfactual that CTR might have happened without any philanthropic support:

Similar legislation might have been passed even without the intervention of philanthropy, given the intense interest of Nunn on the issue, and the knowledge of his own staff … in response to the counterfactual, it is possible that Nunn might have been able to get a similar bill passed through his own devices without the “Soviet Nuclear Fission” report, but almost undoubtedly not as fast, and in this case, that difference in time might have meant the difference [between] secure and unsecure nuclear material.[62]

CTR attributes: interpersonal skills

The first group of CTR contributors’ qualities that stands out is around their application of interpersonal skills to bring about successful outcomes.

Building trust and relationships

Building trust and relationships seems to have been a strength of David Hamburg’s, who personally knew and worked with global leaders including Gorbachev, Reagan, Clinton, Mandela, and Tutu,[63] and was very well connected and respected in both US government and academia. Here's how he described his relationship with Gorbachev:

It was a very important experience for me, and I think it augmented the contribution that Carnegie could make during the Cold War, the fact that a relationship did form and continues to the present time [1997] … to some degree I became a broker, to bring or send people to meet with him and some of his closest colleagues, to discuss arms control and crisis prevention and then the winding down of the Cold War altogether, what they might do about Eastern Europe and so on.[64]

Hamburg recalled that he’d been building personal connections with Russian scientists since 1980 when he was a member of a collaborative US-USSR arms control group:

In my participation, I became friendly with a couple of leading scientists in their group, the chairman at that time, a physicist named Velikhov, who was well respected by our physicists. So I would meet on the side with one or two of their leading people and have other discussions. I figured maybe there was something else I could do with the [National Academy of Sciences] or with the foundations or universities, apart from the arms-control issue.[65] 

This connection with Velikhov led directly to his later access to Gorbachev:

“I said to him, "You've got a new leader. I don't know anything about him. I apologize for my ignorance. I'd never heard of him before he was appointed. I'm certainly nowhere near a Soviet expert. I don't know if he's good for us, for the cause of peace, for the United States, for friendship, any of that. I don't know. Maybe good, maybe bad. But I do know this. New leaders, when they come to power, like to have a distinctive ecological niche, to say to yourself, 'There's some way in which I can make a contribution different from my predecessors or exceeding my predecessors, whatever.’ I wonder how he feels about that? I wonder if we could help him see that a contribution he could make might be to begin to wind down the Cold War. Is that possible?"

So Velikhov got very excited, said, "Let me think about it. I have to think about it. I'll get back to you in a while." What I didn't know was, he was going to talk to Gorbachev overnight. I had no way of knowing his relationship with Gorbachev.[66]

While this is Hamburg’s own recollection of events, it gives the impression of someone of high emotional intelligence who could present effectively as unassuming, humble, and collaborative. Jane Wales’s description of Dick Lugar strikes a similar note:

He was very well-liked in the Senate … people on both sides of the aisle trusted him, liked him, took him seriously, knew he was thoughtful and knew how to listen … and as a result, when he needed to persuade, he could … He was thoughtful, he would stick with an issue … he was the opposite of a grandstander and as a result he got a whole lot done.[67]

Gloria Duffy says that:

In my experience the most ethical and collaborative approaches have always been the most successful. Steering by the compass of these values, we have three less countries with nuclear weapons [and] thousands of weapons scientists who aren't helping terrorists or rogue states make weapons of mass destruction.[68]

And Andy Weber also seems to value similar qualities and recommends cultivating them to anyone considering a career in policy or government:

The ability to network and build partnerships within the government [is important] … So many of these problems are global, we have to work with our allies and partners around the world on these common problems. So it’s building the relationships, the trust, the respect, it’s being a good listener.

… It’s really important that you don’t sit at your desk and eat lunch, that you take the time outside of meetings to meet people, because it’s all about your network and the people. So take the time to get to know your colleagues as people and in informal settings. Don’t just talk about work, because that’s how you succeed in government and make teamwork really magic.[69]

In The Dead Hand, David E. Hoffman describes several examples of Weber’s efforts to build trust while working in the field for the U.S. State Department:

Over and over again, Weber found the key was forging relationships with scientists, respecting their dignity, their desire to carry out useful research, and building their trust. Governments and agreements had their purpose, but the real success started when they could look you in the eye and speak directly.[70] 

