Matthew Kroenig talks about how a nuclear nonproliferation expert works.

What’s It Like to Work Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons?

What’s It Like to Work Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons?

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Dec. 14 2016 4:28 PM

How Does a Nuclear Nonproliferation Expert Work?

Matthew Kroenig talks about pushing back against the spread of nuclear weapons.


Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Matthew Kroenig.

On the Monday edition of Working, Slate’s Jacob Brogan talks to Washington D.C.–based nuclear proliferation expert Matthew Kroenig about the threat of nuclear war, weapons, and more.

In this episode, Kroenig talks about what it’s like to dedicate so much of his career to pushing back against the spread of nuclear weapons. How did he get involved in the first place? What it’s like to move from research to policy and back again? And why did he join more than 100 other Republican policymakers to sign a letter condemning Donald Trump’s foreign policy stances during the campaign?

Also, why would Kroenig consider working with the Trump administration, and what should we do about nuclear weapons as we move ahead? And how afraid we should be?

And in this episode’s Slate Plus bonus segment, Kroenig talks about nuclear weapons in the movies.

Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working, we’re talking to people employed in fields potentially imperiled by the results of the recent U.S. presidential election. These are the stories of passionate people doing difficult, hugely important jobs—jobs that may get a lot harder and a lot more important in the years ahead.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump often spoke in careless tones about nuclear weapons, seeming to suggest that it wouldn’t be a big deal if other countries acquired them. To find out more about what that meant for people working on international policy, we stopped by the campus of Georgetown University to speak with nuclear nonproliferation expert Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor in the department of government and School of Foreign Services. Kroenig has dedicated much of his career to pushing back against the spread of nuclear weapons, which helps explain why he joined more than 100 other Republican policymakers to sign a letter condemning Trump’s foreign policy stances during the campaign.

He talked to us about how he got involved in nonproliferation in the first place, and led us through one recent he’s been involved in—the attempt to prevent 3-D printing of nuclear weapon components.

He also spoke about the other elements of his career, including teaching and campaign work, before turning to the important questions. Why he’d consider working with the Trump administration? What we should do about nuclear weapons as we move ahead? And how afraid we should be?

Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Kroenig tells us about nuclear weapons in the movies. How realistic are they?

What is your name and what do you do?

Kroenig: My name is Matthew Kroenig and I’m a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, specializing on nuclear weapons issues.

Brogan: What does that mean to work on nuclear weapons issues? What do you do in that area, that space?

Kroenig: Yeah. Well, in a way I have six jobs. I’m a professor here at Georgetown, so I teach courses, but I’m also an author, so I write books and articles, and policy reports on nuclear weapons issues. I’m a consultant. I consult with government and private sector on these issues. I’m an adviser. I’ve advised political candidates and politicians, members of Congress. And, let’s see, how many is that?

Brogan: I lost count. You have 25 jobs.

Kroenig: 25.

Brogan: But it seems like they all circle in one way or another around the nuclear issues that you work on. Is that fair to say?

Kroenig: Yeah. International security and foreign policy broadly, so I have written on other issues, but my focus has really been on nuclear issues, both nonproliferation, kind of the spread of nuclear weapons, but also nuclear deterrents and how do we use nuclear weapons as a tool of foreign policy.

Brogan: How did you become involved in that space in the first place?

Kroenig: Well, I started graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in August 2001. And I actually went in thinking I was going to work on European Political Economy. I had just spent a year in Florence, Italy and was interested in European politics. And then September 11 happened a few weeks into graduate school. And many people at the time were asking, you know, what if Bin Laden had had nuclear weapons, or what if he gets nuclear weapons. What if instead of flying plans into the World Trade Center he had set off a nuclear weapon in New York?

And so I became interested in that question. Could Bin Laden get nuclear weapons? And ended up writing my Ph. D. dissertation on why countries have helped other countries build nuclear weapons in the past, thinking that if we understood that we could understand better whether countries might help terrorists acquire nuclear weapons.

Brogan: So, what is progress look like in your work? What does it look like to make substantial change? What are you pushing for?

Kroenig: Well, it’s one of the nice things about working on nonproliferation in particular is that there is kind of bipartisan consensus that other countries possessing weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons is not in the United States’ interest. So, I think the first and most obvious goal is stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, so you know, there’s kind of two sides of why countries build nuclear weapons. They have to want nuclear weapons. And they have to have the ability to make nuclear weapons. And so a lot of our nonproliferation efforts are focused at one of those two sides of the equation.

