The first sustained chain nuclear reaction at a Chicago reactor built under the guidance of E. Fermi.



“It is difficult for me to say how many pillars PIR Center is based on, but one of them is definitely the interns. Their hard work, intelligence, and creativity make a substantial contribution to our work», ‒ Sergey Semenov, Nuclear Nonproliferation & Russia Program Coordinator.


International security is not a center of the world, but a reflection of profound processes that nowadays are characterized by a growing randomness and shrinking planning horizon. Confidence, privacy and confidentiality of diplomacy are deteriorating. Ensuring security requires not only technical, but also political decisions. Under such circumstances the aim of the Russian foreign policy is to find a balance between development and security amidst an incoming new wave of globalization. To secure its status of a great power, Russia needs to preserve its relevance among other players and play a role of additional element to the situation of unsteady equilibrium.


“In this transitional period, further strengthening of the dialogue with external partners, in particular BRICS-Plus, is of paramount importance. The absence of the states of the Middle East and Southeast Asia in the “club” at present limits the potential for the formation of a BRICS partner network. Whereas the “club” has a generally strong membership, so far, none of the states of the Islamic world participates in BRICS. This creates a certain imbalance, even though the Muslim population makes up a significant share in two of the five BRICS countries (India and Russia)”, ‒ PIR Center's report on the prospects of BRICS enlargement from the point of view of international security and Russia's interests.

There is an unfortunate lack of empathy in the world that we desperately need to correct

EDITORIAL: We continue to introduce you to PIR Center folks – those who have worked in PIR Center for many years or have never been our staffers but have a lot to do with our organization – as colleagues, as comrades, as sources of inspiration for our development. Today the founder of PIR Center talks to a person combining these qualities “three in one”. This man has been our colleague for more than 25 years since the very moment of PIR Center inception, our good comrade for an even greater period of time, just short of 30 years, since when there was no PIR Center as such, inspiring many of our projects and undertakings.

In the nonproliferation community this person needs no introduction. Today we are having as our guest Mr. NPT, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey; Member of PIR Center Advisory Board, Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor William Potter. Today we are going to talk about Elsinore, “ryzhiki”, Marina Tsvetaeva, how to find “Crime and Punishment: in Myanmar and acquire movie rights for a Cuban detective novel… and a little bit about nuclear nonproliferation.

Orlov: Bill, you and I first met exactly 28 years ago. The first time I came to Monterey, I remember it very well, was in spring, 1992. Exciting times. And dramatic as well. I was in great company in Monterey when I first came. Andrey Zagorsky and you brought the whole group of Russian and other post-Soviet experts like Ildar Akhtamzyan, Dmitry Evstafiev, Elina Kirichenko Slava Paznyak, Evgeniy Sharov, Sasha Pikayev… Some of them, like Sasha, are no longer with us. I was a journalist then. But, when I look through my archives, I cannot find a single interview I made with you. OK, let’s start my first interview with Professor William Potter in 28 years…

I will start with an easy one. Your CNS turned 30. How and why did you decide to establish CNS, any why to establish it in Monterey? What inspired you?

Potter: I will try to give you a shorter rather than longer version of the story.

When a young American Professor hires a retired Soviet Ambassador…

It’s complicated. It pertains to my formal graduate training at the University of Michigan that was in international politics and comparative foreign policy with a special focus on Russia or the Soviet Union. It was impossible for me, even at a huge graduate school, such as UM-Ann Arbor, to take any courses in nonproliferation, they simply did not exist at that time. Even some people like Larry Scheinman, who was my professor, taught courses in comparative foreign policy, but nothing in his own real area of expertise – nonproliferation. In a sense, I discovered nonproliferation for myself when I did a Postdoc at Stanford and met some students who subsequently hired me the following summer when I was teaching at Tulane University. In any case, while I was working for these three former students, who had formed their own company, my task was to review the literature on nonproliferation. In the course of doing that review I was really struck by parallels in US and Soviet nuclear export policy, and I began to focus on that subject for research. It seemed to me that maybe one could derive some lessons from how it was possible for the nuclear superpowers in the Cold War to cooperate on nonproliferation and extend them to other areas. This all took place well before I came to Monterey.

I also had begun a project at UCLA called “The Emerging Nuclear Suppliers Project,” which was designed to use open sources to compile a database for tracking international nuclear commerce. I got my first two grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (our mutual friend, Hilary Palmer) and from the Ploughshares Fund-- one of the very first grants they gave. When I came to Monterey and I wanted to sustain that database, I found that I had no students, who were knowledgeable about the subject.

