Michael KreponTime for a Big Philanthropic Bet

Lyric of the week:

“You’ve got the music in you
Don’t let go, you’ve got the music in you
Once dance left, this world is gonna pull through
Don’t give up, you’ve got a reason to live
Can’t forget, we only get what we give” – “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals

The MacArthur Foundation’s exit from funding efforts to reduce nuclear danger comes at a bad time. Relations between Washington and Beijing and between Washington and Moscow are frayed. The geometry of arms control has never been harder, with an unprecedented four pairings of nuclear-armed competitors.  North Korea remains an outlier, and if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, others are likely to follow suit. Four countries in Asia — China, India, Pakistan and North Korea — are adding ready-to-use nuclear warheads to their stockpiles.

We’re in unchartered territory, in need of a Big Rethink about how to deal with a rising China, a truculent Russia, and nuclear-armed states prone to border clashes. Three of the four rival pairings have no history of nuclear arms control. They rely on nuclear deterrence to avoid worst cases — weapons that leaders will do their utmost not to use.

Nuclear deterrence alone doesn’t provide for public safety because deterrence is purposefully dangerous: if deterrence doesn’t threaten it doesn’t deter. Arms control can provide essential goods in the form of guardrails and reassurance that deterrence alone cannot achieve.

These essential goods are increasingly scarce because arms control is in poor shape. Treaties have been discarded in favor of freedom to maneuver. George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump have done severe harm to the practice of arms control. And yet, arms control perseveres because it is too essential to dispense with entirely.

Arms control and deterrence are necessary, strange bedfellows. Paradox rules: increased nuclear danger coexists with remarkable achievement. The last nuclear test in the atmosphere (China) was over four decades ago. The last state to acquire nuclear weapons (North Korea) crossed this threshold two decades ago. The global inventory of nuclear weapons has been reduced to Eisenhower administration levels. The first and last use of a nuclear weapon in warfare was over seven decades ago.

We fail to fully appreciate this record of remarkable, unanticipated achievement because we now take these gains for granted. We tend to forget that successful arms control was the result of very hard work. Since the 1970s, when the MacArthur Foundation began to help out, this work has been enabled and sustained by philanthropy.

Why, besides becoming accustomed to uncommon success, is success widely unrecognized? One reason is because we focus naturally on pressing problems rather than past achievement. Another is that we measure success by what happens, not by what doesn’t happen. But in this field, what doesn’t happen is as important as what happens. In actuality, the philanthropic successes behind arms control have occurred on both fronts, reflected by deep cuts, treaties, and guardrails as well as by the absence of nuclear tests, mushroom clouds, and loose nukes.

The diplomacy of arms control has been the greatest unacknowledged success story of the Cold War. I’ve written a book about this, with the help of the MacArthur Foundation. Philanthropy was central to the success of arms control.

There was no theory of arms control until it was developed, mostly in academia, at the outset of the Kennedy administration. There were no roadmaps for nonproliferation and for preventing outer space from becoming a shooting gallery until they were mapped out during the Johnson administration. There was no public demand for limits on missile defenses to serve as a predicate for arms control until the Nixon administration.

A thriving community of nongovernmental organizations clamored for deep cuts in nuclear forces before Ronald Reagan vocalized this goal and found a partner in Mikhail Gorbachev to make it happen. A treaty ending nuclear testing was inconceivable without intense backing. There was no plan for dealing with loose nukes as the Soviet Union was dissolving until it was conceptualized by exceptional talent at Harvard, Stanford and Brookings.

This extraordinary body of work was backstopped primarily by the MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as well as smaller grant making foundations. Year after year, MacArthur and Carnegie placed big bets on preventing nuclear war. A third big bet-placer, the Ploughshares Fund, joined them in 1981. Foundation support built and sustained a community that has visualized and accomplished more with less funding than for any other extremely hard problem set worthy of foundation support.

This community has three constituent parts: policy-oriented academics, activists at the grassroots level and those focused on Capitol Hill, and wonkish NGOs. We sometimes bicker, but we’re all on the same team. The Stimson Center’s contributions to nuclear arms control and disarmament would not have been possible without funders like MacArthur and Carnegie. People like me wouldn’t have been able to carve out a professional career doing this work without their help.

Now MacArthur is leaving the field, the latest in a sad progression. MacArthur’s assets have grown significantly along with other funders with the stock market’s rise, but its new leadership feels the need to choose between nuclear arms control and other glaring deficits in public safety.

Fashions change in grant making, as elsewhere. MacArthur has grown tired of working in this space. Every big, annual bet that MacArthur placed on preventing nuclear war was a success, but another “test” of continued grant making in this field was deemed necessary.

MacArthur decided to place a big bet on stopping the production of fissile material used for nuclear weapons and – lo and behold – this problem persists. After declaring this regrettable fact, MacArthur’s new leadership has decided to leave the field and to place a big bet on eradicating homelessness – never mind that this gut-wrenching problem will also persist and would become far worse in the event of nuclear detonations.

Big, important problems resist eradication. They require management and persistent efforts to downsize the problem set. To me, this is the essence of wise grant making in the field of reducing nuclear danger. Every year that terrible outcomes don’t happen takes considerable effort and is a success story for grant making in this field. The community of arms controllers of which I am a proud member will work their butts off to prevent worst cases while seeking opportunities to make gains and to prevent unwise decisions.

Until nuclear weapons are abolished, deterrence needs to be accompanied by arms control. Arms control cannot succeed without philanthropic support. Help is needed. Someone out there needs to place a big bet on avoiding nuclear war.


  1. Mitchel Wallerstein (History)

    Michael: I am shocked and saddened by this news. As you may recall, I spent five years as VP of MacArthur’s international grantmaking programs, which included its work on international security. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the shortsightedness of this decision. Regards, Mitch Wallerstein

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thanks, Mitch. You were part of the success story.
      Hope you are well—

  2. John Hallam (History)

    Just as the risk of nuclear war is spiking, and as other risks to current ‘civilisation’ also rise dramatically (Cyber, climate crisis), Macarthur pulls out of nuclear funding.