Brogan: What is a practical way that you and people in your field go about trying to do that?

Kroenig: Yeah. Well, there are international regimes in place that try to restrict the spread of sensitive nuclear technology, so the Nuclear Suppliers Group is probably the best example. It was set up in 1975 after India’s nuclear test. And basically tries to make it hard for countries to get uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing technologies.

But, and one of the things I’m working on, the technology is always changing.

Brogan: So, for you, what does that involve? How are you helping us adapt and adjust to changing technologies?

Kroenig: Yeah. Well, there’s one project I’m working on right now looking at 3-D printing and nuclear weapons proliferation. I think some people are familiar with plastic 3-D printers that people can use to produce toys for their kids or other things. But there are also these really kind of state of the art metal 3-D printers that are being used already to produce jet engines and all kinds of other things.

And so, in short, as it relates to nuclear weapons, these machines could be used to produce the components parts for a nuclear weapons production program, making it much easier for countries or even terrorist groups to build nuclear weapons, and making it harder for us to stop them from doing that.

Brogan: So, how did you get involved in that in the first place? How did you discover that this was something worth looking into?

Kroenig: One of the things I do is consult, and so I’m a consultant to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. So the United States has two nuclear weapons labs, Los Alamos and Livermore. And so at Livermore there were some people there doing research on 3-D printing and could 3-D printing be useful for producing weapons or the component parts of nuclear weapons. And part of the reason they were interested is because if the United States could do this, it could potentially reduce the nuclear weapons budget and the defense budget, because for a variety of reasons printing these parts is cheaper than producing them the old fashioned way.

But, some of the scientists there began to realize that there may be a downside to this as well. You know, often new technologies have an upside and a downside. And so the downside is that it could make it easier for other countries to build some of these dangerous technologies. But, these were scientists. They weren’t as familiar with the policy space, and so I had some discussions with them. I realized that this was a problem and decided that we needed to do something about it before there was a kind of 3-D printing enabled cascade of nuclear weapons proliferation around the world.

Brogan: So, once you realized that this was a problem, something that needed your attention, what is the next step for you??

Kroenig: Well, the first step was learning more about it, because I’m a political scientist by training, so understand the kind of politics and policy of nuclear weapons proliferation pretty well. But I’m not a scientist or a nuclear engineer, so I needed to have more discussions with people who understood the technology and understood what was possible.

And I partnered with a coauthor, Tristan Volpe, who was at Lawrence Livermore at the time. And so he and I decided to write an article. So we wrote an article. It was published in the Washington Quarterly Policy Journal here in D.C. That kind of put the issue on the table.

But, you know, I think a lot of people think of a publication as the end of the process, but in a way it’s maybe the middle of the process, because that then brought attention to the issue that led to a whole series of other conversations and initiatives.

Brogan: In that initial publication though, are you just saying this is a problem? This is something that we should be paying attention to. Or are you already at that stage proposing policy solutions, technical solutions, and so on?

Kroenig: So, we identified the problem first, and then we do identify solutions. The problems is in foreign policy you’re often dealing with a situation where you only have bad options and it’s kind of a question of what is the least bad option.

So, the solution we proposed was kind of updating our existing system of export controls to include 3-D printers. But one of the challenges is 3-D printing is a dual use technology, so the same machines that you can use to produce say centrifuges for a nuclear weapons program you could use to make children’s toys. And so if we’re going to try to control the spread of these 3-D printers, which is what we recommend, then how do you deal with—I don’t know—North Korea saying they want to import these to produce children’s toys, or Iran, or Venezuela, or whomever.

And so there is this dual use problem. And so there are advantages to controlling this technology and making it harder for countries to produce dangerous military technology, but you’re also restricting what’s potentially an important tool for future manufacturing and economic growth and economic development. And so that led to a whole series of follow on discussions of how would you do these well to kind of maximize the upside potential while minimizing the downside risk.

Brogan: At that point, though, those discussions are still happening within the paper itself? Or are we talking now about how they spread to the larger world as that paper circulates?

