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NTI at 20: Laura Holgate on Joining NTI, Working at the White House, Preventing Nuclear Terrorism, Championing Women, and More

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Laura Holgate’s remarkable career has taken her from the departments of Energy and Defense to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) to the White House National Security Council to an ambassadorial post in Vienna, Austria and back to NTI. Today, she serves as vice president for NTI’s Materials Risk Management program. Her many other roles include co-founder of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy.

Over the course of this year, as NTI marks its 20th anniversary, our experts will share some reflections on two decades of working to build a safer world—accomplishments and challenges, lessons learned along the way, visions for the future, and more. Today, we hear from Holgate, who was there when NTI opened in 2001.

You have quite the resume! Let's go back to 2001 when you joined NTI. What was your initial role, and what was NTI like in those early days?

Well, NTI was the place to be! Everybody was so excited about it because of the very intentional scoping study that had been done before it opened. There had been a lot of outreach to people inside government, outside government, to help Joan Rohlfing and the scoping study team really think hard about what a private, well-funded organization could bring to the issues we address. It was very clear to me that I wanted to be part of this new venture. I certainly wasn't alone, but I did have some benefits in that I knew many of the principles involved. I knew Charlie Curtis when he was Deputy Secretary at the Energy Department. Joan and I had been friends since '92. I had traveled and testified and spent a lot of time with Senator Nunn when I was working at the Defense Department. So, I knew that this was a group that was going to do interesting and exciting things, and I was thrilled to have a chance to join.

NTI opened just a little more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, and my initial role was as Vice President for Russian and New Independent States Programs. This represented the heritage that is a throughline of NTI, recognizing the special role, responsibility, and relationship between the U.S. and Russia as the two largest holders of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials and as countries that are quite influential with other states. NTI has understood and recognized the value of U.S.-Russia dialogue and connection from the start.

Coming out of direct responsibility for the Nunn-Lugar assistance programs [to secure and eliminate nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction left across the former Soviet Union] inside Russia and other new independent states from when I was at the Pentagon and at the Energy Department, I was also well aware of where the U.S. government had constraints, where some of the gaps were in the solution set for some of the challenges in Russia and newly independent states.

I knew where we could be either the intellectual glue or, in some cases, the financial glue to help bind together aspects of cooperation between governments—between the U.S. government and Russian government especially—and to address pieces of the nuclear materials puzzle that weren't being addressed.

We spent a lot of time thinking about what would be smart to do and asking: Is the U.S. government doing it? Are they not doing it because they don't want to, because they can't, because they don't have the money? We were learning and understanding what the limits were and how we could help. We were in the early days of doing what NTI has subsequently become known for: identifying the problem, developing solutions to the problem, piloting a solution, and then turning it over for scale-up to governments or others. That was how we approached things in those early days, just as we do now.

In 2009, you were tapped for a White House job–to tackle WMD (weapons of mass destruction) threat reduction and terrorism. You served as a “sherpa” for the series of Nuclear Security Summits, and then you went on to Austria as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations International Organizations in Vienna and to the International Atomic Energy Agency. All of that was really directly in line with NTI's mission and your work with NTI. How was the transition?

Well, it was obviously a dream job to have a chance to go to the White House to work on these issues that I dedicated my prior government service to and then my eight years at NTI—and to do so for President Obama who was clearly prioritizing these issues.

I did not join the administration until July 2009. So, I was still at NTI when President Obama delivered his April 2009 Prague speech that essentially set the nuclear agenda for the years ahead. I remember at NTI we were all watching and just saying, “Wow, this is it. This is so exciting.” At that point I had accepted the position, but I hadn’t taken it up yet. I knew those were going to be the issues that I was asked to work on, and so, that was just a wonderful confluence of presidential interests and the opportunity to support that.

My history going back to the Defense Department included work on nuclear as well as biological and chemical weapons, and that broad set of threats was my mission at the White House. I was very much informed in the work that we did on bio by NTI’s approach to bio and the connection between bioterrorism, biosecurity, and public health, and especially global public health. That’s part of what underlay the notion that became the Global Health Security Agenda, which was something that that my office developed and that Beth Cameron, who later became the NTI | bio vice president, was instrumental in bringing into fruition and pushing its implementation.

The Nuclear Security Summits were obviously a highlight, and there again, NTI was a source of inspiration and support, especially after the first summit, with the initiation of the Global Dialogue on Nuclear Security Priorities and the NTI Nuclear Security Index. These were activities that NTI developed explicitly in support of the formal process of the Nuclear Security Summits. I felt then—and still do—that the Global Dialogue was the most effective “track one-and-half” process I had ever been part of, and I had been part of a lot, from both sides. It was a process through which you could track an idea from its origin in a coffee discussion, perhaps, or an NTI white paper, and then see it manifested in a communiqué signed by over 50 global leaders.

