Michael KreponThe Gift of Giving

Readers beware: The next two posts are ridden with conflicts of interest.

Policy entrepreneurship to reduce nuclear dangers would dry up without foundations. National leaders and bureaucracies are too consumed by their daily calendars to serve as their own think tanks. Instead, they borrow, embrace, implement or oppose initiatives that come from outside their ranks. It’s hard to think of a big success story in arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation that was not previously conceived, nurtured and popularized by nongovernmental organizations or academics working with grant support.

Not many areas of philanthropy can demonstrate more return on investment than in arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation. Grant making supported the Pugwash meetings to foster exchanges across the Iron Curtain and campaigns to end atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. Philanthropy nurtured the conceptualization of nuclear arms control in the early 1960s, the Stop Where We Are and freeze campaigns to decelerate the arms race in the early 1970s and 1980s, the alphabet soup list of treaties that stigmatize the testing, acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction. After the Cold War ended, philanthropy helped NGOs and academics to conceive of programs to secure dangerous weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union. Foundation grant support has lately emphasized the goal of completely eliminating nuclear weapons.

Proliferation is now a rare occurrence and global stockpiles of nuclear weapons are drastically smaller. Nuclear testing is now the mark of an outlier rather than a sign of strength. There have been no mushroom clouds on contested battlefields since World War II.

These are remarkable, unexpected results. There are many reasons for them in addition to philanthropy. Where foundations have helped most, in my view, is by supporting new initiatives and counterintuitive habits of mind, especially the notion that it is not a good idea to use the most powerful weapons a nation possesses. Or that national missile defenses can, in some circumstances, result in greater threat than protection. It comes as no surprise that these notions are still strongly contested; what’s surprising is the extent to which they have taken hold.

As I have posted before, arms control is all about duality. Especially now, good news and bad news in this field happen concurrently. Libya and Syria are nuclear nonproliferation success stories, but Syria is imploding with stocks of nerve gas. (Add this to your Israel-Iran scenarios.) There are very few potential worst cases at present, but they are humdingers. The Senate’s consent to treaty ratification comes with conditions that can make the next mountain seem harder to climb. Success generates added resistance, as those threatened by advances dig in their heels. Successes also make it easier for funders to gravitate to other pressing problems, only to come back – usually at less than previous strength – when evidence mounts of increased nuclear dangers.

Given the duality of this field, much work lies ahead. Arms control, like other successful practices, is susceptible to orthodoxy and is in need of creative adaptation. New threats are more complicated than the old ones. Bipartisan support for treaties is a much tougher sell now. Elders who have been instrumental in securing gains have left or are leaving the stage. A rising generation of policy entrepreneurs has yet to take their place. This challenge, on which future success rests, does not seem to be a high priority for current grant making. (To be continued.)

[See part II of this post. -Ed.]


  1. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?

    How about $35k per year plus health, an office and 10 Mb/s? I’d take it in a heartbeat. And do something.

    Some senior (but not too stifling) advising would be dearly appreciated, too.

  2. MarkoB (History)

    What do you make of the arguments made by Campbell et al in the latest edition of “The London Review of Books” on what they called “the non-proliferation complex?”

  3. krepon (History)

    Haven’t read it yet. But it sounds better than the proliferation complex.

    • krepon (History)

      Just glanced at it. As evidence of the “multi-billion pound” behemoth that is the arms control industrial complex, let me submit for the record that all US foundations spent $21.4 million for everything and anything remotely associated with this enterprise in 2010. Serious change, but not quite billions. When the predicate of the argument is this far off base, what follows can only go downhill.
      And blaming arms controllers for the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld war in Iraq is like blaming trees for the current excess of carbon dioxide.

  4. JohnLopresti (History)

    Remembering some loss of astronaut lives, and reflecting on the space-race comments recently at ACW, I reviewed the newest edition of the union of concerned scientists’ history of the low-earth-orbit (LEO) spacerace,
    The document has lots of footnotes with web links.
    Much of the tale told in that report probably is only the sanitized version of information which is not in the public domain. At a minimum, it would appear that one interesting prospect for ‘arms’ control could be vacuuming debris from the LEO band around the planet, facilitating other sorts of work in space.

    I distantly remember the era when telecom entities were vying about what then were called little LEO and big LEO schemas of satellite communications.

    However, the field of arms control also looks intermingled with other space ventures, viewed from the report’s perspective.