Kroenig: So, we recognized some of the tradeoffs in the article, but advocated that at the end of the day it was still worth trying to control this technology. But shortly after the article was published, we did kind of a launch event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington, and so many people with an interest in this showed up, industry showed up because, you know, in general industry doesn’t like export controls because we’re saying you can’t sell these things to other countries for national security reasons, and industry likes to sell things. So some people there were expressing concerns.

You had international lawyers in the audience who said, well, there are important intellectual property rights issues here because 3-D printing essentially makes it easier for other countries to kind of rip off other technology. You know, they can kind of reverse engineer easier.

Brogan: When you talk to industry people about something like this, are they just blowing off your concerns? Or are they trying to find some kind of middle ground?

Kroenig: I think most of them are reasonable, and so they do realize that there’s a potential danger here. But they also, I think, have the view that in general we’ve been too restrictive in the past on export controls. And so one of the things they argue is that the United States often puts in place these tough export controls, but then other countries sell the stuff anyway, and so the bad guys are getting the technology and other countries are profiting for it.

And so maybe it makes sense for the United States to be a little bit looser in its export control policies, that maybe we’d have some kind of control over the recipient if they’re getting our technology rather than somebody else’s. Both sides recognize that there are advantages and disadvantages, but I think maybe the balancing is a little bit different depending on where you sit.

Brogan: How do you get from that kind of juggling act of trying to balance all of these things to actually contributing to policy formation, to lawmaking?

Kroenig: Yeah. So, since then me and my coauthor have continued some work in this area. One of the things we did, we met with people at the State Department and did kind of presentation on this issue and what our concerns are. We’re told now that there is an interagency working group in the U.S. government looking at this issue and trying to figure out what the appropriate policy response is. And so I think there are probably a number of other people who recognize this as an issue at around the same time, but I’d like to think that our work in some contributed to this.

And, fortunately, as an outside analyst it’s not my job to make the decision. My job is to point out the problems, try to provide some analysis on the cost and benefits of different approaches. But at the end of the day, it will be up to people down the street to make the decision about what the best way forward is.

Brogan: So, if I can sum all of this up to some extent, a lot of what you do is about identifying problems, learning about those problems, thinking through them, and then trying to express them in a way that will help others, lawmakers, policymakers, act directly on them down the line?

Kroenig: I think that’s exactly right. And a lot of people will ask, well, don’t we have the U.S. government to do that? Why do we need think tank experts or academics to do this work? And the answer is often government officials are so busy on the day to day work. They’re spending 100 percent of their effort on getting ready for the meeting next week. And so they don’t often have the ability to take a step back, say OK, what are the big over the horizon emerging challenges? What are some of the strategic options for addressing those? What are some of the things we might want to be doing now to make those problems less severe down the road? And I think that’s one place where kind of outside analysts like me can really have an impact, because we do have the time to kind of take a step back and do some of the broader and deeper thinking.

Brogan: When you are meeting with people at say State, as you did, what kind of level of folks are you talking to there? Who do you speak to when you speak to folks in the government hierarchy?

Kroenig: Well, usually it’s to the people at the kind of working levels of government, in the bureaucracy. So, there are a number of offices at the State Department that deal with nuclear weapons proliferation. And so those are the people I talk to. Because somebody like Secretary Kerry is so busy, pulled in a million directions, may not be able to devote much attention to this. But if he has people working for him devoting a lot of attention to this, then they can put some serious thought into it and develop more workable policy proposals that eventually make it into his inbox and into U.S. government policy.

Brogan: Presumably, the secretary is not going to be the one who writes the policy in the first place, even if he wants it?

Kroenig: That’s right. Often the senior officials are kind of signing off on policy initiatives that kind of bubbled up from lower levels of government.

Brogan: There are, it seems like, a huge number of fairly abstract variables when we’re talking about something like 3-D printing and nuclear weapons. And on the other hand there are these extremely specific concrete consequences to failing to take one way or another the right approach, call them. How do you balance all of that abstract stuff when you are trying to confront the problem of nuclear proliferation more generally?

Kroenig: I think it’s a problem with all policy making, whether it’s healthcare policy or nuclear policy or tax policy. You’re always basically trying to predict the future twice. And then compare those futures to each other. You know, if Obamacare goes into effect, what are the consequences, positive and negative? If we don’t put Obamacare into effect, what are the consequences, positive and negative? So, you try to predict the future twice and then compare those futures to each other. And then try to make some judgment about what we should be doing today to effect that future.