The Global Dialogue really provided a safe place for people involved in the formal process and people outside the formal process to cross-pollinate and share ideas and be a little vulnerable, and be a little, you know, ambitious and think through ideas and play with them. And then, there was enough critical mass from that Global Dialogue process among people who were also part of the official process to inform that work. So, you saw an idea very concretely moving from one to the other and back again. It was just an incredibly powerful support system for the summit process.

Similarly, the NTI Index. That was my bible as I would go to other countries or would work with the interagency to say, okay, for next the summit we want, you know, Japan to do this and Jordan to do that and Switzerland to agree to this. It was a publicly visible document that I could use. Obviously, I also had information that wasn't public, that may have informed my ideas—but I could use the NTI Index as an opening: “Look, you could raise your score. We noticed that other countries are doing better. You know, how about we work together on this?” And so, it was incredibly powerful to have those tools from NTI while I was working as an official.

That goes directly to my next question. Nuclear materials minimization and security has been a great success story, right? So today, what do you think the future holds for these materials? You changed the name of the program you lead at NTI from “minimization” to Materials Risk Management.

Well, I think the most important starting point is to recognize the success we’ve had. Three or four decades ago, more than 50 countries had highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the raw materials of nuclear weapons. Now we have 22. So, that's a significant reduction. But if you look at who those 22 are now, at least eight of them are countries that have weapons programs, and in some cases, their materials holdings are growing in support of increased weapon production. Many of those countries have large nuclear energy programs and some have a closed fuel cycle concept. So, they are producing plutonium, but there's no program that is able to consume as much plutonium as they produce in those closed cycles. So, you see accumulations of civil plutonium, and that can pose proliferation risks.

Some countries also have stranded material that they’d like to get rid of, but there’s no technical path to get rid of it. Or it’s too expensive—or more expensive than the country wants to pay. And so, some of those are just kind of stuck and will require either technical advances that haven’t yet happened or some change in the evaluation of what’s important to get rid of.

And then some countries are just holding onto materials that they no longer need purely for politics, for what they perceive to be some kind of leverage. So, the point is, that number 22 is not going to decline any time soon, and it will be a while before it declines significantly.

We need to take seriously that these materials are going to continue to be used in weapons programs and energy programs, they’re going to be transported, manufactured, processed, handled, stored. And all of those aspects have different and important nuclear security responsibilities that go with them. So, we need to think about the enduring character of nuclear security responsibilities and shift from this notion that we can go in and work with somebody to reduce that threat or eliminate that threat. We also need to recognize that these materials represent risks but they also represent benefits. Some of these materials will not be able to be reduced or eliminated; they are going to have to be managed.

This risk-management frame creates a little bit of a broader platform to engage with other countries and to do so in a peer-to-peer way and not always in an assistance format. This allows for visibility, assurances, best practices, and having an understanding on each side of what each country is doing, and it contributes overall to confidence in the global nuclear security system that we have.

A couple of months ago, after the 2020 election, you brought some of that thinking to the White House, when you returned to lead a 60-day strategic planning process for the National Security Council to secure, eliminate, and manage risks of terrorist acquisition of nuclear and radiological materials. How did it feel to go back for a couple of months?

I was really honored to be asked by Liz Sherwood-Randall, the Homeland Security Advisor, and Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, to come for a short, so-called “sprint” to develop a strategy for securing nuclear and radiological materials in the United States and globally.

I spent 60 days doing a whole bunch of interviews and consultations and then writing a set of proposals and recommendations to go into the U.S. policy process. I looked at things we should be doing domestically around nuclear material in the Department of Energy complex, and nuclear energy issues especially around advanced reactors, which pose new and interesting requirements for nuclear security. I was looking also at domestic radiological security and removing and swapping out existing technology with new, more effective technology that does not pose radiological risks.

I also looked at U.S. cooperation overseas—in bilateral and trilateral formats, as well as multilateral structures and formats—and at a range of foundational policy issues and budget issues and workforce challenges in the nuclear security field. Following that review, I proposed a cooperative risk management frame as a kind of overarching concept. The proposals are going to be worked through the traditional, normal U.S. interagency process. Some recommend a small adjustment to an existing process; some of them are much more of a heavy lift and probably have some parts of the U.S. government that aren’t 100 percent on board on day one. So those are going to take longer and may not come out in exactly the form that I recommended it.

But I have encouraged the administration once they decide and act on what they want to do coming out of these recommendations that they publish and promote that strategy. One of the things I definitely heard, both before I went in and during that 60 days I was there, is that the international community is eager for U.S. leadership on these issues and the U.S. agencies that work on these issues are eager for a strong White House voice. That’s very encouraging.

