The Obama administration has achieved two major successes in recent months.
It has won a significant Congressional battle to provide health insurance to more Americans, and it last week signed a major agreement with Russia to reduce nuclear dangers.
Much has been written about philanthropy's successful efforts to influence the overhaul of our health-care system, but less is known about its role in producing a nuclear arms-control treaty between the United States and Russia. The treaty signed last week requires each country to reduce its nuclear weapons arsenals 30 percent by 2020-or more than 1,000 warheads combined.
Nuclear dangers are a critical foreign-policy priority and a concern to which grant makers like the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and the Ploughshares Fund have for years devoted millions of dollars in grants.
The question that many observers may ask is what role philanthropy plays in matters of peace and security. Since treaties are negotiated by diplomats, and nuclear-bomb material is controlled by governments, can nonprofit groups and foundations make enough of a difference to warrant spending time on these issues?
From 2002 to 2006, while at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, I helped make $50-million in grants to reduce the dangers from nuclear, biological, and space weapons.
I spent years trying to determine what these grants achieved, but recent developments show me that foundations have a critical role to play if they are willing to be patient, imaginative, and politically engaged.
Here are some lessons I have learned about what grant makers and donors need to keep in mind to make a difference in promoting peace and security.
The people you support matter as much as the projects. When it comes to security issues, a small group of senior policymakers enter government with the new presidents they serve. In fact, the same people drafting today were applying for foundation grants yesterday.
Rose Gottemoeller, chief negotiator of the new Start nuclear treaty signed last week, worked at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and its subdivision, the Carnegie Moscow Center.
For much of the past decade, Ms. Gottemoeller and government colleagues like Michael McFaul (now at the National Security Council), Robert Einhorn (now at the State Department), and Jon Wolfsthal (now in Vice President Biden's office) did foundation-financed research while they were outside of government and explored common ground with Russian counterparts with whom they would eventually negotiate the treaty.
In another example, my former boss at the MacArthur Foundation, Gary Samore, spent years studying nuclear issues at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations and the MacArthur Foundation. At different times, Mr. Samore was both a recipient and a recommender of foundation grants that would develop new ideas for President Obama's nuclear agenda.
Now he is Mr. Obama's "weapons-of-mass-destruction czar," who coordinated a Nuclear Security Summit that convened 38 heads of state in Washington in April.
The summit's goal was to forge a new consensus on the threat of nuclear terrorism and try to secure the global supply of vulnerable nuclear material within four years. The impetus and outcomes of the summit can be credited to many experts, including John Holdren (now a White House official) and Daniel Poneman (now at the Department of Energy), who had support from multiple foundations to conduct research when they were outside of government.
One grant maker told me recently that 14 of his past grantees now have senior responsibility for nuclear policy within the White House, Pentagon, State Department, and Department of Energy.
One must finance nongovernmental experts, even in matters of national security.
Who among the citizenry knows how to dismantle an atomic bomb and think up new ways to destroy them safely?
The answer is a small number of nuclear scientists working at research centers like Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom, Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security, or associations like the Union of Concerned Scientists. Those scholars rely on grants to study nuclear problems, imagine new solutions, and keep government nuclear labs accountable to the public. In 2003 MacArthur began to invest $50-million to train a new generation of scientists to solve security problems of a technical nature.
The future payoffs were unpredictable, but history tells us the investment was essential.
At the height of cold-war nuclear testing, it was atomic scientists who informed the public about radioactive fallout and helped persuade President Kennedy to sign a partial nuclear test-ban treaty. Scientists would eventually advise treaties to ban nuclear weapons from outer space, contain the spread of these horrific weapons, cut the U.S. and Soviet arsenals by74 percent, and develop new methods to defend nuclear terrorism.
Foundation-financed projects also spawned non-treaty initiatives like the "cooperative threat reduction" programs that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Since 1991 those public-private programs have destroyed 7,500 Soviet warheads and converted 15,000 warheads worth of bomb-grade uranium into nuclear power for one in 10 American homes. Today, Bonnie Jenkins, a former program officer at the Ford Foundation, coordinates these programs at the State Department.
Unfortunately, 25,000 nuclear weapons still exist worldwide with over 2,000 on ready alert.
Expect long waits followed by flurries of activity. Arms- control grantees struggled to make headway during the Bush administration, but their persistence is finally paying off.
President Obama drew on their arguments to issue a new policy that restricts the circumstances in which the president would use nuclear weapons. The policy also puts a freeze on the development of new warheads.
Following this week's summit, Mr. Obama will try to strengthen the efforts to carry out the agreements made in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and then lobby the U.S. Senate to ratify both the New Start Treaty and a separate treaty banning all nuclear weapons tests that has been stuck in the Senate for years. For each of these efforts, the policy research and advocacy began years ago, but the political organizing needs to scale up now.
Supporting good policy is not enough; politics trumps all. Despite the president's constitutional power to negotiate peace, Congress has to support good programs and it can turn years of diplomacy into a dead letter. In 1999 the Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty even though 32 Nobel prize-winning physicists had endorsed it as "central to future efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons." Mr. Obama is facing another partisan ratification battle over the same treaty even though the Bush administration actually supported efforts to enforce it in recent years.
Not enough foundations support efforts to promote the public debate over treaties, sometimes out of concern about the legal limits on lobbying. But plenty of legal opportunities are available to support groups that educate lawmakers. Foundations make a mistake when they sit on the sidelines as self-serving lawmakers obstruct progress on issues that are too important to be left to the politicians.
The purpose of nuclear treaties is to prevent the explosion, launch, and spread of weapons that can obliterate whole cities. If this is a debatable proposition, shouldn't grant makers help ensure that facts prevail over partisanship? This is an area in which even small grantmakers can make significant contributions.
When Warren Buffett pledged $50-million to deal with nuclear threats in 2009, he called it "an investment in a safer world." Mr. Buffett has been quick to acknowledge the limits of his expertise in this area, but he still knows a good investment when he sees one.