And so I think it’s no different with nuclear policy. You know, what does the world look like with the Iran deal? What does it look like without it? Which of those worlds would we rather live in? And so at the time you’re making the decision it’s kind of abstract and about the future. But once the decision is made, the future becomes the present.

Brogan: When you’re thinking about possible futures, how many of those hypothetical tomorrows are just apocalyptic hellscapes?

Kroenig: There was a great book written in the Cold War by a scholar named Herman Kahn called Thinking the Unthinkable. In that book he explicitly argued that people often shy away from the apocalyptic hellscapes. But, unfortunately, at least in the field I’m in, I think you do have to think through those apocalyptic hellscapes and not shy away from it, because if you just kind of assume things are going to be rosy you’re often caught by surprise. You know, Pearl Harbor. Sept. 11. There has been the global financial crisis. You know, sometimes really bad things happen.

And so I do think you have to consider those among the possibilities. Obviously, hoping that things go better. Obviously trying to design possibilities to avoid those. But, you know, being motivated at all times by trying to prevent those hellscapes from coming into being.

Brogan: Is that ever a bummer, though, having to spend a certain amount of your time, a certain amount of your energy thinking just the literal end of the world? Professionally having to do that?

Kroenig: Well, I think different people have different inclinations, so I do think there are some people in this field who do shy away from those issues and so focus on kind of rosier issues or policy solutions. I’ve always gravitated to the really hard problems. And I think in part it might be that I was a philosophy minor undergrad. History major, but philosophy minor. And in philosophy I’ve always really liked the really hard questions. And so I think it’s the same in policy. Really hard questions. Like if Iran is one screwdriver’s turn away from the bomb, do we let them have it, or do we take military action? Those are the kind of questions I find really interesting.

Brogan: Do you spend much of your energy trying to think about or anticipate how other state actors might use nuclear weapons? What they might be thinking?

Kroenig: Definitely. I think it’s an important part of the job. Often policy analysts in the United States will so-called mirror image. You know, they assume the other guy is just like us and assume that their policy will look something like ours. But, you know, that’s a simplifying assumption, but it doesn’t represent reality. So, I think you do have to try to get inside the other person’s head, especially when you’re thinking about something like nuclear deterrents. You know, if we’re trying to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons, some people would say, well, if one nuclear weapon went off in New York City, the threat of that would be enough to deter us. Therefore, if we have one or two nukes, that should be enough to deter Putin.

Maybe that’s true, but I think it’s more valuable to actually try to figure out Putin, figure out the people around him. What is it that they’re concerned about? And what is it that it would take to deter them, rather than just assuming that they’re exactly like us?

Brogan: You’re been listening to nuclear nonproliferation expert, Matthew Kroenig. After this brief break, he talks to us about teaching and his work on Republican presidential campaigns.

So, we’re here today in your office on the Georgetown campus. And you are also a teacher in addition to a policy person, an area expert. What do you teach?

Kroenig: I teach two courses every semester. So, this semester I’m teaching Monday and Wednesday afternoons. And I’m teaching a big introduction to international relations course, so I have 250 undergrads, five teaching assistants. It’s a big production. But, government and School of Foreign Service are the two most popular majors here at Georgetown, so there’s huge demand.

Then I’m also teaching an upper level course, more specialized course, called “Nuclear Weapons and World Politics,” where we spend an entire semester going into these nuclear weapons issues.

Brogan: How much of your research feeds into your teaching in these courses?

Kroenig: When you first start out, you know, you’re rewarded for research. And so I think many kind of junior scholars focus much more on the research and kind of skimp on the teaching, or try to do the bare minimum. Over time I’ve realized how much they contribute to each other, because as you do research and gain new insights, you can bring that into the classroom and make the classroom discussion more interesting.

But I think one of the dirty secrets of teaching is you learn almost as much from your students as they learn from you. And so it’s amazing some of the insights my students will have in papers or in classroom discussion. And so I have in the past kind of taken ideas from the classroom and fed that into my research to make my research even stronger.

Brogan: Does teaching help you communicate these really urgent issues that you’re working on elsewhere in your career?

