Month: November 2018

The Negotiator

Michelle Dover has a perspective on nuclear weapons that few others have. She grew up a short drive away from the Hanford nuclear production site in Washington State. Plutonium manufactured in her community was used in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945. For Michelle, growing up in the shadow of one of the most toxic radioactive sites on Earth meant nuclear catastrophe was a backdrop to life. Now director of programs at the Ploughshares Fund, one of N Square’s founding funders, in Washington, DC, Michelle has dedicated her career to reducing that threat. In this interview, she talks about the field of nuclear nonproliferation, how it’s changing, and what gives her hope for the future.

Q  How did you get into this field?

A  It was a bit of a winding path. I grew up near the Hanford nuclear site—one of the legacy Manhattan Project sites—so nuclear threat was always in the background for me. I’ve always been interested in how conflict is pervasive in human interactions, in both the positive and negative sense. Differences of opinion and differences of interest permeate our lives from the individual to the state level. I was always more interested in how things were resolved, so I didn’t end up at law school. The skill that I needed was negotiation.

But I really came into the field through the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). They sent me to a course at the Monterey Institute and I met the most fascinating people. When I finished my graduate work, I was accepted as a Nonproliferation Graduate Fellow at the NNSA. I worked on international safeguards—including the policies of the international inspectors that go into different nuclear facilities, the agreements between countries on the types of technology they’re allowed to use, and the way they approach analysis.

Q  Who was the Secretary of Energy then?

A  Dr. Steven Chu. Many people were excited to have a scientist running the Department of Energy. It changes the tone of conversation, knowing that he understood the science behind things. My impression was that civil servants were happy to have somebody who understood and appreciated the work of the scientists within the complex.

Q  Is that also what excited you about the people you met in the nuclear field?

A  When I was taking the course at Monterey Institute, I remember talking to scientists from Livermore National Laboratory who had done some really interesting technical work. I had assumed that work was what they’d be most proud of—but the thing they were really most proud of was going into places like Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union to help secure nuclear material and engage Russian scientists. I really respect that dedication to the issue and the sense that whatever small part you play, you really are contributing to making the world a safer place. That is one of the key features that I see in people who work in this field.

I did my graduate work on a phenomenon called epistemic communities. They’re tight-knit groups of people, typically based in science, who share a common language and a common set of opinions about how the world should operate. When this phenomenon was described in the early 1990s, the arms control community was a key study. It’s a group of people who refer to themselves as a community, and, once you’re in—once you can speak the language, once you can articulate what some of these shared values are—I’ve found it to be very supportive. This strong network gives them a very powerful impact on policy.

Hanford N Reactor
Photo Credit – United States Department of Energy.

Q  Does that make it harder, though, for the public to understand nuclear issues?

A  One of the things that we run into is how to translate this for the broader public, and how not to turn them off. I offer up my own background as an example that you don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to have a say in these issues, or even have a career in this field. You need nuclear scientists, and you also need people from other backgrounds, perspectives, and disciplines. I think that’s the best practice when you’re talking about policies that affect everyone.

For the public, it’s not just about making nuclear issues meaningful for them—it’s also about giving them agency. People find this topic important, but they don’t think they can make a difference because it’s something that’s controlled by faceless bureaucrats. It’s always a challenge in a highly technical field to figure out what to convey to the broader population, and what they will find interesting or useful. But there’s a broader world out there that does care, and people do have important things to say on this. So, how do you give them a chance to do that? And how do you give them the tools and knowledge that they need to have an informed opinion?


Q  How do you do that?

A  My perspective is informed by growing up near a Manhattan Project site. It was frustrating to know that one of the most highly contaminated sites in the US was a 20-minute drive from my house. I felt powerless. I was told this radioactive material would far outlive me and future generations. But I didn’t see policymakers addressing the issue unless someone raised it in a really public way. And you need that—you need the public to say that this is an issue that’s important. The public wants to see a world in which we’re trying to reduce nuclear threats, where we get rid of weapons through negotiation or engagement and not through military action. But unless you are telling policymakers that these are your values and your principles, and this is what you think should happen, they’re not going to make it a priority.

