My Story By Rachel Stohl

Editor’s Note: My Story is an autobiographical series written by the experts and team at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. Each story details the people, places, and events that led the author to dedicate their career to resolving some of the world’s most pressing global challenges to peace and prosperity. We continue this series with Stimson expert Rachel Stohl.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana...

My parents were professors and had colleagues and friends from all over the world. They were also members of Amnesty International, encouraged us to fight injustice wherever we saw it, and instilled in my sister and me the importance of understanding the world around us. Their guidance helped direct my path towards international affairs and global security from an early age.

In 1979, my dad went to the Soviet Union. I was convinced he must be working for the CIA, because no one got to go to Moscow in 1979. In truth, he just went to an International Political Science Association meeting. Shortly thereafter, the United States decided to boycott the Olympics in Moscow, and so I decided I would have to help protect the world from the danger of the Soviets and their weapons of mass destruction. We were often told at school that our little town would be a target of a Soviet strike because of a nuclear research program at Purdue. I don’t know if that was true, but it made an impression.

Fast forward five years. I wanted to learn Dutch because my uncle lived in Amsterdam, but my parents told me it wasn’t practical and said I could learn German instead. After realizing that in learning German, I could help liberate Berlin, stop Soviet influence in Germany, and ultimately protect the free World from the Soviet Union, I agreed to my parents’ suggestion. A great plan!

In May 1989, my family and I were driving through Germany. We stopped at a rest area near one of the entrée points to the highway going through East Germany to Berlin. I begged my dad to divert from our planned route and let us visit Berlin. I had learned German, I was prepared to leave the American sector and see what life was like on the other side of the wall. My dad said no, there would be plenty of opportunities to visit Berlin (I should note that my dad returned to Moscow in 1989 as part of a Search for Common Ground delegation). Nothing was going to change in the near future. How wrong he was (and clearly, had he been a spy, he was a bad one — his knowledge of what was imminent within the Iron Curtain was abysmal)!

My plan to save Berlin was foiled when the Berlin Wall fell six months later in November 1989. Germany and Eastern Europe were on the way to ending Soviet influence — without me.

An East German guard speaks with a Westerner through a broken seam in the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Still, my commitment to stopping the dangers of weapons of mass destruction was undeterred.

Yes, the Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union was disintegrating, but there were still nuclear weapons of concern. After an incomparable undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin (Go Badgers!), I pursued graduate studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) to focus on non-proliferation.

But in my first semester at MIIS, two key events led me to shift my attention from unconventional weapons to examining threats stemming from weapons systems that are widely used in conflicts around the world — or conventional weapons. I had a professor, Ed Laurance, who invited me to be a researcher on a project he was doing for the United Nations on the issue of “micro-disarmament.” This new field looked at the “real” weapons of mass destruction — small arms and light weapons (SALW), or those weapons that were being used to wage countless wars and were killing people in the hundreds of thousands annually.

At the same time, I took a workshop on ballistic missile defense and realized that the focus of all my attention had been on a theoretical threat. I wanted to do something that would save lives now. The project on SALW made me realize I was passionate about combating a tangible threat to human survival — conventional weapons.

Rachel's studies brought her to the University of Wisconsin, and to graduate school at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. While at Monterey, she worked on a project researching small arms and light weapons. That experience inspired Rachel to focus on the global threat posed by conventional weapons.

During my graduate studies, I was lucky enough to be awarded the Center for Nonproliferation’s International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program’s fellowship to work for six months at the United Nations’ then Center for Disarmament Affairs in New York.

While working at the United Nations, I staffed the First Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms and Light Weapons and the High-Level Workshop on Post-Conflict Peace-Building in West Africa. From then on, I was hooked. I decided I would no longer pursue a world free from nuclear weapons, at least not in my professional life, but instead would focus on current weapons of war and work to establish rules and regulations for the responsible trade and use of conventional arms.

After my time at the United Nations, I returned to Monterey to finish my master’s degree, at which time Ed Laurance told me I needed to go to Washington, DC to get experience in U.S. policy. So I did. Planning to stay only 6 months, I accepted a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellowship at the British American Security Information Council. Twenty years later, I have been fortunate to have worked with amazing mentors and colleagues at the Center for Defense Information, numerous humanitarian organizations, and now at the Stimson Center.

Rachel addresses diplomats and experts at the United Nations on the importance of the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms.

I have served as a consultant to the United Nations on the Arms Trade Treaty and the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms.

I have worked with civil society, industry, and governments to tackle complex issues related to the conventional arms trade that have saved lives in small towns around the world like the one I grew up in. I have dedicated my professional life to protecting people from the concrete dangers of an unregulated and irresponsible arms trade. While it’s not an issue that I believe will be solved in my lifetime, it remains critical. It is not a question of if, but where and when these weapons will cause devastation and chaos.

And though my professional travels take me to the Pacific Islands, Europe, and the Caribbean, I can go to Moscow anytime I want.


Rachel Stohl is Vice President and the Director of the Conventional Defense Program at the Stimson Center.

Innovative Ideas Changing the World


Created with an image by andredrechsel - "ronald reagan mikhail sergeyevich gorbachev berlin"; United Nations; Anna MacDonald; Sharon Emerson