When I came here to Monterey, I was given a Full Professorship and I was put in charge of what was then the Soviet Center, but there were no nonproliferation courses offered. I began to offer the courses and to train some of the students, but I had no staff that could really work with me on this project.

My very first research assistant was Gary Gardner, who knew a lot about Latin America but nothing about nuclear trade. So, I began to offer courses, but I also thought that it made sense to more formally develop the training and research program. I founded, what at first was a project, but then became a Center. I would say it really took off when I got a number of other grants, from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, from the Ford Foundation, and particularly from Carnegie Corporation of New York, as well as some others. These grants enabled me to hire more personnel. One was Clay Moltz, who joined the staff as a recent PhD. 

Obviously, Roland Timerbaev was absolutely the key. I have Hilary Palmer to thank for that hire. She called me, and I do not know how she learned of this, but she learned that Amb. Timerbaev might be available. I reached out to our President, Bob Gard and I said that I would really like to hire this unusual individual, and I know that Ambassador George Bunn at Stanford is going after him. But I want to hire him immediately. He said: “If you have the funds, go for it.” I was able to count on Rockefeller Brothers for support and almost instantaneously we had Roland in hand.

I cannot recall the precise day, or exactly how, the idea of a Center per se dawned upon me. It began by having a few key individuals with me and some modest resources. Then we had a key project that enabled me to hire students and engage them in a tangible activity. That was the Emerging Nuclear Suppliers Project database. We developed a methodology for searching nuclear trade publications – Nuclear Engineering International, Nuclear News, Nucleonics Week, and Nuclear Fuel – all which were publicly available. They were very expensive. You could not even find most of them in the major research libraries at the University of California Berkeley, UCLA and the like, but you could subscribe to them for thousands of dollars. We did that, and the students learned about nuclear technology on the job by building a database for tracking international nuclear commerce. And then I would offer nonproliferation courses and hire students to work on the project with me. That’s how many folks joined the program: Lisa Moskowitz, Lynne Huizinga, and others. Plus, we had some people working at the Soviet Center which then became Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. We also were able to market our databases. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was one of the first to subscribe, but they hired away a number of my key staff over the years: Michael Barletta, John Leppingwell, among others. Initially, they sent people here for training, but then built up their own open-source data collection processes.

The other major thing that assisted the Center in its development was the fact that I was one of a very few individuals - one of three - who had been trained as Soviet specialists who were also well-versed in nonproliferation issues. When Graham Allison and Ash Carter at Harvard began to focus on the question of loose nukes, I began to interact with them. When a flood of news stories began to break, I was in a position to comment on them. Now Jeffrey Lewis does much of this, but at that time I was on 60 Minutes, NPR, and all of the major television news programs. We had unusual knowledge, including about the infamous Chetek Corporation case [a Soviet/Russian company lobbying for peaceful nuclear explosions during the times of disintegration of the Soviet Union], and that helped to build up our visibility.

I do not want to ramble on too long, but it was an unusual set of circumstances which could not be repeated today. The president of the university was both a General and a Harvard PhD, and he knew something about the field. His attitude was basically: “if you have the funds – do it. I am not going to micromanage, just go and do it.” I had this tremendous flexibility and I had support from key foundations. Hilary Palmer was really instrumental; she was in many ways the godmother of the nonproliferation field. It’s just a lucky set of circumstances. When she became engaged and supportive, she would introduce me to her friends at other foundations. That’s how we began to expand our program; we grew very rapidly in that regard.

The other thing I want to mention here, which I vividly remember, is being on this panel with Roland Timerbaev (before I hired him) at the Carnegie Endowment meeting. I was very nervous because I was then a relatively young Professor, I had to speak before the Soviet Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency on a controversial topic. My thesis basically was that the Soviet Union had in the past been very prudent from the standpoint of export controls and nonproliferation, but I saw them as becoming less conscientious as they were driven by financial considerations rather than political and nonproliferation concerns. So, I voiced my concerns at this panel, and then I had to wait for Ambassador Timerbaev’s remarks. I was afraid I was going to get really hammered by him. Instead, he basically said that Professor Potter was correct. He was also concerned about some changes in Soviet nonproliferation policy and the factors that were driving policy.

Remember, the so called “Young Tom Graham,” among the three Tom Grahams. He was one of those who had hired me at Stanford. He said “why don’t you think about getting support for a nonproliferation training program” to address the problems I had raised in my remarks at Carnegie. There was a need to expand the pool of nongovernmental Soviet experts - there was then only a handful. Tom said that I really needed to invest in developing ay substantial proposal, and it took me months to do so.

