For many foundation executives, the advantage of working in philanthropy is to be able to see above the trees—to look across the field, spot trends, and identify promising new approaches. While this certainly defines Carl Robichaud’s work at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, he also likes to work down on the ground, opening pathways through uncharted terrain. A program officer for International Peace and Security at Carnegie, Carl has dedicated most of his professional life to inventing new ways to tackle the threats posed by nuclear weapons—whether it’s working to develop the next generation of experts or creating new mash-ups of funders and innovators capable of addressing these threats collectively. In this interview, one of N Square’s founding funders talks about why nuclear is his issue, his work to bring new voices and new energy to the field, and why more philanthropists should fund work on civilization-level threats.
Q How did you get into this field?
A It was my junior year of college at Wesleyan and I signed up for a writing course with a visiting professor named Jonathan Schell, who had written many influential pieces on nuclear threat for The New Yorker. I had no idea who he was at the time—I signed up for the course because I wanted to be a better writer. But the class opened my eyes to this invisible world of nuclear deterrence. It felt like this was a crucially important issue that no one my age was focusing on. Jonathan was kind enough to serve as the advisor for my senior thesis, which I wrote on “virtual” or “latent” nuclear weapons.
Q What happened next?
A After Wesleyan, I received a Thomas J. Watson fellowship to travel and study abroad. But even as I moved into other jobs and issues, something kept pulling me back to the nuclear question. I worked for the Global Security Institute for a couple years, helping them build out their San Francisco office. GSI was founded by Senator Alan Cranston, a lifelong champion of nuclear arms control. I soon realized I was out of my depth, and that I wanted to continue my education. I ended up at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, where I studied public and international affairs. I saw value in being a generalist, and I studied a variety of issues: economics, politics, military force planning. My capstone project was on rule of law in Afghanistan. I also studied program and policy design, which is something that has really come in handy as a program officer at a foundation.
From Woodrow Wilson I took a job at the Century Foundation, where I started one of the first blogs on Afghanistan and edited volumes about nuclear issues, including a collection on Iran which was, at the time, the most downloaded series the Century Foundation had produced. This was in 2005, when there was a real opportunity to lock in Iran’s nuclear program at a much lower level than it is today. We missed that opportunity in part because we took a maximalist approach that resisted accepting any level of Iranian enrichment. We know how that story has gone. Ten years later we had another chance to make the best of a tough situation. The deal negotiated under the Obama Administration was a strong one that constrained all of Iran’s paths to the bomb. We’re going to regret walking away from it.
Q Let’s jump ahead to your time at Carnegie Corporation of New York. How did you wind up in philanthropy?
A While I was at the Century Foundation, we were doing a lot of work with corporation grantees, and this allowed me to get to know the team at Carnegie a bit and eventually opened the door to a position there. I had been looking at careers in philanthropy, which I thought might be a better fit for my skill set and personality than academics or advocacy. To be an accomplished scholar you need to have a strong internal motivation for recognition. Working at a foundation allows you to support progress regardless of who is getting the recognition.
“WORKING AT A FOUNDATION ALLOWS YOU TO SUPPORT PROGRESS REGARDLESS OF WHO IS GETTING THE RECOGNITION.”
Q Much of your work at Carnegie is focused on finding different ways to solve wicked problems—mainly by expanding the field of funders and practitioners committed to tackling the nuclear threat. Why is this critical?
A The sphere of people who worry about arms control and deterrence is small. We are stuck in old, stale debates, but the world keeps moving forward. We are seeing rapid advances in processing and remote sensing and artificial intelligence. There are also new weapon systems coming online, from cyber weapons to hypersonic missiles. This poses some real challenges, as technology may compress the speed with which decisions have to be made, reduce the certainty of information, and increase the risk of accident or miscalculation. In the 21st century, the fog of war is going to roll in fast and thick, and we need to prepare for that.
But these changes also provide opportunities. Our goal as a foundation has been to bring in outside experts in partnership with those in the nuclear space to better understand the impact of these technological changes. Through this work we’ve helped elevate a cadre of young experts that is interdisciplinary and intergenerational. These are people who are asking tough questions about how cyber intersects with nuclear, and how new space capabilities intersect with nuclear risk. That’s a contribution that I hope we’ll be remembered for.