Kroenig: I think it does. You know, because when you’re forced to communicate these ideas to 18-year-olds, I think it forces you to kind of take a step back and break things down into the basics and then build the argument up, kind of layer by layer. Whereas I think some of my colleagues who don’t teach, who are used to speaking to experts all the time often take too much for granted. You know, because when it comes to briefing say a member of Congress or a more senior policymaker, they’re not thinking about 3-D printing and nuclear proliferation all day/every day. And so for them, again, you do kind of have to, you know, kind of like talking to an 18-year-old, start with the basics and work their way up. And they’re both smart. But, again, you can’t take too much for granted.

Brogan: I’m sure our lawmakers would be happy to know that the best way to get through to them is to talk to them like an 18-year-old.

Kroenig: Well, and again, it’s not because they’re not capable, but it’s because they’re not as immersed in these issues as I am.

Brogan: A lot of students from Georgetown, I assume, end up in State and elsewhere throughout the bureaucracy and government system more generally. Have you ever run into a student that you’ve taught in one of these more formal settings outside of the classroom?

Kroenig: Yeah. It’s one of the nice things about teaching at Georgetown is that our students go off to be more important than we are. So, I’ve had a former Ph.D. student who became the national intelligence officer for WMD proliferation. So, the top intelligence officer in the country for these issues.

One of our recent Ph.D. students just got elected to Congress in Wisconsin. And so it’s one of the nice things about being at Georgetown, I think. I’m sure I’m biased, but I think better than probably anywhere else on earth, it bridges the gap between kind of academic scholarship and policymaking. And so because of that our students go off to do interesting things.

And then also they’ll come back and kind of pull us in. You know, they think that we’ve had insights or expertise that they’ve benefitted from, so they sometimes call on that expertise even when they’re in government.

Brogan: It seems like a lot of your time is spent when you’re not speaking to students in the classroom is spent speaking with other people in a variety of contexts. I think you attended some conferences, some meetings internationally last week in Russia and Japan. Am I remembering that right?

Kroenig: Yeah. So it’s one of the nice things I think about working in international politics is that if you’re going to do it well, you do need to travel and speak to your colleagues abroad. And good for frequent flier miles, also, but maybe not so good for my health. But in the past month I’ve been to Tokyo, Prague, and Moscow.

Brogan: Wow.

Kroenig: So, in Tokyo I was talking to colleagues there about the North Korean nuclear threat and kind of U.S./Japanese alliance in dealing with North Korea. I was Prague for a big conference at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs on President Obama’s Prague Agenda. So, April 2009, Obama gave a big speech in Prague promising to rid the world of nuclear weapons. So, a conversation about that, how are we doing?

And then in Moscow it was a meeting on U.S./Russian nuclear cooperation in the new Trump administration and what might that look like. So, that’s another area where I get insights that then inform my research and policy work subsequently.

Brogan: You’ve also served as a policy expert on a handful of political campaigns, presidential campaigns. I think you were part of Marco Rubio’s primary big most recently, but also the Romney campaign, and others. When you’re working on a campaign, how much of your time does that take up?

Kroenig: It really depends on how senior or junior you are in the campaign. So, when I was working for Romney, that was my first time working on a campaign. So, I was on the counter-proliferation working group. I was just working on nuclear issues, but you know, he had a whole team in place …

Brogan: So you weren’t on the trail with him every day or something like that?

Kroenig: Not on the trail with him every day. He had a kind of big team in place. And the idea was that if he won then he could kind of bring these people with him to government. And the Rubio campaign I was more senior, so I was working on the kind of full range of foreign policy issues. So that took up more time, you know, kind of rapid response during debates, or kind of the daily news. Something happens first thing in the morning, Iran takes U.S. sailors hostage. You know, what should the candidate say about this?

Brogan: Are you on the phone with a bunch of people? Are you in a meeting room with people?

Kroenig: Usually it’s done remotely. So, email, phone, and the candidates do have usually a foreign policy coordinator of foreign policy adviser who is with them on a day to day basis. And so then that person’s job is to kind of coordinate with the rest of us to bring in expertise.

You know, the other thing I’ll say about this is that if you’ll notice during presidential campaigns the policy debates are usually pretty superficial. And so the need for kind of in-depth policy analysis on a campaign is usually not very great. It’s more about the kind of rapid response and what should we say in response to X or Y developing event.

