After Bellagio/

Glenn Schweitzer

Glenn Schweitzer is a nuclear engineer, scientist, and Former Director of the Program on Central Europe and Eurasia at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C. Glenn is the author of 12 books focused on international scientific affairs; his latest book, Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A Cooperative Program of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences (1995-2020), was released in 2022.

From 1992 to 1994, I was the lead international scientist of the newly formed International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) in Moscow. The Center was established by the governments of Russia, Japan, the United States, and the European Union, and for two decades, it provided more than $1 billion to support 75,000 Russian scientists who were transitioning from designing and constructing weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological) towards activities that supported the recovery and growth of the nation’s economy. In other words, it was redirecting them from military work to working for peace.

After those first two years in my post in Moscow – which had been devoted to obtaining approval from the government’s sponsoring countries, particularly Russia, to support the establishment of the Center – I became the executive director of the ISTC. Obviously, the entire Russian military and nuclear complex wasn’t going to be changed, but over time 70,000 Russian scientists participated and became what we called civilian scientists. We wanted to ensure there was a transformation in how Russia addressed its defense needs without causing undue threats to the rest of the world.

I was working on a book to document the Center’s earliest activities during my first visit to Bellagio, as a visiting fellow, in 1996. The Rockefeller Foundation supported me and suggested I spend a month at Bellagio to complete the project. I arrived in June, and my goal was to complete my manuscript for the publisher, Routledge, and have it endorsed by the Center’s four most important advocates: former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, and former German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher. At Bellagio, it was clear that we were all trying to understand each other. For me, this was a sign that the world was changing; the world was opening up. It was comforting to be among a cohort of like-minded people who were all as passionate as I was about doing our thing.

I had applied to visit as part of a team. My Russian colleague and I were close at the Center in Moscow, and he played an important role in ensuring that the book was consistent with the views of leading staff members. He also focused on appropriate follow-on actions, including the organization of a workshop at Bellagio that included five key Russian researchers in nuclear science who were leading internal efforts to ensure the control of nuclear weapons.

That visit to Bellagio in 1996 was a turning point in my career. While there, my Russian colleague and I were more or less labeled “the nuclear twins.” We were surrounded by artists and poets and historians, and through the other Bellagio fellows, I tried to understand the global, outsider’s view of what was happening in Russia.

  • The experience was beneficial in that it broadened my perspective of what was going on around the world. It was eye-opening; I became even more determined at that time to write books that would be persuasive as to what was happening in Russia – and to bring science to center stage.
    Glenn Schweitzer
    Nuclear engineer; Scientist; Former Director of the Program on Central Europe and Eurasia at the National Academy of Sciences

The work of the ISTC was sustained until 2015, when the parties to the agreement decided that it had completed its goal and should be closed. I thought it had evolved beautifully, and until five or six years ago, we had a very strong exchange program. In fact, we had the only significant exchange program with the Russians for a number of years. But I underestimated the turmoil in Russia and was indeed taken by surprise by the war in Ukraine, which erupted just as my book was released last year. I had no idea it was coming. I was really not as much a student of Russian history as I’d thought. This idea of the Russians moving forward caught almost everyone by surprise. Now I view Russia as a country that is still home to many of my friends – but who are not outspoken friends, for obvious reasons. I’m trying my best to stay in contact with friends of similar persuasions, but it’s very difficult. The United States, for valid reasons, is very hostile to Russia, and I have to be very careful that I don’t in any way jeopardize the U.S. government’s position, but at the same time try to encourage peace within Russia.

My most impactful experience at Bellagio, though, happened when I went back in 2002 for a science and ethics workshop with participants from the U.S. and Iran. It was the first time in almost two decades that the U.S. had any serious conversations with Iran about where the world was going and how the two countries could move forward together. During the past 20 years, I’ve been working on problems related to Iran. From this work the U.S. developed the only serious exchange program with Iran, involving more than 3,000 scientists. The National Academy of Sciences had a major impact in making it possible for 12,000 Iranian students to come to the United States every year for college. Dozens of joint books were written, and 7% of Iranian papers published in international journals were co-authored with Americans. And so I would say that while the first visit to Bellagio was a personal game changer, I think the 2002 workshop in Bellagio was a real game changer for East-West relations.

In more recent years, everything we did with Iran particularly, but also sometimes with Russia, required six months to make an agreement that we could do something. That was six months to compromise. Understandably, both sides wanted to ensure there were benefits for their respective states. It was important for both parties to consider how the world could benefit as a whole. In general, the United States is on the leading edge of most technologies, yet our survival is dependent on not only the U.S. leading, but other countries having the same incentives to move ahead. Moreover, the U.S. is responsible for the digital revolution, but, as we can see from the current climate, things have changed dramatically.

We need to stop thinking about how to line up against “the Other” and, instead, think about how we can possibly work with them. Over time, we can tackle the challenge of a rapidly changing world together.