One example came after Weber first learned from his local connections about the presence of unsecured, highly-enriched uranium in a factory in Kazakhstan, and was invited on a hunting trip by the factory director:

Weber enjoyed the banya steam baths, chewed on smoked pork fat and shivered in the early-morning cold with the Russians, speaking their language, hunting with them and earning their trust. He also shot a moose. He did not ask them about the uranium then … Just before leaving [a few days later], Weber inquired gently about the uranium.[71]

This is a snapshot of Weber’s slow-burn approach to building trust with his local connections that eventually led to him being able to see the uranium in person several months later and then arrange to have it safely flown out of Kazakhstan.[72]

Hoffman later depicts Weber gathering intelligence about Iranian attempts to recruit Russian bioweapons experts while in a sauna:

Joining the scientists in the steam room, with his Russian-language skills and knowledge of biological weapons and pathogens, Weber made a personal connection … In these discussions, Weber learned that [Russian] scientists … had recently participated in an officially sponsored Russian trade fair in Tehran, and very quickly, the Iranians had shown up at the Russian institutes.[73]

Bringing people together

There are many instances of Carnegie’s David Hamburg and Jane Wales using their interpersonal skills and connections not only to build trust but to bring key figures together across different countries and across different fields and disciplines. As outlined above, these efforts, with roots in the late 70s and starting in earnest after Hamburg became president of Carnegie in 1982, seem to have helped create the conditions for the initial success of the CTR legislation. According to Ash Carter and William Perry:

Hamburg had a knack for bringing the right people together at the right time to work on the right problems, stimulating common thoughts and common action. Through the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a foundation devoted to peace and education, Hamburg and his associate Jane Wales had for many years supported exchanges and discussions between Soviet and American scholars and officials, even through the darkest days of the Cold War.[74]

While Wales was the junior of the two, as she describes it, she was the person who initially engaged both John Steinbruner and Sam Nunn, as well as giving Ash Carter the grant to do his research into Soviet weapon distribution.[75] Sarah Kutchesfahani, who interviewed multiple Americans and Russians who were directly involved in the formation of CTR, writes that “David Hamburg‘s role as the key connector was instrumental, as he introduced the non-governmental experts (Carter, Perry, and Steinbruner) to both Senators Nunn and Lugar, thereby granting the experts access to decision makers.”[76] 

Hamburg described his intentional efforts to bring policymakers and academics together as “a kind of art that I cultivated of getting policy makers and policy advisers together with scientists and scholars who had cognate interest and values. How could they share their information and their ideas, and how could it lead to some practical outcomes?”[77] He also said that he had “a kind of broadly integrative turn of mind, wanting to draw together ideas and information from different sources, from different disciplines, whatever, and see if I could try to make a coherent picture.”[78]

Mentoring and getting the most out of others

Helping others succeed through mentoring and collaboration was another apparent strength and priority for David Hamburg:

I try to see to it that people get the opportunities and the recognition for their work that they deserve. As I said, the grantmaking business is a people business, and I got great satisfaction in helping excellent people ... for me that's an important aspect of leadership, facilitating good people to do what they can do, and trying to bring out the best in them.[79]

Laura Holgate offers advice on what qualities to look for in a mentor:

I think one of the most important things is having good mentors and more than mentors, champions. People who won't just give you good advice, but will advocate for you with the system or the next level up of a boss. People who are willing to take a chance on you to take a stretch position to a little bit further than what you've been doing, what you've demonstrated your capacity to do, and to see more in you than you've had a chance to experience.[80] 

She also makes some specific career development suggestions for young women in policy:

Don't think that men can't be your mentors. I mean, women mentors are important and critical, and having role models where you can actually envision yourself in a senior role because you've seen another woman or another person that relates to you in some way in those positions. But given that many of the senior positions are occupied by men, you need male mentors as well.

