Atomic Pulse

NTI at 20: Joan Rohlfing on NTI’s Unique Impact Model, Rethinking Deterrence, the Next Generation, and More

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Joan Rohlfing was wrapping up 14 years of government service, including seven at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) where she served as senior advisor for national security to the Secretary and director of DOE’s Office of Nonproliferation and National Security, when Charlie Curtis called to ask if she would be interested in a new non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to reducing global nuclear threats. In 2000, Rohlfing became part of the original team that created the mission and scope for NTI. She served nine years as senior vice president for programs and operations, and she was named president and COO in 2010. She is responsible for managing all NTI programs and operations.

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. Today, we hear from Rohlfing, whose pre-NTI career also took her to New Delhi to advise the U.S. ambassador in the wake of nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, to the staff of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, and to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

What inspired you to take a career risk and join a start-up non-profit with a very ambitious mission? It must have been a difficult decision.

Charlie actually called me the summer before NTI opened its doors. At the time, he, Sam Nunn and Ted Turner were considering standing up the initiative, and they wanted to do a scoping study over a six-month period to ask and answer the question of whether a well-funded private institution could make a difference in this inherently governmental space. And he asked if I would come help them run the scoping study.

It was an easy decision for me. After 14 years in government, I was ready to think about new ways to work in this field, and I thought the mission of the organization sounded compelling and aligned with my interests. I couldn't think of anything more important than trying to find ways to improve the odds that humanity makes it another century or more.

Twenty years later, what are you most proud of?

What I am most proud of is NTI’s impact model. We've developed a novel way of working within our mission space, and that has greatly increased our impact in the field. We’re driving towards systemic change, and there aren't very many NGOs that are effectively delivering systemic change. We do it through a process of developing really good ideas and novel concepts for threat reduction. We socialize those concepts globally, we test drive them in the field to de-risk them, and once we have demonstrated efficacy, we work to scale up to achieve lasting systemic change globally. And that’s unique, so it has been very exciting to help create an organization that’s delivering real change in the real world through this unique impact model. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to innovate, and the model works across our programs, with examples from WINS (World Institute of Nuclear Security) to the NTI Nuclear Security Index that have driven lasting systemic change and driven safer behaviors by governments.

In addition to working to develop new norms for global nuclear and biological security, NTI also has a history of challenging existing norms and ways of thinking about security policy that are outdated in the context of today’s evolving threats.

Yes, that’s something else I’m enormously proud of—the work NTI did to reframe the debate around nuclear weapons, to challenge the status-quo thinking that nuclear weapons keep us safe. What I’m talking about here is our support for the “Gang of Four” (George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn) in their work toward a world without nuclear weapons. It created a huge sea change and opened up space for some of the fundamental rethinking that we’re doing now.

What concerns you most today when you think about the future?

The extinction of humanity. I realize that’s pretty stark, but what I’m most concerned about when I think about the future is that our generation or our kids’ generation won’t be able to manage the dangers of new and emerging nuclear technologies, bio technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), and so on, that have the potential to end our species or to set back humanity by decades or even centuries from a catastrophe involving lethal pathogens or from a nuclear war or AI.

So, I think it’s really critical for humanity, as we are now in this Anthropocene, that we rethink and reframe how we think about security. It’s no longer possible in today’s world to protect ourselves from these existential threats, these inherently global threats, by states working alone. No single state can guarantee its citizens’ security because the weapons and technologies we’re concerned about are distributed across numerous states, and we’re all hostage to each other. So, we need unprecedented cooperation, we need new norms, we need new behaviors to build the future we want where humanity can thrive and achieve its full potential.

NTI has significantly ramped up our work on norms building to address new and emerging threats, on the nuclear and biological side. We’re also rethinking traditional concepts of what works and what doesn’t, what make sense and what doesn’t, and you’ve recently done a lot of work on rethinking nuclear deterrence.

Yes, it’s so important that we rethink assumptions that no longer fit the threats and challenges of today’s world, and I think we’ve been long overdue for a reexamination of the assumptions and beliefs underpinning nuclear deterrence.

Nuclear deterrence was a strategy that was developed after the end of the second World War and really took shape circa 1950. So, we’re talking about a 70-year-old strategy that underpins our security, and it is such a deeply held belief system that its ability to adapt to the nuclear challenges of today’s world is hampered. We need a strategy for preventing nuclear use that takes into account the complexity of having many more nuclear weapon states than we had in the late ’40s or late ’50s, and the new technologies that we have—very fast-flying intercontinental ballistic missiles, not to mention the new variations of hypersonic missiles—as opposed to the slow-flying aircraft of the 1950s. We need a strategy focused on the dangers posed by cyber vulnerabilities in our nuclear systems, of the potential for nuclear terrorism. When nuclear deterrence was designed, it was never designed to comprehend this future that we’ve arrived at, and so we need to really re-examine.

I think we all should challenge ourselves to come up with a strategy that’s more effective against today’s threat environment. Nuclear deterrence is an incredibly high-risk bet, and if it fails, we risk the future of humanity. We need a strategy that if it fails, it does not risk the future of humanity, and I think we can do that.

What gives you reason to be optimistic when you wake up in the morning, given the kind of work you do what you do?

Young people, hands down. I’m really excited to see a new generation emerging that understands the existential threats—not just nuclear, but also biological, AI and climate—that confront their generation and the need to build new ways of thinking to really reframe our understanding of how we engage each other as humans on a shrinking planet.

We see a lot of energy coming out of a number of academic programs as students are beginning to understand the challenges of these existential threats, as they’re beginning to recognize some of the solutions we need to build and the kind of cooperation we need among governments. If we can build that cooperation, it can help us tackle not just one of these threats but the whole range of existential threats. So, I am optimistic that we’re going to get the kind of systemic change we need. If we can’t manage to figure out how to do it with our generation, I am confident that the generations coming along behind us are going to do a better job of forcing the change needed to create the future they want.

Do you have a vision for NTI 20 years from now on its 40th anniversary?

I do! By our 40th anniversary, I really hope that we will have been successful in creating a much greater awareness, a better understanding of the risks, among a much larger cadre of government officials, the public, and the private sector to enable the kind of changes that we’ve just discussed. The kind of global cooperation, the new frameworks, the new norms that we need to protect humanity over the long-term.

And it’s not only building awareness to create the political space for change, it’s catalyzing governments to take critical steps toward a future safe from preventable catastrophe. It’s actually implementing those steps that will make us safer between now and 20 years from now. I look forward to what NTI will achieve over the next 20 years!

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