1990s: «I felt that absolutely anything was possible»

My staff today tends to think they can write a proposal in an afternoon, and yet when I go back and look at this first proposal that dealt with the Soviet nonproliferation project, it remained relevant after Soviet Union collapsed. So, I went on with post-Soviet nonproliferation studies, Eurasian studies…

What we set out to do – to train the next generation - is exactly what we actually did. It was remarkable how close the concept was to the project’s implementation and what we remain faithful to today.

That idea which, which was well-honed, enabled us to secure funding. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that we actually were able to do what we did. I had the right people. We were really fortunate with that initial group, and in bringing them over here for training. Ildar [Akhtamzyan, Associate Professor at MGIMO-University] was our very first visiting fellow. And it was key to find people who were interested in working professionally in the field, not just coming to the United States and enjoying themselves. We just had this remarkably successful selection process. Then the project grew almost on its own accord.

It now seems like such a daunting activity, it makes me exhausted to think what we were able to accomplish at that time. There were so many stories associated with these early trips, our first meeting in Nakhabino, my interactions with lots of our friends today: Anatoly Antonov, then an export control official, used  to come to our meetings; Vladimir Shkolnik  [Soviet and Kazakhstani prominent nuclear physicist, former senior official in Kazakhstan. He was Minister of Industry and Trade (2006-2007, 2008-2009) and Minister of Energy of Kazakhstan (1999-2006, 2014-2016), head of Kazatomprom (2009-2014)] used to play tennis with Lisa [Moskowitz, in the past a CNS staffer, now at the U.S. Department of Defense] and me in Minsk when we had one of our meetings there.

Those were remarkable times. I have always had an impression, and it may be a mistaken one , that at that period in my life, particularly, as it applied  to the Soviet Union and the early post-Soviet period, I felt that absolutely anything was possible: you could dream, you could have great plans, and if there were some logic to the plan, it could be realized. You could think big and that was a kind of recipe for our successful activities. We had these very great expectations, we had great partners from the very beginning. I like to think – and maybe I’m mistaken – but I like to think that unlike some aspects of Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program from the very beginning we saw our partners in the Soviet Union and in Post-Soviet societies as truly partners. We got so much out of our collaboration with them; we gained as much as we gave to them. They came here, we offered them training, but we learned so much ourselves. That’s why whether it’s with you or with Dastan [Eleukenov, a Kazakhstani diplomat, since 2019 – Director, Department of international security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan] or Slava [Paznyak, a Belorussian political scientist] and all of these parties with whom we interacted we developed  working relationships that assisted us tremendously. I see that as perhaps the most important ingredient in our recipe for growing rapidly.

“I always had this fascination with Russia”

Orlov: Back to the 1990s, there were people who were eager to provide you with assistance, funding, but the ideas were definitely yours. Why Russia? Why did you concentrate on Russia and not on other nonproliferation-related issues or on other regions of the world?

Potter: It’s much more of a psychological explanation. When I was a little boy, my father, who was a professor, took a sabbatical. I spent a year in Denmark, I went to a Danish school, and we lived at an International People’s College in Elsinore. I was exposed to international culture. I always had this fascination with Russia. I am sure in a subconscious level, part of this is because of my grandparent’s heritage. I only learned this when I was a teenager, but on both sides of my family, my ancestors had come from either Russia or some of the other now post-Soviet states. It is hard to explain, but I was fascinated before I knew my ancestry and I became even more fascinated when I was a teenager and I learned of my roots. That led me to focus on Russian literature and Russian culture. My closest friend, who was my tutor at the UM-Ann Arbor, wrote her dissertation on Marina Tsvetaeva. I was there when Brodsky first came to the United States, I got into this circle of Russian literally figures, artists, and the like. That was my other parallel of love. I chose to focus on international politics, but I could as easily have moved into the art world as the political science academic domain.

The reason for my initial focus on the Soviet Union and the Post-Soviet states, was due to the tremendous problem I saw related to those countries’ nuclear assets. I was also driven by a concern about US-Soviet relations and the potential for a nuclear war. I can go back to my junior high days during the Cuban missile crisis and I remember vividly wondering whether the world was going to survive. So, I was attuned to US-Soviet relations, and on top of that I had a fascination with Russia that went well beyond politics.