Brogan: Is that frustrating to not be able to get really in-depth with these issues that you know so well, that you care so much about, that you focus so much on when you’re working a campaign?

Kroenig: At first it was, but then I realized that the foreign policy team on a campaign serves a few functions. So one is to staff the candidate during the campaign, and so that sometimes is superficial. But the other function is if your candidate is going to win, then those are some of the people who are going to help fill out the bureaucracy. So, behind the scenes I think there is some more in-depth thinking going on about if we actually win what is our policy agenda going to be. How are we going to follow through on some of these promises the candidate made like tearing up the Iran deal on day one, or other things that may sound good on the campaign trail, but when it comes to implementing them in practice they become much more complicated.

Brogan: When you’re working in that kind of conditional mode, though, that if we win attitude must be a strange way to go about thinking about stuff that’s fundamentally quite urgent.

Kroenig: Yeah. Well, I guess, you know, there are a number of different ways to influence the process. And so the most direct way is to go into government and work on these issues. But then there are these other ways on the outside developing the policy proposals that maybe you can use to influence whoever is in power. Or, that you can kind of keep on the back shelf when your side goes in.

You know, in Washington you basically have to… if you want to work in senior levels of the government, you have to choose a side. And so we tend to kind of switch eight years or so. In eight years, or so out. And so there are a lot of people who do a little bit of both, you know, try to influence policy in government but then spend their time outside of government developing policy proposals, or trying to influence whoever is in power.

Brogan: As a Republican, at least on the executive side of things, you’ve been on the out of power side for the last eight years for the most part. Do you still feel like you’re able to contribute to policy and process during those times?

Kroenig: I do. So, I did go in on a Council on Foreign Relations Fellowship, so it was a nonpartisan fellowship to work in the Obama Administration for one year as an adviser on Iran’s nuclear program in DoD, so that was one way to contribute directly. But I’ve also contributed in other ways. You know, I think national security and especially as I mentioned before nonproliferation are kind of nonpartisan. Democrats and Republicans agree other countries getting nuclear weapons is a bad idea. And so if there are people doing serous analysis, even if they’re not part of your team, I think the team in power will pay attention and take your ideas and proposals seriously.

Brogan: You’ve been listening to nuclear nonproliferation expert, Matthew Kroenig. In a minute, he discusses the prospect of working with Trump and considers how afraid we should be.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump made some fairly glib comments about nuclear proliferation, suggesting we should just let various countries have them, what have you. What was your reaction to that at the time as someone who works in a much more detailed, much deeper way on these questions?

Kroenig: Yeah. Well, he did make a number of comments on nuclear weapons. And as you pointed out, he said why are we paying so much to defend our allies. Why not just let them get nuclear weapons and defend themselves? And so he mentioned I think Japan, South Korea, and then was asked—the journalist asked what about Saudi Arabia. And he said, “Saudi Arabia, sure.” So, that is very different from the way I think every U.S. president has looked at these issues since 1945.

Since 1945, there has been kind of bipartisan policy of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, even to our closest allies. You know, we worked to prevent Britain and Israel from getting nuclear weapons. We failed in those cases, but our preference at the time was that they not have nuclear weapons. So, certainly an unconventional approach.

I mean, my hope is that that was just kind of an off-the-cuff statement and doesn’t actually reflect how he’ll govern. And I think some of these recent appointments, General Mattis, and other I think people who have more traditional views on nonproliferation will adopt policies that help the United States continue to have strong nonproliferation policy. That’s what I hope.

Brogan: You were, however, one of I think 100 plus Republicans working in this kind of policy space/security space signed a letter expressing concerns about Trump earlier in the process.

Kroenig: Yeah, that’s right. There were a number of letters. And so I signed this letter back in March. I was working for Marco Rubio at the time. And so I wanted to help my candidate win. And so signed onto that letter.

You know, now that Trump is president, though, I think that—

Brogan: President-Elect at this point.

Kroenig: President-Elect, but will soon be President, assuming nothing unforeseen happens.

And so I think we are all better off if he can get the best possible people around him and so I think me and many of my colleagues who opposed him in the past would be willing to go in and help with policy if we’re welcome.

