March 3, 2015

Selim Can Sazak MIA’15, recently co-wrote an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that asks “Will there be a next generation in the fight for nuclear nonproliferation?” SIPA News sat down with him to discuss the article and the question it poses for the future of nuclear disarmament.

Tell us a bit more about this article.

Basically, the article draws on my background from being in the trenches of the nonproliferation cause. Since the end of the Cold War, nonproliferation has become a secondary cause. In particular, we are facing an alarming deficit when it comes to organizing and mobilizing for tomorrow. There are only a few youth programs, mostly run by small staffs and on very limited budgets. When the going gets tough, these programs are the first to get cut. One of the co-authors on the paper actually left her job in such an operation that was scaled back. So we started thinking about how this problem can be fixed. There is a big problem now, many leaders of the nonproliferation community are aging; most are in their 60s or 70s. This is the final time window for a new block to come in. We are falling behind.

What are some of the reasons you think the younger generation is not as involved in nonproliferation?

This is a question that has sparked some fierce debates and in my opinion, there is no single answer. I believe that an important reason is that the end of the Cold War changed the way the nuclear threat is perceived. Until very recently, nonproliferation was not only a strong movement but it was also a ‘cool’ cause; working to keep global peace and avert a global nuclear war appealed to young people in a way it does not anymore. Now, development is trendy, social enterprise is trendy. That’s where the resources are. In a way, young people are drawn to causes where their efforts are more tangibly rewarded. Not surprisingly, security is given a backseat. It’s harder to come by younger people in security jobs, especially outside the public sector.

So what does the article propose?

Quite simply, we are trying to point that the battle against nuclear proliferation will take more than a few decades to win, and that if no one is left to carry on the fight, it won’t be won at all. We discuss some of the challenges the nonproliferation community has been facing in reaching out to the younger generation. In this context, we see a unique role for the United Nations to start such a conversation. We believe that it is time for all stakeholders in the nonproliferation cause—governments and international organizations, think-tanks and nonprofits, activists and advocates, the young and the old—to engage in a forward-looking conversation on how to cultivate the next generation. We are already talking with senior leaders, major donors, and we’ve been in touch with the UN to see how can push this idea forward — we need a structured dialogue to identify our problems and devise a common strategy towards solving them. The future of nuclear weapons is a global issue. Ensuring that the public and our leaders is fully educated in this issue and would be capable of navigating this future safely is an interest shared by everyone, regardless of whether they are seeing a valid role for nuclear weapons in the future of international security or not. We think that this is a common denominator that can bring us together in a conversation and it is our hope that our article would contribute to moving us forward in that direction.

How has your background helped you?

I’ve done some work in the nonproliferation community before coming to SIPA. I studied philosophy, focusing mostly on political thought and most people are drawn to those discussions because they are drawn to peace, to ending wars. Then, I found myself fascinated with the question of nuclear weapons. Being a button’s push away from a kind of destruction that is beyond our wildest imagination is an intellectual question, a moral dilemma of sorts. After I graduated, I found a job with NATO, and worked with them on counterterrorism. It was also a time when the nuclear terrorist threat featured more prominently in policy discussion in the U.S. and abroad. Eventually, I was led to working at Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which was my education in this field. You start building a network, as you get more exposed, you also understand why it matters, so they mutually reinforce. I think that’s what happened with me, too. I’m very interested in nuclear security, but my original interest is in making change where it’s possible. This is an area where there are many things that can be done and where I found opportunities that have persuaded me that I can meaningfully contribute to such positive change.

How has being at SIPA helped you explore this?

Of course, being in SIPA has made possible much of the rationale behind this article. Bringing the UN into it has to do with the proximity of SIPA, which has allowed me to better familiarize myself with the organization. The courage to really go out there, to call on leading actors, to want to do something about real issues and to believe that what you say, what you do can matter; that’s the courage one gets from being at Columbia. At SIPA, we’re at the forefront of these issues. Our professors, our alumni, their ideas are shaping conversations across the world. That’s why it’s much easier to get heard, to get your ideas across to the audiences that matter. People listen to what you have to say. Personally, what I learned in this school is that thinking and discussing these difficult issues is the first, and easier task. The more difficult task, which is very much a part of the culture here at SIPA, is to start building on the things you’re talking about, explore ideas that can actually solve the problems.

So SIPA has played a major role in framing the thinking for this article?

This article actually came from a paper I wrote in class. I was taking a course on international peace interventions, with Professor Séverine Autesserre. It was a PhD seminar, but Prof. Autesserre was helping us analyze issues from a more qualitative lens. Accordingly, our final paper had to be such a qualitative project that required us to go much deeper into the discussions. For some time, I struggled with finding a paper topic. Once, as we were discussing topics for my paper, Autesserre asked me about what I did before SIPA, what I know, and what I am interested in doing. That conversation eventually led to this topic; the nuclear weapons community—or ’nukeland’, as I had called it in my paper—was one that I was very familiar with and what I ended up arguing in my paper were things that were talking among ourselves as friends and colleagues. Putting some of these ideas on paper also encouraged me to seek an avenue to get them voiced. Normally, I was thinking this is a fleeting conversation, but it really turned into something. While I was writing my paper, I interviewed many people, including my two co-authors with whom I had worked together in the nonproliferation cause and at one point, we thought, ‘Why don’t we move this forward?’ One thing led to another, and we found ourselves published in the Bulletin.

You’ll graduate in May. How does this piece fit into your future goals?

My main interest is in solving problems, exploring new ideas, testing them in real-life situations. Some of my classmates here are the smartest people I know, and putting their smarts into innovative policies can make a difference. I’m graduating in May and that’s what I’m walking away with: Using SIPA, and the many things I have learned here, to bring change where it’s possible.

— Tamara El Waylly MIA ’15