I will give you just another insight into my own thinking. When I was an undergraduate I worked in Denmark at a racetrack for the summer, and I remember I had Eurorail Pass. I could use the pass to travel almost everywhere in Europe, but I couldn’t use it to go to the Soviet Union. Therefore, I usedМ my Eurorail Pass to travel to Stockholm, took the ferry to Helsinki, and from Helsinki I could look out and see the Baltics. For me, it was like looking at and being close to, if not actual traveling, to the Soviet Union. This is when I was an undergraduate, long before I knew what I was going to do in my career. These are some of the factors that drove me to focus on the Soviet Union. I had formal training in my graduate studies in this area. It was natural to combine an interest in Soviet affairs and my self-taught interest or skills in nonproliferation to take the advantage of the situation.

«From in childhood in Denmark, I was exposed to a very international life.”

Orlov: What are your memories of your childhood?

Potter: My father was a professor of speech and rhetoric I thought it was a natural progression to go from high school, to college to get a PhD, become a professor, and then  take your sabbatical, just as my father had done. Somehow it was just engrained in me; I just took it as a given.

Orlov: So, your talent as an orator comes from your dad?

Potter: I am not sure he would give me the same marks that you do. I had an interest in language. He was a debate coach and he was really passionate about rhetoric. I think my language skills have probably regressed over the years as I became further removed from him, especially after he passed away. But he was a significant influence. When I was in the 3rd grade I spent it in a Danish school, in a very different environment, so at the time it seemed quite natural to pick up a language. Dad and I stayed with one Danish family, my sister and my mother stayed with another family, so, we would not speak so much English together. And in two months we picked up enough of the language to enable me to go to a Danish school.

We also travelled all over Europe. My dad was interested in adult education, so we went to a number of so-called “folk high schools” in Norway, Denmark, Scotland, and Switzerland. We were exposed to a very international life, which may be natural for many international citizens today, but it was not common for Americans at that time. I had this fascination with all things that were international. That experience abroad is still vivid and also drove me more into international affairs.

Another thing, which probably had no bearing whatsoever on my profession, but influenced me in other ways was linked to the large plot of land on which we lived — large at least for a professor. For my dad it was a way to escape, and he enjoyed being lost in the garden. I had a big collie who was my beloved dog – my best friend – and, we spent a lot of time together. I suspect that to some extent my attachment to my two English Retrievers is an extension of my early friendship with my dog, my closest companion at that time. They give me a lot of pleasure, and I can relax after a hard day in the office, where many people probably are pleased to see me go home. But I am always welcome at the door by my lovely dogs.

Orlov: This brings me to the question you have just started to address. What are your passions or your hobbies beyond nonproliferation? I know at least one: mushroom hunting.

Potter: Yeah. (laughing).

I think there was a period in my life when Russian art closely competed with nonproliferation for my attention.

“My wife says that I`m married first and foremost to nonproliferation. And there is certainly an element of truth to that”.

That was the period when I actually knew many of the artists. One of my friends was the representative of the first Russian art gallery in the United States. I met many major cultural figures, very famous Soviet/Russian movie directors and artists. I met people like Ernst Neizvestny and Konchalovsky. I became attracted to the Russian cultural scene because of my tutor, and her work on Tsvetayeva. I was introduced to a group of Russian Tsvetaeva enthusiasts in Moscow during the Soviet period. I remember visiting an engineer`s home, a rather large apartment by Soviet standards. And in it there was a real, if unofficial, museum of Tsvetaeva. People knew of it and if they had anything, a book, a scrap of clothing related to Tsvetaeva, they would send it to this individual. I thought I was somehow connected to the art world about which I was very passionate, and I began to collect pieces of Russian art before most Americans were aware that there was such a thing as Russian avant-garde.

And then there was the 3rd wave of Russian emigration, which occurred when I was still teaching at UCLA. Thanks to a Russian friend, Eduard Nahamkin, who was a representative of the first Soviet/Russian art gallery in the US, I had the opportunity to help organize exhibitions for these artists such as Neizvestny, Chemiakin, Alexandrov, and even Neizvestny. Russian art has always remained my passion. I don’t collect much new work these days as my wife, Anna, and I have different tastes in art. I remain passionate about it, but I no longer am constantly thinking about the next piece I want to acquire.

There is a story I think you have heard many times before. Anna says that I`m married first and foremost to nonproliferation. And there is certainly an element of truth to that. That does not give me lots of opportunities to pursue other activities. I would say that when my knees allowed it I enjoyed tennis a lot. I think some of the professional relationships that I forged with our visiting fellows and also with some senior officials was due less to my views on nonproliferation and more to my play on the tennis court. I used to play with Nikolai Steinberg, and whenever he would visit, I would play with Vladimir Shkolnik. I remember getting off a plane at Minsk and playing with him and Lisa Moskowitz, both of whom were really good players. In any case tennis was something I used to enjoy playing.