Brogan: What do you think nuclear policy should look like in the years ahead? How do you hope to be involved with that process?

Kroenig: Well, I would like to see some smarter export control policies to deal with these 3-D printing technologies. One of the other things I’ve been writing on and worried about is the renewed Russian nuclear threat. So for 25 years we didn’t really worry about Russia. Suddenly in the past few years it’s been more aggressive. They invaded Ukraine, invaded Syria. Has made explicit nuclear threats against NATO and the United States. And so this is kind of the dilemma of nuclear policy.

On one hand, you want to stop the spread. On the other hand, you do want to use them to deter other countries from using them. And I’m afraid that our kind of deterrents policy in NATA right now is a little bit weak. And that we could do some things to strengthen that, to make it clear to Putin that he can’t get away with this nuclear coercion. And can’t get away with nuclear use, certainly.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal I think is another issue that will likely be revisited. Trump has—unlike some of the other candidates—didn’t say he’d tear it up on day one, but he said he’d renegotiate it. So some people think that’s kind of rash or crazy. You know, but the truth is that even if President Obama had been president for life, he would have had to renegotiate the deal as well because all of the restrictions on Iran’s program expire after about 10 years. So, six, seven, eight years from now Obama would have had to renegotiate as well. So, Trump will likely do it earlier than that, but this is something that I think we would have had to address somehow regardless of who was president.

Brogan: And you hope to be involved in these processes in one way or another?

Kroenig: I hope to be involved one way or another. So, I—depending on the conditions—would be willing to go back into government. If not that, I hope to contribute from the outside. And given that I’m a registered Republican, have a lot of contacts on that side, I think if I don’t go in directly, chances are friends and colleagues will. And so I should have a pretty good pipeline.

Brogan: Do you think that people should be afraid about the status of nuclear proliferation around the world right now?

Kroenig: I don’t know that I want to advocate that people live their lives in fear, but at the same time there is a real risk. And I think that the threat of nuclear war today is probably greater than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War. You do have a more assertive Russian, again, kind of making these explicit nuclear threats in a way we haven’t seen since the end of the Cold War. North Korea expanding its nuclear capabilities. Still the risk that a terrorist group could acquire nuclear weapons.

So, I think there is real risk out there and people shouldn’t assume that nuclear weapons are a thing of the past.

Brogan: You spend all day, every day, thinking about this stuff. Are you afraid?

Kroenig: I think I spend so much time thinking about it that sometimes there’s the risk maybe that it doesn’t even seem real anymore. It’s just like my work. It’s what I do every day. So, I guess I don’t live my life in fear day-to-day, but I do I think understand very well that there are risks. And one of the analogies I use is the global financial crisis. Because right before the global financial crisis, I think there were a lot of people who thought a new Great Depression is a thing of the past. We did that 70 years ago, but we learned our lesson. We’ve got better policies in place. The world is different now. We’re more enlightened. And something like that could never happen again.

And then it did.

And I sometimes fear like the general public, and even some experts think the same way about nuclear weapons. We used them in 1945, but that was 70 years ago. We’re more enlightened now. The world is different. We’ve got these policies in place. That can never happen again. And I’m afraid that will seem self-evident until nuclear weapons are used again. And, you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if nuclear weapons are used again in my lifetime.

So, it’s a low probability, but the consequences would be quite severe. So, yeah, I wish I had better news, but there is a real risk.

Brogan: Are there things that people can do if they’re feeling anxious about issues of nuclear proliferation in the years ahead?

Kroenig: Yeah. One thing people can do is write senators, write congressmen. Elect politicians who share their views on these issues. But for the most part, nuclear policy is kind of an area of high politics. And it’s harder to effect from the outside. So, I think if people are really passionate, what they should do is come study nuclear issues with me here at Georgetown and go into this field themselves.

And there is actually kind of a gap in expertise. You know, after the end of the Cold War there was a sense that these issues were going away. Now I think it’s clear that they’re not going away. And I think we do need a new generation of experts on these issues.

Brogan: So not an immediate solution, but an important one.

Kroenig: Not for everyone, but I think there are a few people out there who may be passionate enough to want to devote their lives to it. And if so, I would encourage them to do it.

Brogan: What do you like most about working on nuclear nonproliferation issues? What makes it such a great career to be operating in this area?