I’ll say at personal level, being back there was strange. It was a really weird mix of the familiar and the deeply unusual. Part of it was just being in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and in the same space and rooms and in a little bit of the same routine that I had when I worked there during the Obama administration with many of the same people from the permanent staff of the National Security Council. And then there were people I had worked with previously in various roles now being in NSC roles, including Liz Sherwood-Randall who was recently an NTI board member and is someone I’ve worked with and around since the 1990s. And then there were a whole bunch of new people that I had not met who were exciting and interesting to get to know.

But of course, all of this was happening with masks and without being able to recognize people down the long hallways. One of the things that I really valued so much about my previous time at the White House was the camaraderie, and I didn’t feel that as much, partly because I was a solo act, but also because of the pandemic constraints. You know, there were many more virtual meetings than in-person meetings, and even when you were in person, you were wearing a mask and sitting apart from each other, and people weren't congregating in the hallways or chit-chatting as much. Part of what sustained me for seven years at the White House was what we called our “Friday night follies,” where we would take a little break and enjoy each other’s company and share ideas and frustrations and so on. You know, that can't really happen in the current context.

So, there were some things that I really missed this time around, but it was fascinating to have just one job to work on. I wasn't clearing papers. I wasn't drafting talking points. I wasn't running meetings. I wasn't traveling. So, that was also kind of unusual.

I’m going to shift gears now to Gender Champions. For years, you’ve been a huge advocate for increasing the presence, visibility and impact of women in the nuclear security field, and your work with Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy has been really important to you personally and a source of great pride for NTI. Can you take about your background on that? How it came together?

As you noted, I have been engaged in activities in support of women in the field almost since I came to Washington in 1992. I joined Women in International Security and ultimately joined the board and was president of that for a number of years. And so it was kind of a no-brainer when I was preparing to take up my ambassadorial post in Vienna and the State Department asked me to adopt a model of gender promotion that a fellow ambassador had developed in Geneva. Pamela Hamamoto was U.S. Ambassador to a number of United Nations agencies in Geneva, and she worked with several fellow ambassadors there to come up with this idea that they called initially Geneva Gender Champions. Now it’s broadened out to International Gender Champions.

It was essentially recognizing that there had been all of these what I call “side-out” and “bottom-up” efforts to try to help women advance in their careers, whether through mentoring or skills-building or training or various things that women have done for themselves for years, along with a few male allies. But the fact that those efforts had been going on for so long and the gender disparity inside most of these organizations was still so high pointed to an institutional gap.

So clearly there are institutional challenges that are holding women back. And the people who can fix institutions are the people at the top. The notion behind Gender Champions was you start at the top of an organization and you engage that leader to be visible in their commitment to specific actions to advance women within their organization. So, it was the leader approach, the public approach, and the accountability approach of that International Gender Champions model that I was asked to try to create in Vienna. I started by consulting with the ambassadors there. When I was doing my courtesy calls, it was something I always mentioned.

I wasn't able to complete the launch of it before I left Vienna in January 2017, but I’m really grateful there were two ambassadors who were prepared to pickup the proposal. And the team that I had led at the U.S. mission had resources and staff that were willing to come in behind those two ambassadors, one from Slovenia and one from Costa Rica, to bring an International Gender Champions chapter to fruition in Vienna.

When I came back to D.C. in the spring of 2017, there seemed to be an extra motivation around promoting women in the field. And I kept going to meetings and conferences about this, and I would stand up in the audience and say, “You know, we did this cool thing, in this other venue in Vienna. Maybe there’s a way to apply that to our nuclear field.” And then Joe Cirincione and Michelle Dover at Ploughshares Fund called me up and said essentially, “Okay, go do it.” I said, “Oh, my, alright. Well, only if you will help, Michelle.” And so Michelle and I spent some of 2017 and most of 2018 doing a lot of listening, a lot of convening, to try to make sure that we had the support of those existing structures like WCAPS (Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation), like #NatSecGirlSquad, like the Women’s Foreign Policy Network, and so on—and that they understood that what we were designing would be additive to what they were doing and constructive to that and then to begin recruiting champions.

We said we would launch when we had 20 champions from the leaders of organizations. And we started with philanthropies, with NGOs, with professional organizations. We got some early adopters, and some were more challenging.

It was such a thrill and a blessing for both Ernie (NTI Co-Chair and CEO Ernest J. Moniz) and Joan to tell me when I returned to NTI in 2018, “Well, of course you should continue to do that, and maybe even NTI would host it.” And so, I was very gratified. Ultimately it all fell into place, and Ploughshares has continued to provide both financial and moral support.

Michelle and I continue to play a leadership role as co-founders, but the essence of it is top-down change, pulling up those existing structures and being really intentional about what we call “SMARTIE” goals. It’s not fuzzy. It’s very specific. It’s timebound. And the accountability that comes with our annual Impact Reports is showing that there is a result, there is change. I’m very proud of what Gender Champions has accomplished so far, but as with nuclear security, we know there’s more work ahead.

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