With my Chinese visiting fellows it used to be ping pong. I played adequately so they were surprised to find an American professor with whom to play.

You`ve already alluded to mushroom hunting which I had not done until after Anna`s parents came to live with us over 20 years ago. They were very knowledgeable mushroom hunters. And it turned out that the Monterey area has superb belyye, ryzhiki, and some other mushrooms that Anna and I like. And it is very unusual because most of the people that I find in the woods around Monterey are Russians. Sometimes when I`m in the woods they would greet me in Russian. They would just assume that if I were there, I must be a Russian. And I also became very secretive about that sport. There are some things you can share, but you certainly wound not share them where the ryzhiki are growing with everyone, even within the family. That would be beyond the pale. Mushroom hunting was one of the things that would take me out of the office.

Orlov: When you are now pronouncing ryzhiki I`m not sure everybody would realize how fluent your Russian is.

Potter: I assume because it`s not.

Orlov: I think you`re just as secretive here as with mushroom hunting.

Potter: The answer is that I do not even know what the English word is for ryzhik.

Orlov: But in your kitchen, when you`re at home with your parents-in-law, babushka and dedushka, you speak Russian, right?

Potter: Yeah, because they do not speak English.

Orlov: I was amazed myself. Normally I speak English with you and when I realized how good your Russian is, that`s…

Potter: I used to speak much more when I was a graduate student. I have well-developed kitchen Russian because I have to use it, but Anna`s English is so much better than my Russian, so… Once upon a time, I remember, when I first travelled to the Soviet Union in 1975, I could speak better. And when I returned in the late 80-s and first went to MGIMO, I actually delivered a lecture in Russian. That was a long time ago. It was a challenge, but I managed to do that. It was closer to the time when I was a graduate student and after I finished my PhD work. I could do that at the time, but I would not attempt that today. I don`t think it would be a very successful lecture.

Potter’s Kitchen

Orlov: Going back to the kitchen. I know that you are excellent in cooking turkey; it is always something special. When I look at the calendar in late November, I always think this is where I`d like to be - in Monterey, at your house because it is very special turkey and a very special atmosphere. Do you like to cook other meals?

Potter: Yes, I like to cook. We have what some would say is an exotic, and others would say peculiar, household. Anna is a vegetarian, so she cooks fish, but she will not touch meat. Her parents are very Russian; they cook meat and potatoes. I don`t think there has ever been a meal without rice or potatoes in our household. And I have tried to move away from some of the rich Russian dishes to the point where I cook two-thirds of the meals. Most of them are fish dishes, which Anna can consume, as well as Chinese and chicken dishes. For me it is a kind of relaxation.

My other love is reading, and I am particularly interested in historical detective fiction. I have a very substantial collection of historical novels. But most of the things I like to do require me to use my eyes. As I use them so much in my reading and my writing, it is nice to escape, and cooking is one such escape.

Another thing, which I didn`t mention, is an unusual hobby of sorts. It is not as pronounced in my life as it once was. I have this unusual hobby of collecting a single book in many languages, and that particular book is Dostoevsky`s Crime and the Punishment. I have over the years found that book in literally dozens of countries. And this is how the simulation course, one of the favorite things I do pedagogically comes in. I was teaching this course in Germany many years ago, and I had a young American student. He and a number of other students and I went to a pub. He was planning to travel a lot after the course and was thinking about what he could collect on his trips. One of the other students came up with an idea: “Why don`t you pick up a particular book and get that book in a different language in every country you visit”. There was then a discussion about what that book should be. I thought the idea was very interesting, and I decided to do it too. So, I picked Dostoevsky`s Crime and Punishment.

Orlov: Crime and Punishment is well known in the West, true. But it is not the most obvious book for collecting.

Potter: I love Dostoevsky. I thought it would be fascinating to see how accessible it was in other countries. In the beginning it was easy. I got copies in France, in Denmark, in Germany, but it became more challenging when I traveled to China. It drove my Chinese host absolutely crazy. He thought I was a mad American professor. He took me from bookshop to bookshop to bookshop and he didn`t understand what I was doing. Ultimately, however, I found a Chinese translation of Dostoevsky.