Q  What role do you think popular media has in creating a common understanding of the threats posed by nuclear weapons—or even in influencing policy?

A  There’s the lore that President Reagan saw the movie The Day After and that was a wake-up call for him on the effects of nuclear weapons. Talk to anyone in the field and they usually have an opinion on Dr. Strangelove, War Games, The Hunt for Red October. You just start listing off the movies and you realize that nuclear weapons, how we relate to them, and what we think of them has been a theme in our popular culture. Public consensus is shaped by that. Nucleus, one of the groups that has worked with N Square, has done some really interesting work on how people between the ages of 15 and 35 view the world. It’s not so much that they think the apocalypse can be stopped, it’s that they think the apocalypse is inevitable and that they will survive it. They point to examples like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner or other dystopian novels where the apocalypse has happened, but the focus is on how you survive. It’s an interesting take on nuclear weapons, because does that mean you think it’s impossible to reduce nuclear threats or to eliminate them? How do you move that focus to before the event arrives?

I think Hollywood can help with that. Do you know that the president will only have at most about 12 minutes to decide whether to launch nuclear weapons in the case of a potentially incoming strike? Do you know how many weapons are out there? Do you know who has them? Do you know how much money it takes to maintain them? Do you know under what conditions we are actually going to use them? Hollywood can play an important role in communicating the basic facts about these issues.

Michelle Dover at Hanford B Reactor

Q  How did you end up at Ploughshares Fund?

A  By chance—a colleague sent me a note about an opening. I was aware of what grantmaking looked like but I had never really thought about the role that foundations play in supporting civil society. When I got to Ploughshares, I found they were doing amazing things. Ploughshares funds in a few different areas. We’re aiming for a world free of nuclear weapons, and we see three main approaches to that: get rid of the ones that already exist, prevent new groups or states from getting them, and then address the underlying problems that drive states to proliferation to begin with. We pride ourselves on trying to be as nimble and responsive as we can be, despite the fact that foundations can be slow to respond.

I came at a time when Ploughshares was focusing a lot of its work on diplomacy with Iran. I watched the debate over the deal that summer and saw so many policymakers speak about the deal in the Senate. For those who supported the agreement, they were listing the work of groups in civil society as having factored into their decision, sometimes citing specific experts. For me, it was such a powerful example of the role that civil society can play. The way I see it, we may be playing on the margins in some ways, but they’re really important margins.


Q  What innovations in the field are you most excited about?

A  Some of the most interesting innovation involves bringing in voices that haven’t been heard before, or voices that may have been there but were not given a prominent place at the table. The work that some in the Navajo Nation are doing to tell the story of the impact of uranium mining, and the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, are good examples. There’s a lot of energy in that type of work that is really powerful.

In the technology arena, democratizing access to information is a game-changer. Instead of having to hunt down routes for ships, there’s satellite imagery you can buy, and there are large amounts of data that are available to anyone if they have the time and they’re smart about how they spend it. I think of innovation as, “What are the new ideas that we’re applying to this space?” Somebody told me once that the most creative space is the space between fields, and that’s where we’re seeing some of the brightest innovation.

Photo Credit – F Charles Photography

I also think that cultivating networks of people who are working on—or could be working on—nuclear issues is itself a key innovation. At Ploughshares Fund we work hard to cultivate a network for our grantees so that they’re not working on their projects in isolation and can draw on a broader field of people working on this issue. And, of course, that’s the central idea of N Square—to facilitate and support this kind of connecting the dots between different kinds of experts to create a new kind of community working these problems together. It’s been fun to sit in the room at N Square convenings and see people from completely outside the field saying, “Wait a minute. How many people work on this issue? How many weapons are there actually in the world? How big is this problem?” People are able to draw connections that are not otherwise obvious. I’ve appreciated the perspective that this problem is solvable, which brings me hope.


Q  What else gives you hope?

A  I’m a strong believer that change is possible and that civil society can influence that change. It can be a force for reducing threats and increasing peace. And I don’t just mean peace as an absence of war, but as a place where you can achieve your potential. With nuclear weapons, we’ve gone from the peak of almost 70,000 weapons to 15,000. We can keep going. If we’ve gotten this far, movement is possible.