… [Be] ready to reach out sideways and mentor each other, encourage each other to apply for that stretch job, to take a risk, to offer feedback on presentation skills, different ways that women can mentor each other at the same level. And as you rise, there's always going to be someone behind you. So reach out your hand behind to pull them forward.[81] 

Effective communications

A final interpersonal theme is the role of impactful communication. Ash Carter’s breakfast presentation to a group of senators in November 1991 seems to have played an important role in helping persuade Congress to vote in favor of Nunn-Lugar after the failure of the Nunn-Aspin bill:

[Nunn] told them what he had seen in Moscow and turned the floor over to Carter, who delivered a presentation without notes. Carter said command and control over nuclear weapons could not be isolated from the troubles of society. “It’s not something that you can take for granted, that it’s all wired up in some way, and it will be okay,” Carter recalled telling the senators. The clarity of his presentation had an instant impact … Within days, Nunn and Lugar had turned around the Senate and gathered the votes for new legislation to set aside $500 million to deal with the Soviet nuclear dangers.[82]

There were multiple factors that persuaded senators to vote for the Nunn-Lugar bill; it seems that Carter may have motivated his audience by making the threat feel more couched in the volatility of human behavior rather than being abstract and mechanical. As Carter described it to Sam Nunn:

a nuclear custodial system is only as stable as the social system in which it is embedded … And it’s really made up of people and institutions and standard operating procedures and so forth, not just gizmos. When all of that is in the middle of a social revolution, you’ve got big trouble.[83]

Hoffman describes another example of making a risk more tangible in The Dead Hand, when White House staffer Matthew Bunn and presidential adviser Professor John Holdren briefed Bill Clinton and Al Gore on the dangers of nuclear materials leaking out of the former USSR:

In a clever move, Holdren had brought an empty casing from one of the fuel pellets used at the nuclear power and engineering institute at Obninsk, south of Moscow. He tossed it on a table and told Clinton there were perhaps eighty thousand of those filled with uranium or plutonium, and not one with an inventory number on it. The institute had no monitors to stop someone from carrying one out in their pocket. Bunn thumped on the table a two-inch stack of press clippings he’d assembled, including a Time magazine cover with the headline “Nuclear Terror for Sale.”[84] 

David Hamburg valued leading with solutions to get people engaged:

Our emphasis was always on what can you do about the problem. If you sound an alarm without anything to do, people will run away from it. They will try to avoid the problem. But if you connect it with useful steps to be taken, you're more likely to get serious attention.[85] 

At Carnegie, Hamburg put in considerable effort to improve connections between academia, government, and public knowledge. In that context, he identified evidence, clarity, and visibility as three virtues of communication:

[Foundation] reports have to be credible because they're based on the strongest evidence, research-based to the extent possible. They have to be intelligible because they're expressed in clear language, not in technical jargon, and they have to be visible in the best sense, to have a fighting chance to be effective.[86] 

And to achieve visibility, Hamburg noted the need to draw on both expertise and prominent, credible advocates:

I believe that even the finest reports can be largely ineffective if you just put them out and they sink without a trace. I believe that it works better if you have strong representation from different sectors involved in it. If you have not only specialized experts, but … [well-known advocates] on those bodies, so that they have a certain visibility and a certain credibility and legitimacy at the outset.[87]

In Hamburg’s view, Carnegie’s efforts to promote their studies played a significant role in increasing awareness of the need for greater controls over nuclear weapons:

The studies we supported got out into the general discourse, certainly in the democratic countries at home and abroad, and to a certain extent in the Soviet Union through their scientific community … For example, the studies that we supported on arms control and crisis prevention … they were in newspaper columns and op-ed pieces and magazine articles. In congressional hearings, I think it's fair to say that after, I don't know, let's say about 1985, in the ensuing decade, probably, there was hardly ever a congressional hearing that didn't have reference to one of the Carnegie-supported studies or having testimony from one of the Carnegie-supported experts or members of one of the Carnegie-supported panels … We were largely alone in the field in the darkest days of the Cold War, in the early and mid eighties … So I think the contribution to broadening and elevating the discourse was considerable.[88]

CTR attributes: strategy and leadership

I’ll focus mostly on David Hamburg and Carnegie in this section. There were many figures who played leading roles in the success of CTR, and the MacArthur and W. Alton Jones Foundations contributed alongside Carnegie. But Hamburg is someone who 1) is widely credited as a significant non-governmental contributor to CTR and Nunn-Lugar, 2) doesn’t feature as often in overviews of CTR as Nunn, Lugar, or Carter, for example, and 3) spoke and wrote extensively about his work and experiences.


Former Carnegie curator, Brenda Hearing, said to Hamburg that he was widely regarded as “a very strong, dynamic leader of Carnegie, that put your own stamp on the programming here right away,” and that he was “a little unusual in coming into an office such as this, with such a very well formulated set of goals.”