“The Man Who Loves Dogs” and Other Stories

I like to find the books myself, but when my wife went to Burma she bought a Burmese copy for me. I have another colleague who travelled to Iran and got me a Farsi version of it. I have a funny story about another friend, who knew I was collecting a Russian novel, but he mistakenly thought I was collecting Tolstoy`s War and Peace. He was so proud when he came back from Uzbekistan – sometime in the 1990s when, everything was available for the right price. He could not find my novel in the bookstore, but he went to the National Library and he bought the library’s copy of War and Peace for 50 dollars. He was so pleased to present it to me that I could not tell him it was the wrong Russian author. In any case, I have several bookshelves of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in multiple languages.

Orlov: Speaking of books, you have mentioned Dostoevsky, but you have not mentioned that you have a very special attachment to Brodsky. It was early in your life and career when you met him. But I know that your interest in literature is not at all limited to Russian authors. I have discovered some great names in modern Latin American literature thanks to you. What book is at your reading table at home waiting you tonight? Or perhaps it’s a Kindle…

Potter: No. I think this is my father`s influence, he collected old books, so for me having a book in hand is irreplaceable. I have a Kindle but I rarely use it. I have read most of the Russian great classics and I like the Russian poets, but more recently, you are right, I got really excited by Latin American and Caribbean literature. I think because that is virgin territory for me, I was simply unaware of the richness of that literature.

One of the most interesting authors that I discovered was the Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura. He is best known for his detective stories, and I liked them so much I wanted to acquire movie rights, but it turned out I was too late as Netflix already has produced a series of four of Padura`s detective stories in Spanish. His most famous book and one of my favorite novels is called The Man Who Loved Dogs. It`s a story about both Trotsky in exile and the Spanish revolutionary who ultimately kills him. The one thing they both shared was the love for dogs. As it turns out one of Trotsky`s favorite dogs, who was with him during much of his exile, was called Maya, which is the name of one of my beloved English Retrievers. It is a remarkable story and a brilliant novel.

But there are lots of other Colombian, Mexican, and Argentinean authors that I have discovered and love.  Unfortunately, unlike you, I don`t have Spanish, and I cannot pick up a Spanish novel and read it in the original. Fortunately, many of the best novels have been translated so I enjoy a great deal of them. My other favorite historical fiction novelist - Philip Kerr - unfortunately passed away last year. He wrote about a detective, Bernie Gunther, who operated in the pre-war Nazi Germany. The books are very well crafted, from the beginning to the end, which is rare. The author has a superb sense of humor, but it`s also fascinating and frightening to read because of the parallels between the pre-Nazi rule in Germany and what we are seeing increasingly in the United States and other European countries today. Although some of the parallels are disturbing, the novels themselves are entertaining and that`s what I often take with me when I`m travelling.

“Now with all the social media I don`t know how people are able to tweet and do serious reading and research at the same time”

Orlov: On you Dostoevsky collection, do you reread him from time to time, or you just have it as your background you do not come back to anymore?

Potter: I haven`t read Dostoevsky recently, but I`ve reread some of Tolstoy because of Anna’s influence. She is constantly rereading his works, and I felt obliged to become more familiar with some of his novels. But it`s difficult as there is a tension between having time for both reading and writing.

Now with all the social media I don`t know how people are able to tweet and do serious reading and research at the same time; the former can be all-consuming. You have to give up certain things, and for me the choice is easy. I tend not to be as engaged or indebted to social media. I`d rather spend my time reading and doing my own writing.

“Monterey has it all”

Orlov: Anna has been present on the scene in this interview for several times, almost since its very beginning. I am not surprised.

Potter: We’ve been married since 1992. If I`m not mistaken, we met in 1990 and we`ve been together almost ever since then.

Orlov: Can you imagine a place on Earth where you and Anna would be happy together… other than Monterey?

Potter: Not really. I think I speak for both of us. We are fortunate to live in California, which we both love. We take our one-week vacation every year in Maui, where she likes to swim, and I play golf. But Monterey has it all. We like being close to the ocean: that`s a big part of our life. We enjoy the climate and it is hard for me to believe that my wife was once acclimated to the winters of Siberia. I think nowadays she has a harder time dealing with the cold than I do. We are generally happy here, but she enjoys spending time in Moscow as she still has pretty much a Russian soul. It is hard for her to be away for extended periods.

We both enjoy New York, and we have lots of other favorite cities. As you know, CNS has an office in Vienna, and I feel very comfortable there. It’s the one other place where I could imagine living, but because of Anna’s migraines, which are more pronounced for whatever reason in Vienna, that is not an option for us. So, for family reasons too - my grandchildren are in LA, - so Monterey will be it.

Orlov: What was your major success story? And what was your major frustration?

