My stint as a high-ranking political appointee was a turning point. One fourth of the work was unique.
Negotiating with Soviet government officials on behalf of the United States was both exciting and humbling. Traveling around the country to muster support for arms control agreements was fun and interesting. Three-quarters of the time, though, I spent shuttling from meeting to meeting arguing with representatives of other agencies about things which, in retrospect, were completely irrelevant. By the end of Carter’s term, I had decided that I could accomplish much more outside the government than within it — and would have a better time besides.
After brief stops at various think tanks, I founded my own consulting firm — DFI International — and five years later, together with Michael Krepon, the Stimson Center. The Center's philosophical core was a maxim that originated with John McCloy (Stimson’s assistant as secretary of war). “You can accomplish almost anything in Washington, so long as you are willing to give other people the credit.” Thus, many of Stimson’s projects consist of working groups in which high ranking former government officials, legislators, and senior people from the private sector debate specific issues with the help of Stimson staff, issue reports, and work to bring their recommendations to fruition through a politically informed strategy. Most recently, for example, I convened a group of very senior military officers and civilian officials for the Peterson Foundation. The group first agreed on a new military strategy for the United States and, then, a budget designed to implement that strategy.
During the 1980s I worked closely with Senators Sam Nunn and John Warner on a number of projects to reduce nuclear dangers.
Then U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (seated, right) and U.S.S.R. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze sign the Nuclear Risk Reductions Centers Agreement in 1987.
We managed to persuade the Reagan administration, for example, to create a new direct means of exchanging military information between the U.S. and the USSR called “Nuclear Risk Reductions Centers.”
In the early 1990s, I led a Stimson project which raised serious questions about the utility of tactical naval nuclear weapons and made clear that the Navy itself would be happy to be rid of them. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Bush Administration did just that. I also realized at that time that it was now possible to conceive of eliminating nuclear weapons — the only true way to end the threat of nuclear devastation.
We convened a group chaired by General Andrew Goodpaster, which including such senior foreign policy officials as Fred Ikle, Robert McNamara, and Paul Nitze. For the first time, these representatives of the foreign policy establishment recommended that the United States work to eliminate all nuclear weapons — a course of action that could not have been mentioned in Washington not many years before. Through a Stimson trustee, Alton Frye, we also managed to persuade the Council on Foreign Relations to convene a working group on the issue — also a first. Subsequent Stimson work showed how the technical obstacles to disarmament could be overcome and elucidated the political obstacles to that goal from the perspectives of advanced nuclear nations. Most recently, we worked hard (and successfully) to support the negotiation and implementation of the nuclear agreement with Iran.
So, sixty plus years after a young boy hid under his desk waiting for the flash that would signal the coming end of the world, I’m still trying to eliminate the risk of nuclear war. We’ve made some progress, and I like to think that I and Stimson played important roles in what was accomplished. But, even though far fewer in number, the damn things still exist and that flash could occur at any second … NOW … for example, destroying all that we love.
All I can say is that it is essential for all of us to keep trying.
Barry Blechman co-founded the Stimson Center.
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