If you look at the bigger picture, you see that there’s so much that we’ve already done to reduce the chances of another Cuban Missile Crisis. Is there more that we can be doing? Absolutely. But the point is that we’ve seen that movement before. We’re at a place where, at least in the US, we’re questioning who we want to be. In looking at the current grassroots mobilizations, I’ve been reminded that we are in the midst of a values-based movement, where what you stand for matters in some cases more than the issue. From a conflict resolution point of view, that’s a positive discussion to have. We have an opportunity to demonstrate what we value, and that’s what drives my work and what gives me hope.

Q  One of the limitations in this field is that not that many people fund this work. How can the field attract more funders?

A  Foundations each have their own personality and mission, but we also have places where our missions align. I’m a part of groups like the Peace and Security Funders Group, where I can engage with foundations that are outside of the nuclear field but are still working in peace and security to hear how they’re thinking about problems. Bringing in new foundations or new types of funding requires thinking outside the box about how your projects fit with others’ goals. It also requires making the case of why it’s important and why you think providing resources will make a difference. We do our best to reach out to potential new donors to make that case, but it will require a field-wide effort. The good news is that we’ve seen some new individuals either become engaged or re-engaged with the topic since the 2016 election. In terms of very large new institutional funders, I really haven’t seen much, but that’s something that we’re going to keep plugging away at. N Square, which helps make these connections, is part of this outreach effort.

Q  What do you think the nuclear threat field will look like in 10 years, and what could the future look like if everything goes well?

A  You’re going to see a field that preserves the important lessons we’ve learned. There is a very strong mentorship component in this field and a transfer of knowledge that I’m confident will continue. The field will be more diverse and more inclusive. There will be people from different fields and walks of life who have a say on some of these issues. There is even a chance that multilateral treaties could be negotiated. Maybe that’s a hope, but given how much globalization has affected relationships between countries, I think it’s a reasonable one. I believe we can truly make a safer and more secure world, and that working on reducing nuclear threats opens up more space to tackle the other problems. If we can keep addressing it, we can make room for collaboration and cooperation on a variety of issues that affect us all.

Photo Credit – Patrick Dover Photography

Five Minutes to Save the World

The first words you read when you enter the Nuclear Decisions game ( set the tone for what’s to follow: “You receive information that the US might be under nuclear attack. You have five minutes to ignore or respond to the threat. The clock is ticking. What do you do?” With these words, players enter the game—and get put on the clock—assuming the role of a military officer charged with determining whether nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are, or are not, heading for the US mainland. A mistake in judgment, in either direction, could be catastrophic.

Produced in partnership by the game design firm Playmatics, the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), N Square, and Public Radio International (PRI), the first “module” of the Nuclear Decisions game launched in late May 2018—the result of its own breakneck decision process. Just three weeks earlier, N Square had learned that the season finale of the CBS series Madam Secretary would feature a nuclear crisis storyline that some in the N Square community had helped bring to the show. Ideas were quickly floated for how to convert that moment into an opportunity to draw viewers and others into deeper conversation about nuclear decision-making.

“We knew that there was likely to be a cliffhanger ending, and we assumed it would be that missiles would be coming and you don’t know what will happen next,” says Nancy Gallagher, a public policy expert who heads CISSM and served as a lead author of the game. “We thought, maybe we can give people an idea of the complexities of how we could have ended up in this situation in the first place—and get them to consider what decision-making at a policy level looks like around nuclear weapons.”

Decision Game Module One:
While covering the night shift at NORAD, you receive data from U.S. early warning satellites that several ballistic missiles were just launched from locations within Russia.
Image credit – DoD

N Square quickly built a team around this idea. Playmatics founder Nick Fortugno, a fellow in the N Square Innovators Network, had a history of designing timely and serious games, including a recent experimental news game created with ProPublica exploring the experiences of asylum seekers. Gallagher, who had served as executive director of the Clinton administration’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Task Force, had extensive experience conducting opinion polls and simulations about global decision-making—both efforts geared at understanding and influencing public discourse around nuclear weapons. Together, and with the help of colleagues, they turned their focus to creating a game that would marry their talents and capture the Madam Secretary moment.