Yet Hamburg had started out as a reluctant leader: “I came into leadership positions at a young age and I didn't expect to, and really didn't want to.” On being asked to join the Carnegie board (which preceded his presidency), he said “they couldn't have picked a less well-informed, less well-prepared board member.” And he was even less bullish when asked to become Carnegie president: “I was very surprised when they asked me to become president, and I at first said, almost reflexively, no, both from their standpoint and mine.”[89]

Hamburg already had a strong interest in nuclear risk and the Cold War through his work as president of the National Academy of Sciences. While Carnegie had no history in the area, they were interested in Hamburg exploring it and he was swayed. But, Hamburg recalled, “It was nowhere then near the current agenda of the foundation, and it seemed to me that would be kind of a wrenching transition to make … it was strange to everybody.”[90]

All this context makes Hamburg’s success at Carnegie even more impressive—that he was able to introduce a new and very different program area, and grow it to the extent that the foundation played an important role in establishing CTR less than a decade later. There must have been many factors that contributed to this, including Hamburg’s personal qualities and abilities referenced elsewhere in this piece. But he clearly placed a high value on both defining a vision and empowering his board and staff to deliver on it:

I do think that an important part of it was to get people interested in or enthusiastic about a mission … [and] the capacity to communicate the vision, get people excited about it, and, above all, get terrific people to work on it. The idea that any one leader can do very much him or herself, I think, is farfetched. If you're talking about a big mission, you've got to kind of mobilize a lot of people to work on it, and that's an important aspect of leadership.[91]

Big picture, long-run mindset and speculative bets

Hamburg worked on nuclear threat reduction across his roles at the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard, and Carnegie from the late 70s to his retirement in 1997; he described his work at these organizations as “all broad, policy oriented, big picture, large issue, tough problems that brought together many disciplines.”[92] 

He and Jane Wales set up a succession of conferences, working groups, committees and research initiatives which are credited as having contributed both to the initial passing of Nunn-Lugar and the subsequent implementation of CTR. In hindsight, this process might look carefully planned out, but Hamburg made clear that it was often highly speculative. He was a lead organizer of the 1978 Pugwash Conference, which he said “was kind of improvised and which had no obvious follow-up, [but it] grew into this joint study mechanism and major follow-up in crisis prevention in other fields.” He describes the arms-control ventures at Carnegie similarly:

We simply wanted to get the ablest people we could anywhere in the world to do the analytical work that might be useful, if and when the political leaders wanted it … it was not uncommon for me to say to the groups we were supporting something like this, "I don't know when, if ever, the work you put in will be put to use” … great physicists and engineers and other scientists spent a huge amount of time, energy, and aggravation in that work, knowing the importance of it potentially, but not knowing if it would ever be put to use. Now as it turned out, it was hugely valuable once Gorbachev and Reagan got around to making the political decisions … It shows you have to be patient and you have to take some risks, and people have to invest valuable time in a mission they believe to be terribly important. You feel it's so important, if you make the least little contribution, it's worth doing, and you have to be patient to wait for it to come to fruition.[93]

Carnegie’s coordination of “linkage” meetings between members of Congress and arms control experts shared this long-run, speculative approach:

We know that major leading figures in our Congress … regularly participated in these Carnegie-supported linkage meetings … They typically weren't there to get involved in a debate of the current policy issues, but rather to build a broader factual underpinning. We would say to members of Congress, "The idea is to help you get the facts straight for the long term. You're going to have to make momentous decisions this year, in three years, in ten years, and the more you have a solid factual basis, the better off you'll be." They were enthusiastic about that notion, always have been.[94]

He also recalled the high value that members of Congress placed on these learning opportunities:

People with highly consequential responsibilities, leadership of people in the country, were exposed to a wider range and a greater depth of knowledge on the subject [of arms control] from more independent sources than they would otherwise have had, and they would give testimonies, fervent testimonies, to the value of it. We periodically examined the question, should we back off now? Should we fade out of this business? We got the most enthusiastic responses. I was shaken by the shoulders, "David, do not stop this. This is the only time we get this sort of thing." So I would say that is a measure of success.[95]

These long run, speculative investments paid dividends when the end of the Soviet Union became imminent. After the failed coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, the Prevention of Proliferation steering committee was able to mobilize in the response to the pressing dangers:

One of the things that became clear was that we needed to know to the extent possible: Where were the Soviet nuclear weapons? There was a lot of information available, and we had a quick and dirty study, led primarily by Ashton Carter of Harvard, with a number of colleagues, and we therefore had a quite reliable map in a couple of months' time of where the weapons were and some knowledge of how well they were supervised and all that sort of thing, because our concern was, what would be the fate of the nuclear weapons in the disintegrating Soviet Union?[96]

As covered earlier, Carter presentation of the report’s findings then played a role in Nunn and Lugar’s efforts to persuade senators to vote for their legislation in November 1991.

