It is fashionable these days to say that COVID-19 took everyone by surprise. Who could have imagined, they say, that a virus would kill millions worldwide and produce aftershocks that would upend the global economy and fan the flames of political division? For twenty years, one group has stood above all others, as a voice of clarity and action: the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Since its founding in 2001, the organization has warned the global community about the dangers of a coming pandemic. The organization was conceived of and established by legendary media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner and Senator Sam Nunn, the Senate’s former Chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a man of extraordinary wisdom and depth.
The private organization was founded to alert the world to catastrophic security threats and to establish partnerships across the globe to hammer out solutions and act. This was very much in keeping with the outstanding contribution that Senator Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar—who also served on the NTI board—achieved in their 1991 legislation that established the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was honored to help support their vision by becoming one of NTI’s founding board members. (I am now an emerita member.)
Drive and commitment to this mission became even more critical in the days following the September 11 attacks and during the subsequent “global war on terrorism.” It was essential to avert any possibility of “loose nukes” and biological weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. This led to concerns about our capacities to contain global pandemics, as they too are threats to global security.
In NTI’s 2001 Annual Report, our experts wrote that “enhancing global infectious disease surveillance, early detection and rapid response” is of vital importance to the international community. In 2002 NTI created the WHO-NTI Emergency Outbreak Response Fund. In 2019, just months before COVID-19 made headlines, NTI warned again that the world was unprepared to meet this urgent challenge.
Over these two decades, the organization’s list of accomplishments is too long to recount. However, in keeping with its core area of activity—securing nuclear materials and reducing the potential use of weapons of mass destruction—this privately funded group helped execute the removal of two and a half bomb’s worth of inadequately secured highly enriched uranium (HEU) at a reactor site in war-torn Belgrade, Serbia. NTI also helped Kazakhstan fulfill its commitment to eliminate up to two dozen bombs-worth of highly enriched uranium. NTI provided the technical expertise and financial resources to upgrade capacities for the operation. Over the years, NTI has worked tirelessly to create frameworks and promote initiatives that bring key decision-makers together for continued progress, including the Obama-era Nuclear Security Summits.
Now run by former Energy Secretary, Dr. Ernest Moniz, the organization continues to foster international dialogue and action-oriented programs on both weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass disruption. That’s why I was delighted when Secretary Moniz and Senator Nunn asked me to speak at NTI on the principles behind Dwight Eisenhower’s approach to national security, which I wrote about in How Ike Led.
While my book reflects on the past and its relevance today, NTI is a force for securing the future. I believe the founding leadership of Ted Turner and Senator Sam Nunn also demonstrates to people who feel frustrated and helpless that we can work together to make the world a safer place. It is also up to all of us to make sure that the policy community does more to heed NTI’s prescient warnings.
All the best,