Potter: Probably, my biggest success was my work in the area of disarmament and nonproliferation education. I remember vividly when UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala asked me to join the Secretary General’s board and he told me: “When you come, I want you to do one thing: make a difference in one year”. I gave some thought to what that would be. I`ve presented lots of papers on the board over the course of five years, but the one idea that really gained traction was the paper that I presented on the need for a UN Expert’s Group on Disarmament and Nonproliferation Education.

Without going into detail, Mexican diplomat Miguel Marin Bosch was on the board, liked my idea, took it and introduced it as a Mexican resolution at the UN General Assembly. An expert group was thus created. We were able to come up with 34 recommendations, and also introduce them in the NPT review cycle in 2002 thanks to the support of Sweden. The initiative then emerged as Action 22 in the 2010 NPT Final Document, and it has become part of the NPT review process. It is a touchstone of our work here in Monterey training the next generation, the mission we set forth at the very beginning of the Center, and it`s guided us ever since. So, promoting disarmament and nonproliferation education and seeing the traction it has received internationally is very rewarding. Maybe it is the only topic at the next NPT review conference, whenever it takes places, where it will be possible to find a convergence (if not a consensus) of interests.

The second success may be even more unusual because it involved not only have a good idea but seeing it realized, which required overcoming many political barriers. I have in mind the creation of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone. I was involved in some of the developments that made it possible. I travelled to Tashkent in 1997 shortly before a meeting in Almaty of the five Central Asian presidents, which launched the negotiation of the Central Asian zone. I had an opportunity to discuss the matter of the environmental dimension of the zone with the Uzbek foreign minister, who in turn briefed his president, who then presented the idea to the other four presidents. It was a coincidence that my trip preceded that high-level meeting on environmental issues in Almaty.

The other thing that has been career-changing for me, and I have ambassador Timerbaev to thank for it, is being a member of the Kyrgyz delegation to the NPT Review Process since 1995.

Orlov: Roland served as a liaison with the Kyrgyz diplomats? I didn’t know that.

Potter: Roland had been a mentor to Rosa Otunbaeva who was the first Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States. The short story is that when Kyrgyzstan joined the NPT, it wanted to participate in the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, but the government didn`t have any expertise at all on that topic. Rosa asked her former mentor, Amb. Timerbaev, what she should do, and he said it wasn`t without precedents to have non-nationals on a delegation. She said, “That`s a great idea, who would you recommend?” and Timerbaev recommended me as an appropriate person to engage. Rosa then became her country’s foreign minister and then president, and I had an opportunity to participate as an advisor to the Kyrgyz delegation, which I`ve done for many, many years. So, I’ve had the opportunity of working with the Kyrgyz, with the Kazakhs (including with the person who is now the president of Kazakhstan, whom I got to know him 25 years ago), and with the Uzbeks.

“I find the current state of affairs in the United States unbearable.”

When you are talking about training the “next generation,” I`ve seen this generation in action. Some of my trainees are even retired. This has been one of the most rewarding, probably the most rewarding, things I experience when I go to the NPT PrepComs or Review Conferences. I look out and see literally dozens of my former students on delegations from Russia, Ukraine, China, Japan, Malaysia, South Africa, among many others. They are everywhere! Then I do feel an inspiration.

Orlov: ... and regarding frustrations?

Potter: Regarding frustrations, I would say speaking very candidly I find the current state of affairs in the United States unbearable. I have written lots of books about forecasting and I basically have come to conclusion that in all of areas it is impossible to have much confidence in the forecasting outcome. Generally, the only difference between experts and a layperson is that experts have more confidence in their predictions, but they do not predict anything well. But the one thing I unfortunately can do with almost hundred per cent accuracy now is to predict US foreign policy. Because if I pick the absolutely worst possible outcome, we`ll almost inevitably see the US do it. We`ve abandoned allies, we`ve undermined institutions, we repeatedly acted contrary to our most important interests.

So, I find the absence of US leadership in the area of nonproliferation absolutely discouraging. While there are lots of other parties that have made terrible mistakes, I find US behavior today to be exceptionally frustrating at both the international and national levels.

Orlov: Bill, who is the person – one person – who has influenced you most in your life, professionally or personally?

Potter: On the academic side, I would say it was Prof. Alexander George, an exceptionally distinguished professor who pioneered the use of the comparative case-study method. It was a not a quantitative approach but involved asking the same set of questions across cases in what could be called structured comparison. When I was a young professor, I had an occasion to meet with him at Stanford and he took me under his wing. He was an exceptionally kind human being. I would send him a research proposal of five pages, and he would write back ten pages of notes. When he taught his main undergraduate course, he would accept no outside invitations; he was totally committed to his students. He was an extraordinary scholar, but it was his commitment to his profession that I found really unusual. He was my mentor and a model professor. He passed away a number of years ago. Today, the closest example of that kind of unusual professor is Scott Sagan. They are of the same school.

