The Risk Taker
Pioneering peace and security funder Carl Robichaud talks about the risks and rewards of finding (and funding) new ways to tackle existential threats.
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.
Q You’re a founding member of the funders collaborative that created N Square. Why did you want to participate in the collaborative? What was the opportunity and what were the risks?
A There is a lot of innovation going on within the nuclear security space, but there’s also a strong status quo bias. Organizations are stuck in their current ways of doing things. We felt there was a real opportunity with N Square to create space for risk-taking and experimentation. N Square has been a small investment relative to our overall portfolio but it has already paid dividends by giving us and our partners new tools and approaches. It has made us better and more effective grantmakers and has brought new energy and new voices to the field. Our first couple years were largely about experimentation. Today it’s much more about building and sustaining a network of innovators. We’re just entering the third year of this new strategy. It’s gone well, but the proof will be in the results.
“THERE IS A LOT OF INNOVATION GOING ON WITHIN THE NUCLEAR SECURITY SPACE, BUT THERE’S ALSO A STRONG STATUS QUO BIAS. ORGANIZATIONS ARE STUCK IN THEIR CURRENT WAYS OF DOING THINGS. WE FELT THERE WAS A REAL OPPORTUNITY TO CREATE SPACE FOR RISK-TAKING AND EXPERIMENTATION.”
Q What are you learning from this work about building networks?
A Networks can do amazing things, but they require care and feeding. It takes time to identify potential network members, and then it takes time to make the network sticky. Talented people are busy, they’re in demand, and they have diverse interests. It’s important to use and to value their time appropriately. But when you’re talking about a diffuse process like reducing nuclear risk, finding that right value proposition is a challenge. You need to design projects and engagements that they deem worthwhile—where they see the benefits and the opportunities to make a meaningful contribution. So it’s more than just about bringing people together. The other thing is the social element. People are likely to stay involved in something when they’re with people they enjoy, having experiences that enrich their lives. You can’t underestimate the human element to building networks.
Q What are you learning from your efforts to engage other funders in this work?
A This area of philanthropy is not for everyone. It doesn’t lend itself to metrics or to being able to identify direct impact from your funding. It’s more appropriate for funders comfortable with risk and ambiguity, who recognize that if you can change the risk factor by just 10 percent on a problem that threatens hundreds of millions of people, you’re getting a lot of leverage. One of the strongest supporters of the nuclear security field behind the scenes has been Warren Buffett, who is known for his acumen in understanding risk and identifying value. A little bit of money goes a long way in this field. And these are truly existential threats that aren’t receiving the attention they deserve from philanthropists. If you’re a philanthropist who cares about the future of humanity it makes sense to focus some attention here. Nuclear weapons are too important to leave to the experts in the deterrence community, who already think they know everything they need to know about these weapons and their impact.
“IF YOU CAN CHANGE THE RISK FACTOR BY JUST 10 PERCENT ON A PROBLEM THAT THREATENS HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, YOU’RE GETTING A LOT OF LEVERAGE.”
Q Why do you think it’s hard to get not just funder engagement but public engagement around nuclear issues today?
A Psychologically it’s really hard to keep it in the forefront of our minds that we’re so close to annihilation, that we control all of this destructive power, and that we’ve delegated responsibility for it to just a few leaders. In the US, there’s one person, the president, who controls these nuclear weapons and decides whether or not they are used. That’s an uncomfortable reality, so we push it to the back of our minds. These days, when North Korea tests missiles or nuclear devices we’re reminded of the risk. When there are tensions in the Ukraine or the Baltics we’re reminded of these risks. But once the crisis is over we quickly push it to the back of our minds again.
Q Do politics complicate this as well?
A They do. But at the same time, nuclear policy can be resistant to political decisions. The Obama Administration came into office wanting to dramatically reduce the number of nuclear warheads in the world. But they quickly ran up against bureaucratic resistance and a very stubborn status quo. The system is strongly biased against changing any component of US nuclear posture and policy. If President Trump decided to pursue a dramatically more aggressive nuclear policy, he would run into opposition from the bureaucracy as well. And even if US politics changed and US leaders decided to go in a different direction, they can’t do that without partners in Russia or in China. President Obama and his military advisors were willing to go down to 1,000 deployed nuclear warheads, but President Putin didn’t want to, so we got stuck again. Even if you had a political movement in the US in support of sounder policies, there’s a check on that because other countries have their own political and bureaucratic constraints. So there are major obstacles to limiting the role of nuclear weapons and reducing the size of nuclear arsenals.
Q N Square is incubating a number of projects through the Innovators Network, including the Open Intelligence Project. Can you say more about that?
A A researcher interested in the proliferation challenge in North Korea or Iran now has access to commercial satellite imagery and algorithms that were, until very recently, the sole domain of spy agencies. And there are new open source tools coming online all the time. The Open Intelligence Project, as we are calling it right now, draws on public-private partnerships to leverage these new tools and help experts become more effective. And it has applications that go far beyond nuclear security issues. I can’t say much more at this stage, but we are very excited to see where it goes.
Q How do you think this work can be sustained?
A Our goal is to see these approaches to innovation embedded in core institutions within the field. It’s great to see organizations like the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Stimson Center, or the Middlebury Institute investing in innovation and building teams that reflect a diversity of expertise. That’s the type of culture change we want to see—and that’s what would ultimately make N Square’s work sustainable. N Square was never meant to continue indefinitely. We believe that the principles that inform its work can live on through leaders in the field and through the next generation of experts, scholars, and advocates who have been introduced to this different way of thinking.
Q What do you think the nuclear threat field will look like in 10 years? What could the future look like if everything goes well?
A Nuclear issues are salient again because the nuclear threat has increased. The issue has once again become hard to ignore. My hope is that we can draw on this increased relevance to build a community that is creative, diverse, inclusive, innovative, and—most importantly—effective. If the field can adapt to new circumstances we can play a critical role in human safety and security.