For Fortugno, the fact that US policy and operating procedure requires decision-makers to evaluate the verity of a possible nuclear attack within five minutes had to be central to the game. So a ticking clock became a key feature. Given their own time pressures, the team didn’t have the bandwidth to create a deeply multimedia experience—but they also didn’t want to, says Fortugno. “Multimedia wouldn’t communicate the complexity of the situation as well as text,” he says. “We wanted to overwhelm the user with information—to give them the chance to read it, but also to realize just how much information there was, and how complex and even contradictory it was, and how unsure they would feel even after taking it all in.”

In the game, players have access to factual information and advisors with different perspectives to help them navigate each decision—but that doesn’t make their task any easier. Creating that part “tapped into the experiences that I had when I was working in the State Department, trying to put myself in the shoes of multiple people with different political perspectives and think about how they would think about a given question,” says Gallagher.

Decision Game Module One:
The preliminary tracking data suggests the missiles are targeting some of the 399 ICBMs stationed at three military bases (Warren, Minot, and Malmstrom Air Force bases), which span North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Montana. These silos are hardened to protect the missiles inside them, but could be destroyed by a direct hit.
Image credit – DoD

As the deadline approached, the game still needed a host. So the team reached out to Jodi Gersh, head of Public Radio International’s Engagement Lab and also a member of the N Square Innovators Network. Ultimately, PRI agreed to host the game, promote it on the air, and use it as a springboard for enhancing its own coverage of nuclear issues. (Case in point: this new PRI piece about the growing market for personal bunkers, hazmat suits, and emergency rations in South Korea.)

The Nuclear Decisions game launched on time in May—but that wasn’t the end of the game building. Since then, three more five-minute decision modules have been added, with two more still planned. Users play each one in succession, with the choices they make affecting how the story unfolds. Each new module explores a different facet of nuclear policy and how it might contribute to the buildup toward a crisis. “How did we end up with these really vulnerable ICBMs?” explains Gallagher. “Why is it that we don’t have many channels of communication with the Russians? And why do we have this policy that basically relies on other people believing that we’re going to incinerate millions of their civilians?”


Players may find themselves in the shoes of a member of Congress, an average voter, or others weighing dilemmas and making decisions that raise or lower the risks of nuclear war. In all cases, there are no clear-cut, easy, or right answers. “We wanted people to understand it’s not just the president who makes this one really big decision,” says Gallagher. “It’s Americans at any number of different levels, including somebody who works for the military, or somebody who works through the State Department, or civil society activists, or just regular citizens.”

Decision Game Module One:
ICBMs travel at about 15,000 mph, so one launched 6,000 miles away could hit a target within 30 minutes. Current U.S. policy and operating procedures require you to make a decision within five minutes about whether this is a real attack or a false alarm.
Image credit – Sara Santini

The citizens part is important—because actively engaging a broader public in the conversation about the challenges of nuclear decision-making is the game’s ultimate goal. “It’s easier for people to become active on climate issues because they can do concrete things to make a difference, even if it’s changing their light bulbs,” says Gallagher. “It’s harder to think about how you can give people any kind of feeling of agency around nuclear weapons.” But she does see promise in the power of games like this one to spark new public discourse. “My 12-year-old nephew played it, and it led to a conversation with him that I never would have expected about what some of the policy issues were.”

“Telling stories in new ways can itself draw people’s attention and help them absorb your message,” says Fortugno. “With this game, users are agents rather than perceivers—they have to make decisions about nuclear weapons instead of passively reading about it. That kind of agency creates understanding in a way that other things can’t.”

Play the game:


Incubating Peace

Over the past decade, the world of philanthropy has been significantly influenced—disrupted, even—by a large infusion of new money. This money is coming from new and often young philanthropists who have acquired it largely through dynamic, risk-taking entrepreneurship. These new entrants into the traditional field of charitable giving bring with them a decidedly private-sector attitude about risk and results—and a willingness to break traditions. Failure is not just OK but valued for the learning it fosters. So are partnerships with an array of institutions and people that extend beyond the world of nonprofits.