Kroenig: I think there’s a lot of psychology research that shows that one of the ways to be happy is to be passionate about your career and feel like you’re working on something that matters. And I think this is something that really matters. I mean, nuclear war is one of the only issues that means that we’re all dead in 30 minutes.

Brogan: That, and zombies.

Kroenig: That, and zombies.

Brogan: Maybe not 30 minutes.

Kroenig: You know, so I think this is something that really matters. The stakes couldn’t be higher. And so trying to get this right and contributing to that process, even if it’s only a small contribution to a larger effort. You know, I do feel like I’m doing something important and so that makes me excited to get up every day and come into work.

Brogan: What’s the most frustrating part about it though? Are there ever moments when you feel helpless or hopeless or just disappointed in the world?

Kroenig: One thing that’s frustrating is I guess when you’re out of power and the government in power is doing something that you think is a bad idea. And you’re writing op-eds, and you’re meeting with your colleagues in government, but still it’s clear the policy is going ahead despite your best efforts. And so that can be a little bit frustrating.

On the Iran nuclear deal, for example, I did think that allowing Iran to keep an enrichment program with the short expiration dates was a bad idea, because I felt like it gives Iran kind of a patient path to the bomb. And so either we have to renegotiate or we kind of gave up and let them have this program.

And so I was writing my concerns from the outside, but in the end the deal went through. And so, yeah, you win some and you lose some, I guess.

Brogan: Do you feel generally like you’re making the world a better place with this work?

Kroenig: In general, I do think I’m making the world a better place. There are a number of policy initiatives where I think I have contributed and think that the outcome might have been different had I not been involved. And then, also, through my research and teaching I think I’m shaping in some way the way a generation of citizens or some people going into this field think about these issues and those first impressions I think can be lasting ones.

Brogan: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

Kroenig: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

Brogan: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I’m Jacob Brogan. We’d love to hear your thoughts about the podcast. Our email address is And you can listen to past episodes at

Working is produced and edited by Mickey Capper. Special thanks with this episode to Rob Morgis and Ian Philbrick. Thanks also to Efim Shapiro and A.C. Valdez, who just gave me the thumbs up from the recording booth.

Our executive producer is Steve Lickteig. And the chief content officer of the Panoply Network is Andy Bowers.

* * *

In this Slate Plus extra, Matthew Kroenig talks to us about nuclear weapons in the movies. How realistic are they? He has some thoughts.

To the extent that most of us spend any time thinking about the practicalities of nuclear weapons, we’re probably getting it from action movies, from Tom Clancy novels, and what not. For you as a policy expert, as someone who knows this area extremely well, is it crazy-making to watch those kind of films to read those kind of stories? Or can you take any pleasure in fictional representations of the kind of policy issues that you tackle in your career?

Kroenig: Yeah. I do watch those kind of movies. And it’s enjoyable. But part of the reason it’s enjoyable is to critique them and to say they got this wrong, that would never happen. You know, sometimes they get it right. And some of my colleagues have actually served as advisers to Hollywood films and TV shows to help make the plots more realistic.

But, you know, some friends will ask, “James Bond movie, what’s realistic, what’s not?” And there I think what often happens is they take the work that the entire U.S. government does and have one person do it, which makes it really exciting. But, you know, for like somebody like James Bond in the real world you have somebody doing the analysis, you have somebody else trying to chat up Russian diplomats at the cocktail bar. You have somebody else who is kicking in doors. And so I think that’s one insight that some of my colleagues have found interesting. The U.S. government is doing the stuff. It’s not just one guy.

Brogan: Are there any fictional representations of nuclear issues that seem especially accurate to you?

Kroenig: In recent years nothing is coming to mind. But 10 years or so ago there was a movie called Sum of All Fears that starred—

Brogan: Tom Clancy.

Kroenig: Tom Clancy. Yes, starred Ben Affleck.

Brogan: Ben Affleck of all people, yeah.

Kroenig: But, you know, at the time there was a real concern. There still is, but at the time a real concern of nuclear terrorism and what if a terrorist got nuclear weapons. What if they set them off in a major city in the United States? And so it Hollywood, so there were things that were a little bit inaccurate, of course, but I think it did a really good job of representing what the basic threat was and what the potential consequences might be. So, that’s one that sticks out as being maybe not as bad as the others.