Entrepreneurial approach

Hamburg’s speculative approach to building collective expertise and leverage was rooted in his conception of foundations as “the venture capital of the nonprofit sector”:

They get into problem areas that are complex and difficult and sensitive. They support gifted people who may be unconventional. They do work in poor communities in this country or abroad where it may be very hard to monitor the use of the funds in detail. A lot of different kinds of risks, intellectual and political and financial risks.[97] 

You could argue that this is an inherent feature of foundations, which might make Carnegie’s approach under Hamburg less notable. But, he also said, “there is a considerable risk-averse tendency in the foundation community,” so he may have been swimming against the tide to a certain extent. His introduction of Avoiding Nuclear War as a new program area “was strange to everybody” at Carnegie, and represented something of a risk for the foundation:

Did a nongovernmental organization [NGO] have a role in this field? It seems ridiculous today because NGOs have burgeoned so in this conflict field. But it wasn't ridiculous in 1982, '83, '84. Did we have a role? There were people who thought we didn't. Should foundations be supporting universities to do independent work that might contradict the government? We might be a pebble in the shoe of our own government, let alone other governments. Was that our business?[98]

The Nuclear Threat Initiative, now a leading nonprofit working to reduce nuclear and biological threats, grew out of the CTR program; it was co-founded by Sam Nunn, and Laura Holgate was a founding Vice President. Holgate also describes how the vision for the organization was driven by an entrepreneurial spirit:

It was a way to say, “we're going to take this Nunn-Lugar concept as a central idea, that you deal with threats through cooperation instead of conflict. And we're going to do the private sector version of this. We're going to unshackle ourselves from the federal acquisition regulations, from the federal appropriations process, and from government lawyers and their cautiousness. We want to work on those same goals and in some cases with some of the same people, both in the United States and overseas, and in a way that is more flexible, more creative, and more active, and we’re really going to be a “do tank” rather than a “think tank.”"[99]

Good epistemics and norms

As president of the National Academy of Sciences and Carnegie, David Hamburg aimed to establish a range of norms and practices to optimize for collaborative truth-seeking and problem solving:

I really tried to bring out the best in people to look at new problems or readjust their sights on old problems and to see how we could … get the facts straight in the first place, and then to see what we could do about those facts. I felt it was a highly interactive process. It did involve some degree of opening up the foundation to "outsiders" in shaping our programs.[100] 

He led by example through setting up checks and balances on himself as a leader:

I would ask certain key staff with great experience … to check me, get independent experts, get peer review, think it though, give me straight feedback. If I'm being carried away, tell me before we make some serious blunder. I don't know how the balance worked out, but I tried to get that balance into it.

… I do think that's an important subject, of how we strengthen the capacity of leaders at every level, from presidents to, say, department chairmen at universities, to make better decisions by virtue of their ability to process information in a small-group setting that's not sycophantic, not dogmatic. I think that's extremely important, and also to have, in terms of the larger institutional arrangements, to have procedures that are likely to get adequate information and a fair-minded consideration.[101]

When Hamburg assembled expert groups, he did so carefully and while prioritizing a diversity of ideas and backgrounds. He said of selecting the Carnegie board:

I did a huge amount of homework, checking out very, very carefully how people had functioned in other board situations. The best predictor of behavior is behavior in similar situations. I wanted people who were extremely able, maybe visible, had earned a great deal of respect, came from different backgrounds, different professional backgrounds, different social backgrounds, black, white, green, whatever you want.[102] 

A further goal was ensuring his board members were inclined towards both collaboration and respect:

I wanted very strong and able people, but I didn't want authoritarian personalities … I wasn't looking for people who would be "yes" people to me. Not in the slightest. I wanted people of great stature and accomplishment in their own right. But I did want people who could work well across disciplinary lines, across programmatic lines, were fundamentally collegial and respectful of others. I didn't want people who were spoiled brats grown up, or egos out of control.