One Earth Future Foundation (OEF) embodies these dynamics. Founded by Marcel Arsenault and Cynda Collins Arsenault in 2009, OEF has a simple but audacious mission: to catalyze systems that eliminate root causes of war, effectively eliminating war as a means of resolving disputes by the year 2100. Central to OEF is its Future Labs department, where new projects and programs aimed at enhancing human collaboration in the interest of peace get developed and tested. One of these programs is the SAFE (Shared Awareness, Fusion, and Engagement) Network, which seeks to harness non-classified data analytics to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons. Jon Bellish, who runs OEF’s Future Labs, has been an N Square Innovators Network fellow since the network began. In this brief interview, he talks about OEF’s vision for creating structural changes in society, why he joined the Innovators Network, and why OEF has decided to help fund one of the network’s first pilot projects.

Q  What makes One Earth Future’s founder, Marcel Arsenault, different as a philanthropist?

A  Marcel is willing to be disruptive, but not for it’s own sake. Rather, he sees what he believes are missing elements to philanthropic endeavors and looks to address them. For example, he would be totally OK going to Davos and criticizing the way private philanthropy has been going about some aspect of its work. But he wouldn’t trash the whole system. Instead he’d say, “Private philanthropy is essential to our future. Here’s how we can do better.”

Q  Can you talk a bit about the SAFE Network, and why Marcel and other folks at OEF are so passionate about the program and the approach it envisions?

A  SAFE stands for Shared Awareness, Fusion, and Engagement. It is a project that will use open data from a range of sources and pair that with a network of people who can analyze it and decide if there is a risk of nuclear proliferation or crisis. If there is a crisis, an elite set of trusted third parties—international diplomats, nuclear security and operations experts, and former military leaders—will be called into action in order to deescalate tensions before it’s too late. All of these trusted third parties will have strong credibility with global leaders and a decidedly non-nationalistic role. The shared goal will be to prevent, then diminish, nuclear crisis from becoming a nuclear “use.”

We didn’t know a lot about the space when we began. But like all good designers, we don’t just dream something up ourselves and decide for everyone what they need or want. We go to the users or customers and interview them to learn what they need—and that’s what we did here. And we have the advantage of resources to bring. Ultimately, we determined that there was a potential value to deploying such a network and we have just done so. We’ll see if it gains traction.

Photo credit – One Earth Future Foundation

Q  How does OEF see changing or improving global governance for the better?

A  We are living in a new landscape. There are many more relationships today than just nation-to-nation. We see more and more relationships between cities and nations, states and nations, cities and cities, etc. Not only are the levels of engagement more diverse, but the rise of tribalism has made multilateral approaches essential, and at these different levels. OEF’s central answer to what is needed comes from what we see as the three basic ways in which humans interact. The first is hierarchies, where someone has authority or power over you and therefore can make you take certain actions. This has been the typical approach in international relations. The second is markets. Since the Industrial Revolution, markets have been a powerful tool for effecting change, essentially coercing people to do things because they see it as being in their economic self-interest.

The third, though, is networks. In a network people can be influenced to do things because they identify as part of a group. They are connected in some way, and there is a strong sense of a shared goal and therefore shared value when actions are taken. We as a society are the least good at this approach, at least when it comes to making and implementing public policy. Networks can build trust, and yet they are not yet as powerful as markets or hierarchies. But most life outside officialdom and markets is through networks.


So OEF’s approach is to increase the emphasis and value of networked coordination as part of this equation. This is a little in the weeds, but it’s really networked coordination and not networks that’s key for OEF. Some of our best work happens within institutions—helping different parts of NATO work together differently, for example. I think SAFE will do at least as much to bring networked coordination within hierarchies as it will to create new networks per se.