“Lugar could have become a remarkable president”

The two most influential figures for me in the policy world were Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. They worked so closely together, and they reflected a rare bipartisan approach to foreign and security policy. I was in many ways closest to Senator Nunn. I remember testifying before his committee, and he was one of the original members of the CNS board, on which he still serves. So was Senator Lugar until he passed away last year. For me Senator was an example par excellence of a politician-statesman who was not driven by petty domestic political considerations, he truly looked at the world through a very different lens. I wish he had had an opportunity to serve as the president. I think he would have been a remarkable president because he was a remarkable figure with unusual empathy, an ability to listen, a great sense of humor and an insatiable curiosity and compassion. He was never dogmatic and was prepared to change his views when he was exposed to new information, which he found compelling. In particular, he always recognized the importance of US-Russia relations and the need for cooperation. He was and remains my role model.

Orlov: Do you have a motto? A keyword in your life?

Potter: I cannot say that there is a phrase to which I really adhere. 

A keyword, yes: empathy. That has been the guiding factor in the approach to teaching that I`ve always taken since I was a graduate student. The use of simulations fosters seeing with the eyes of others. I trace this emphasis back to my childhood, when I was a young student in Denmark and was exposed to different culture. It really was a formative time for me, a formative experience because I was exposed to different cultures, other ways of thinking, other ways of seeing things. I think that there is an unfortunate lack of empathy in the world that we desperately need to correct. From a pedagogical standpoint, roleplaying and simulation are the best ways to better understand how other people think. And I try to force myself as much as possible to put myself in the shoes of others, to see how they may see the world. This probably is the closest thing to a philosophy or guide to my thinking.

Orlov: When you look back, what would you have done differently?

Potter: Professionally, there is nothing major I would have done differently. A big crossroads was when I passed the foreign service written exam right before I began my graduate studies at the University of Michigan. During the first month of my studies I was scheduled to take the oral examination. I was really torn apart.  I had read Kennan`s  memoirs, which inspired me to think about a career in the Foreign Service. But I really wanted to focus on Russia, and  some of my professors told me that a career in the Foreign Service is great but don`t expect that you will be sent to the Soviet Union; you`ll probably be sent to Latin America and it will take you decades to find a position in the region in which you`d want to work. You would be better off getting a PhD an enterer the government after that.

So, I chose not to take the Foreign Service oral exam and I often wondered if that were a mistake. But very recently I got rid of that reflection when I read a fascinating biography about Richard Holbrooke called “Our Man”. After having read this book and after having lived through the trials and tribulations  of his career - a brilliant individual but also a very flawed individual who was constantly obsessed by bureaucratic politics within the US government and the Foreign Service - I have come to the conclusions that I made the right choice.

“I`ve had access at high levels because I had no government ambitions.”

The closest thing to serving in government is my service for many-many years as advisor to the Kyrgyz delegation on NPT issues. As such I`ve been engaged in international deliberations, I`m familiar with politics internationally, but I never experienced them firsthand in the US government. I believe one of the reasons that I`ve had access at high levels is because I had no government ambitions, I was not seeking any government position which is a rarity for the people in our field. People felt comfortable talking to me. It would have been interesting to serve in the government for some period of time but that`s not something I think about very much.

Orlov: You have seen PIR Center since its inception. We are younger than CNS, but only five years younger…

Potter: I`ve been privileged to have worked so closely with you and many of your colleagues that in some ways I see the PIR Center as a reflection of CNS. Many things that you did in forming the center, in building it, I see parallels in terms of our own activities and approaches. I think one of the reasons we`ve been able to collaborate so productively over the years is that we`ve both been committed to the same core principles. And one of them which is almost unique is faith in young people and a commitment to train young people both in our countries and internationally.

I would hope that the collaboration that we forged early on will persevere, that the commitment to training the next generation will continue to be the Lodestar star for both PIR Center and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. That distinguished us both in a very unusual fashion, something about which we can both be proud.

Vladimir Orlov expresses his gratitude to Sergey Semenov, Nadezhda Kulibaba and Nikita Degtyarev for assisting him in editing this “Open Collar” interview and preparing it for publication.


Interviewer: Vladimir Orlov
Editors: Vladimir Orlov, Sergey Semenov, Nadezhda Kulibaba, Nikita Degtyarev