… We had on this board during my time, and at my initiative, eminent people … who had commanded organizations. But I think it's also fair to say that they were not people who were inclined to push others around. They were inclined towards a very collegial, mutually respectful give-and-take with other high-level accomplished people.[103]

CTR attributes: personal qualities and values

Mission orientation

In an 80,000 hours interview, Andy Weber emphasizes the importance of mission orientation for those thinking of going into policy work:

What it takes is somebody who wants to be a public servant, not necessarily working for the government, but working in public service, whether it’s in journalism, or science. Making a contribution to solving the world’s hardest problems has to be what motivates people to go into these fields. … The true public servant isn’t so much worried about themselves or their own careers, what motivates them and what they care about is the mission, it’s making the world safer.[104]

This chimes with themes in David Hamburg’s recollections. As a professor at Caltech in 1975, a group of his research students were taken hostage while doing fieldwork in Tanzania. He references his experiences flying out and negotiating for their release as a catalyst for his shift from academia into mission-driven policy work:

I had been immersed in the worst problems of the world during those few months -- of disease and abject poverty and ignorance and deception and violence. My nose was rubbed for months in all these dreadful problems. I had some feeling that maybe, maybe in some way, if I could turn my energies to settings and institutions that could do something about those problems, the tiniest little bit, could affect policies that would have some kind of ameliorative or preventive effect on terrible problems of that kind, that maybe that would be a good thing to do.[105]

Hamburg’s family background also provided motivation for his desire to reduce conflict and suffering:

I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My grandfather came to this country about 1900, fleeing from severe pogroms in Latvia, and devoted his life to bringing relatives who were subject to violent anti-semitic behavior from Eastern Europe to America. It was first hand knowledge how brutal people could be.[106]

This heritage, combined with his first-hand experience growing up as one of very few Jewish kids in interwar Indiana, was part of what drove him to use his influence to make a difference:

[Meeting Gorbachev] was very dramatic, and it was one of many points in my career when I really had to pinch myself. I have to say I wish my grandfather could be around to see it. I always was concerned. I mean, to some degree there was always within me the kid who grew up in a small town in Indiana, close to people who had fled from persecution, and feeling a little bit marginal, a little bit insecure, and lacking in chutzpah. But I felt if you had a chance, you should try. President Kennedy once said something to the effect that, “What's influence for except to use it?” If you have it, you should use it.[107]

Boldness and risk-taking

In 1997, Anne Harrington and Andy Weber saw a clear need to expand the scope of CTR to include Russian scientists who’d worked on biological weapons. The director of one of the biggest Russian labs, Lev Sandakchiev, was seriously considering working for Iran; Weber had already had multiple informal meetings with him but there were no official communications yet because “there was tremendous resistance in the U.S. government, especially in the intelligence agencies, to using any of [the CTR funds] to stop the spread of biological weapons.”[108] Sensing the urgency of the situation, they took a potential career-threatening risk to try to force the issue:

Weber and Harrington decided to take a chance and reach out to Sandakchiev on their own. They would not go through the usual bureaucratic channels: embassies, cables, government ministries. On Harrington’s office computer, they tapped out an email to Sandakhchiev. It was brief, noncommittal, but inviting, suggesting closer cooperation and asking if Weber could visit Vector. They didn’t know what would happen. “What are your employment options if this doesn’t work?” Harrington asked Weber.[109]

Gloria Duffy recounts a related occasion when Les Aspin, then Secretary of Defense, took an off-piste approach to break through a CTR impasse:

At the beginning dealing with Ukraine we had a dance going on where the Ukrainians wouldn't let us come to talk to them. … So at one point, Les Aspin—who was briefly the Secretary of Defense—was on a trip to Russia, and he just diverted his plane and called in to Kiev and asked if the Secretary of Defense of the United States could land in Kiev and meet with his counterpart. … He came back and gave me the phone number of the Secretary of Defense, and we started calling up the Ministry of Defense ourselves because … working through the diplomatic cables and the formal methods for requesting access were not working.[110] 

David Hamburg also seems to have been unafraid to act boldly in high-stakes situations, for example in his first meeting with Gorbachev:

Toward the end, I said to him, "It seems to me you're very interested in ideas outside. If I could be of any help -- " I felt he's going to kick me out of the room for being so presumptuous to say I could bring in people or ideas, but, no, he put his arm around me and he said, "That would be a great thing. Would you be willing to do that?[111] 

He also prided himself on tackling challenges that others might think overwhelming:

I used to sometimes say, almost anything worth doing is probably inherently controversial. Somebody somewhere will take umbrage that we've done this, but we should do it as respectfully as we can in the pluralism of our democracy and the pluralism of the world. … I got teased that, in the first [Carnegie] board meeting, I said, "The only thing I will promise you is that I will bring you intractable problems."