Getting better at this is a key part of OEF’s theory of change. For example, nuclear arms control treaties came into being in part because of a network relationship. Sure, they are managed in a hierarchical system, but presidents and their advisors are part of a small, elite network and relationships at that high level are powerful. Nobody coerced these leaders into entering the treaty. These same treaties can later fail because the network component that existed when it came into being fades when new powerful players enter the stage and wield that power in a hierarchical fashion among nations. Witness the current administration’s track record of leaving a series of treaties more for ideological reasons than efficacy. There is no network to help defend them.

Q  Are you worried about proving that the SAFE Network is a viable approach?

A  What I think OEF and N Square share is the sometimes dicey position of not having to prove something works or has market value but rather demonstrates evidence that it can. Potential donors or partners like to see something new or innovative that has enough of a test track to give confidence and therefore gains partners or donors. That being said, I don’t think private-sector approaches always map well to non-private-sector endeavors. Marcel may disagree, but I actually think there are clear limits to where the private-sector tools and sensibilities translate.

But there are funders and philanthropies that understand the parts that can translate—the Omidyars, Skoll, Marcel, Gates, Soros. We can have a much bigger part of the philanthropic world taking this approach—risk-taking for a couple of years, refining and learning for two or three more years, then going to more traditional funders to say, “We are ready, and we know this works.” If we got more serious about measurement and evaluation, we could be far more effective as a sector. Ultimately, we could solve problems in ways that governments are not allowed to because of political or institutional constraints. That is the value of philanthropic investment in networks and collaboration—bridging the gaps we see with a more holistic approach to problem-solving.

Q  How did you learn about N Square, and ultimately decide to join the Innovators Network?

A  My first interaction was with a dinner in San Francisco with folks from N Square. At that point our work in developing the SAFE Network was about eight months old. Our big question at that point was, “Will this die if no one uses it?” You guys introduced us to the team at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. They had been doing similar work using open source tools. So there seemed to be a great opportunity to learn from them and to determine if there were synergies between us. N Square was actually modeling the way OEF does things—giving some modest resources for a small group to try new stuff. The way N Square nurtured relationships and utilized talent was also something we took note of. Essentially, your approach is to test specific things in order to learn from them, and to be prepared for failure. That work, though, is what fundamentally builds a network. That was impressive to us.

Photo credit – One Earth Future Foundation

Q  OEF is going to help fund “Datayo,” one of the first projects to come out of N Square’s own version of an incubator, the Innovators Network. You were on the team that prototyped and tested the project. Why did you decide to help fund it?

A  Datayo was built on two propositions: that information about nuclear weapons is inaccessible and siloed, and that recent advances in the quality and affordability of open data present an opportunity that didn’t previously exist in the field. Datayo will be an online, collaborative data lab that complies open data and presents it in a useable form. We hope that it can improve dialogue within and across governments, add value to the private sector, and open public conversations about these weapons, both in and out of the media. We are funding it because it supports our own SAFE project. I don’t personally do a “lit review” of grant investments like a standard program officer at a foundation. I don’t need to be a subject matter expert. If regular grantmakers looked at our process, they wouldn’t see typical “rigor.” Instead, we like iteration, testing things, experimentation. This helps us learn. We start out “stupid” and become less and less stupid as we try things. Eventually, we get smart about a specific topic or technique. Then we’re ready to design and even deploy something new.


Q  What do you think the nuclear threat field will look like in 10 years, and what could the future look like if everything goes well?

A  I see two competing forces that will play out over the next 10 years. The first is rising nationalism and geopolitical competition among nuclear armed states. As we saw last year between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, these risks are real and nuclear weapons are clearly implicated. The second, countervailing force is the potential for open data to open conversations in this space. I’ve compared it in the past to the Protestant Reformation. Just as the printing press created possibilities for individuals to interpret the Bible without the intervention of the clergy, open data can allow citizens to draw their own conclusions about the costs and benefits of these weapons without the intervention of the “high priests” of nuclear weapons. If we are successful, I expect we’ll see less awe and fear on the part of citizens and more accountability for those who make decisions about the development and use of these weapons systems. That’s the future we are betting on at OEF.

Photo credit – One Earth Future Foundation