On the Road with Joe Cirincione

Sitting at the Chicago airport, snow swirling outside, salt covering my shoes, eagerly waiting for my delayed flight to take me back to San Francisco, I contemplate the previous month of travel with Joe Cirincione.

This man is like the energizer bunny, only way smarter. And if he’s had enough coffee, more energized too. From Washington, DC to San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and back to DC all in three weeks. To be fair, others have done far more grueling book tours than this. But Joe doesn’t seem to rest in between. He just keeps going.

If you follow Ploughshares Fund, or Joe for that matter, you know that he recently published the well-received book Nuclear Nightmares. On and off the road since November, Joe has been traveling around the country giving talks, both public and private, and making media appearances to promote his book and the critical work that Ploughshares Fund is doing to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.

In January, after a short holiday break, Joe hit the ground running, with me in tow.

First up was San Francisco. Joe flew in, arrived at the Ploughshares Fund office and met Eric Schlosser for the first time. Eric had also just flown in and also recently published a book, Command and Control, about the dangers of nuclear weapons. The two were speaking to an audience of 150 that night at The Commonwealth Club of California. Within minutes they are fast friends, praising the other's book, quoting notable passages, recounting their favorite chapters. Their energy seems to both balance and feed each other.

They nailed the talk at The Commonwealth Club. They talk about the risks posed by the 5,000 plus nuclear weapons that still exist in the United States arsenal, the numerous near misses we have had with these weapons since the 1950s, and the crisis of morale now facing the Air Force commanders charged with keeping our arsenal safe. The danger, Schlosser said, is in believing that these weapons of mass destruction are safe in a system created and operated by fallible human beings.

This dynamic duo doesn’t end here. There was synergy between the two authors and within days they both committed to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in March, to continue the public discourse about the risks these archaic weapons pose to our security and what can be done to ensure a nuclear weapon is never used again.

Joe followed this talk with an interview the next morning on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny where he identified Pakistan as our biggest nuclear threat and reminded people that U.S. negotiators do not naively think Iran will become our new “BFF”. Rather he said, there is a convergence of strategic interests in Iran that has it willing to trade their nuclear program for security guarantees and reintegration with the West to restore its failing economy.

Next up was Seattle. We flew up Monday for a private dinner that night. Sitting around the table were some of the most successful men and women in America. They came to hear about nuclear threats and what they can do to help create a safer, better world for all. The conversation was deep and thought provoking, these are smart people, leaders in their respective fields. But one thing was clear—people are beginning to listen.

People are beginning to hear Joe’s message—Ploughshares Fund’s message—that our nation is not being served by spending billions of dollars on weapons we will never use. They are beginning to see that the weapons we once believed kept us safe are now a far greater liability than asset.

That dinner was just the warm up for Seattle. The following day Joe was live on KUOW’s The Record, with a spot-on-discussion about Iran and the current threat that new sanctions pose to the first diplomatic opportunity between Iran and the U.S. in three decades.

That night Joe spoke to a full house at Town Hall Seattle. By now he has honed his talk. His speaking points are clear and concise. His preparation time is down to a minimum. But his passion is growing. He delivers his talk, and it's moving and inspiring. Joe has a way of making even the most dry, depressing material seem interesting and, dare I say, hopeful.

For good measure Joe adds a comment that night specifically for Seattle, “If Washington State were a country, it would be the third most nuclear armed state in the world, behind Russia and the US.” That raises a few eyebrows. That wakes people up. 

Next stop, Chicago. Also known as Chi-beria. But what Chicago lacked in temperature, it made up for in commitment and warmth of people. On our first evening, Joe spoke to a packed living room, overlooking the frozen lake, on the evening of the State of the Union. In fact, Joe’s talk about how important a diplomatic resolution with Iran is for the future of the non-proliferation regime queued us up perfectly as we listened to President Obama’s speech.

The following morning Joe spoke at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, hosted by his old friend Ivo Daaldar, current President of the Chicago Council, former U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and former director for European Affairs at the National Security Council.

Remember that energizer bunny I mentioned? Yeah, he’s here, even in the freezing cold. In between breakfast, meetings, recording at WBEZ Worldview, and another dinner, from morning until night, Joe is on his phone, responding to email, answering questions, and thinking...always thinking. Always strategizing on how we can best leverage our individual and collective efforts to eliminate one of the most existential threats to our existence.

Why do we do this you ask? Why do we put people on book tours and speaking tours? Why do we suffer through winter travel, from coast to coast, jet lagged, away from our families?

Because people need to know. They need to know how serious these threats are. They need to understand the fiscal crisis we are in and how nuclear weapons have no place in our nation’s budget. They need to know that diplomacy is our best option with Iran, the only other option is war. And they need inspiration—we all need a little inspiration. As one gentleman in Chicago told me, “Joe has a way of almost making me believe in our government again.”

One of my favorite moments this month was hearing a dear friend of Ploughshares Fund in Chicago tell Joe that he feels like his whole life has been working up to this moment, this moment where we are on the precipice of a major shift in policy with his native country of Iran, and a major shift in nuclear proliferation.

As Joe says, we can almost see the hinge of history turning.

Photo from Commonwealth Club of California