… You can take up almost any problem. I used to say in my psychiatric days to the patients, there's nothing too awful to talk about. That applies to Carnegie, to foundations. There's nothing too awful to talk about, no problem too difficult or messy.[112] 

Embracing responsibility, putting yourself forward

Closely related to boldness, some CTR contributors who were relatively early in their careers seem to have shared an inclination towards embracing responsibility and putting themselves forward, even in daunting or uncertain situations. Andy Weber shares that:

[The policy/national security field] tends to be a little bit hierarchical, which is why I liked working in small embassies in places like Almaty, Kazakhstan and not in big embassies like London, because you get a lot more responsibility at a younger age.[113] 

As a young analyst working in the U.S. embassy in Moscow in summer of 1991, Anne Harrington volunteered to help identify and support Russian weapons experts who might be tempted to work for a rogue state “because no one else was interested. “I put up my hand and said, ‘I can do that,’”"[114]

Harrington and her fellow female policy experts also had the additional challenge of having to navigate a highly male-dominated field. Jane Wales, already an experienced authority in national security by her late 20s, says:

I was a young woman in a world full of old men … I remember walking into the Council on Foreign Relations and having everybody just turn and look: “why is that person wearing a dress?” And you feel like this weird oddity walking into the room.[115]

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall shares a similar experience:

When I started out in this field, there were no women who were role models for me—and I had the good fortune to have male mentors who wanted to see women in previously male-dominated fields, and who opened doors for me and encouraged me.[116]

Nonetheless, Wales was ready to jump at the opportunity to take on high stakes, high impact work:

My focus was nuclear arms control primarily at that point in my life [in the early 1980s], and the president of the Carnegie Corporation [Hamburg] asked me to have breakfast with him and said … “I think that our system of non-proliferation isn't working—can you come up with a new one?” And so here's another piece of advice for your careers: when you get asked that by a foundation president, the answer’s yes! You could have no idea what you're talking about, but the right answer is yes. Because you know that he’s going to give you the resources, you're going to have access to the best minds in the country and the world, and the resources to be able to bring them together and shine a light on some of the best ideas.[117]


  1. ^

     See “Limitations” section regarding the long-term consequences of Ukraine returning its weapons to Russia.

  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^

     Sara Kutchesfahani, “Politics & The Bomb: Exploring the Role of Epistemic Communities in Nuclear Non-Proliferation Outcomes,” PhD dissertation, University College London (2010), https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/767199/,  p. 186

  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^

     David Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (2009), p. 382

  8. ^

     Hoffman (2009), p. 386

  9. ^

     “Oral history interview with David A. Hamburg,” Carnegie Corporation of New York Digital Archive (1996–1998). Landing page: https://dlc.library.columbia.edu/carnegie/cul:612jm640h5. Full transcript:  https://dlc.library.columbia.edu/catalog/cul:0gb5mkkz7p/bytestreams/fulltext/content.txt. From here onwards in the footnotes, I’ll link directly to the transcript when citing this resource. The transcript is very long so I’ll depend on the reader to search the transcript text for any specific excerpt that I’ve quoted.

  10. ^

     Kurt M. Campbell, Ashton B. Carter, Steven E. Miller, and Charles A. Zraket, Soviet Nuclear Fission: Control of the Nuclear Arsenal in a Disintegrating Soviet Union. (1991)

  11. ^

     Hoffman (2009), pp. 387-390; Sen. Sam Nunn, “Changing Threats in the Post-Cold War World,” in Dismantling the Cold War: U.S. and NIS Perspectives on the Nunn Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, eds. John M. Shields and William C. Potters (1997), xvi-xvii.

  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^

     Kutchesfahani (2010), p. 162. First quote is from “Interview IX,” a former U.S. Department of Energy Senior Advisor, second is from “Interview XII,” a former director of a renowned U.S. public policy research institution.” (interviewee key is on p. 233)

  18. ^

     Oral history interview with David Hamburg, sessions six and nine. I haven’t found any details on this conference online, but it’s listed as Pugwash no. 92 (December 1978) and there are also some papers in the archives of Churchill College, Cambridge

  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^

     Scott Kohler, “Cooperative Security and the Nunn-Lugar Act”, Case #67 in Casebook for the Foundation: A Great American Secret, ed. Joel Fleishman (2007), p. 194

  24. ^
  25. ^

     Hoffman (2009), pp. 385-386

  26. ^

     Hoffman (2009), pp. 450-457

  27. ^

     Hoffman (2009), pp. 385-389

  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^

     Kutchesfahani (2010), p. 166

  38. ^
  39. ^

    Kutchesfahani (2010), pp. 158-159

  40. ^
  41. ^

     Kutchesfahani (2010), p. 188

  42. ^

    Kutchesfahani (2010), pp. 158-159

  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^
  50. ^


  51. ^


  52. ^
  53. ^

     https://www.npr.org/2022/02/21/1082172618/why-ukraine-gave-up-its-nukes. Some other experts have disagreed with Buderun, e.g. see https://www.jstor.org/stable/24888130

  54. ^
  55. ^

     Adam D. Williams and Rodney K. Wilson, "Defense by Other Means": Future Evolution(s) of Cooperative Threat Reduction, Sandia National Laboratories (2019), https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1529294, p. 11

  56. ^

     Williams & Wilson (2019), p. 12

  57. ^
  58. ^

     The 1991 report by Campbell, et al.

  59. ^

     Kutchesfahani (2010), p. 194

  60. ^

     Benjamin Soskis, “Nunn-Lugar Report”, Givewell (2013) https://www.givewell.org/files/DWDA%202009/Nunn-Lugar%20Report.docx

  61. ^

     Kohler (2007), p. 197

  62. ^

     Soskis (2013)

  63. ^
  64. ^
  65. ^
  66. ^
  67. ^
  68. ^
  69. ^
  70. ^

     Hoffman (2009), p. 473

  71. ^

     Hoffman (2009), pp. 441-442

  72. ^

     Hoffman (2009), pp. 454-456

  73. ^

     Hoffman (2009), p. 469

  74. ^

     Ashton Carter & William Perry, Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America (1999), p. 71.

  75. ^
  76. ^

     Kutchesfahani (2010), p. 223

  77. ^
  78. ^
  79. ^
  80. ^
  81. ^
  82. ^

     Hoffman (2009), pp. 388-389

  83. ^

     Hoffman (2009), p. 385

  84. ^

     Hoffman (2009), p. 457

  85. ^
  86. ^
  87. ^
  88. ^
  89. ^
  90. ^
  91. ^
  92. ^
  93. ^
  94. ^
  95. ^
  96. ^
  97. ^
  98. ^
  99. ^
  100. ^
  101. ^
  102. ^
  103. ^
  104. ^
  105. ^
  106. ^
  107. ^
  108. ^

     Hoffman (2009), p. 471

  109. ^

     Hoffman (2009), p. 472

  110. ^
  111. ^
  112. ^
  113. ^
  114. ^

     Hoffman (2009), p. 404

  115. ^
  116. ^
  117. ^
  118. ^

     Hoffman (2009), pp. 385-389

  119. ^

     Hoffman (2009), pp. 385-389





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:38 AM

Executive summary: The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which aimed to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in former Soviet states after 1991, succeeded due to the interpersonal skills, strategic leadership, and personal qualities of key individuals involved in its origins and implementation.

Key points:

  1. Preparatory academic and policy work in the 1980s by figures like David Hamburg and Jane Wales helped lay the groundwork for CTR's initial success.
  2. Interpersonal skills such as building trust, bringing people together across disciplines, mentoring others, and communicating effectively were crucial to CTR's achievements.
  3. Strategic leadership qualities included establishing a clear vision, taking a long-term view, having an entrepreneurial approach, and modeling good epistemics and collaborative norms.
  4. Important personal qualities and values of key contributors were a strong sense of mission, boldness and willingness to take risks, and readiness to embrace responsibility in challenging circumstances.
  5. While highly impactful in eliminating many weapons of mass destruction, CTR has faced limitations and may need to evolve its model for the future.



This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities