We Got the Neutron Bomb
A chat with a WMD disarmament specialist
Michael Spies never anticipated going to work for the United Nations. "It always seemed to be something of an unobtainable aspiration for someone who doesn't have the pedigree," he says. He didn't attend a university in the Northeast, and he doesn't have any political connections. Instead, Spies got his bachelor's degree in political science from the University of New Mexico.
Yet, at 29, he's a political affairs officer in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Branch of the Office for Disarmament Affairs. It's a mouthful, but basically the U.N. department focuses on getting countries to lay down their nukes—and other chemical and biological weapons.
In practical terms, the Manhattan office works out logistics for big intergovernmental meetings. Heads of state roll into town in September during the General Assembly. Spies and his colleagues help sort out agendas, conduct background research and ensure that all documents are translated into the U.N.'s six official languages: Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, Russian and Spanish. The WMD Branch also provides support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conferences.
At UNM, Spies pitched in on Green Party electoral campaigns and was a peace activist. That led him to work for the Los Alamos Study Group, which is focuses on disarmament in New Mexico. From there, he joined up with the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy in New York.
Though the Cold War ended two decades ago, there are believed to be more than 22,000 fully operational nuclear weapons globally, Spies says. Russia and the United States own about 90 percent of those. With bigger and badder military technologies introduced every year, countries cling to their nukes "as a strategic hedge," he explains.
Countries are committing larger parts of their budgets to military. Disarmament is more important now than ever, Spies says, considering the international crises needing those resources: climate change, financial instability, extreme poverty. Plus, laying down arms could force countries to find other ways to address regional disputes and discover the real intentions of neighboring states.
The Alibi got a chance to talk to Spies about his job.
What’s surprising about disarmament negotiations to someone who's not on the inside?
There's this theater aspect to the whole game of diplomacy, and even people who are seasoned veterans at international advocacy can get a little caught up. There's always a tendency for deals to get struck privately. The U.N. has 192 member states, and it's basically impossible to conduct multilateral negotiations in a room with 192 delegations, each with an equal voice trying to come to an agreement on a single text.
And yet, a big component of any meeting are these sessions where every delegation is given an opportunity to make very general statements. It can be sort of a mystery as to how all of that at the end of the day, within a very short time frame, results in some kind of coherent outcome that everyone can agree to.
That process goes on in private. The only part that we can see are these public statements. There's often this element of unreality to them and a lot of posturing.
That's something that's very difficult for people to do ... to understand that when you see these testy statements being made from different national governments, you can see that the same characters after the meetings are quite friendly with each other and can hold informal sessions in a very frank and candid and efficient manner. So there's that sort of dual nature in the way business is conducted here.
How does the U.S. rank in terms of following nonproliferation and disarmament rules?
Well, let's see. I probably shouldn't comment on that.
Because a part of what you do is diplomacy. Do you have an opinion on WikiLeaks’ release of diplomatic cables?
[Laughs.] No. Uh, no. I don't.
Why do you do this job?
What brought me to apply here when I had the opportunity was the potential to take the knowledge that I'd built up outside and apply it to the problems internally. But it seems like a hopeless task sometimes. One of my colleagues has this cartoon drawing of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up the hill. That's sort of how we feel on most days. President Obama in Prague last year in April made this big speech on ridding the world of nuclear weapons, but he caveated it with this prediction that it might not happen in his lifetime. Some days, that's how people feel around here. All this stuff that we're trying to do are not things that are going to be realized within our careers here. Those are the bad days.
We fool ourselves a bit and try to push things along as quickly as possible. These big issues move along much slower than we'd like. One can look at the climate change issue as an analogy to that. To come here and feel like you're helping move things along can be quite rewarding and make you feel like you're contributing to a positive solution. Still, it can be disempowering these days to be faced with the news and all these big pressing problems that seem much bigger than any individual has any hope to impact. At least here you can feel like you make little contributions here and there, even if it does feel like it's moving at a glacial pace sometimes.
Is your work at the U.N. a natural continuation of your collegiate peace activism?
I think it is, particularly focusing on disarmament, which tends to not be the focus of these nuclear discussions—especially in the United States. Instead they tend to focus on Iran and nonproliferation and those sort of matters, or maybe arms control.
How has the job changed your perspective on weapons and disarmament?
Certainly, one gets a great perspective on the dynamic of intergovernmental meetings and who the major players are, what sort of tactics they use, what their real motivations are. You have a lot of academics out there who write on these sorts of issues, reams of literature on these subjects, but they're based on people who have no real direct experience on how these negotiations are conducted. Being able to observe these things firsthand gives you so much more insight into how these processes move and how to shape them to better outcomes.
What's next for you?
I don't really know. It's sort of a unique position that I'm in. I'm actually the only person from a nuclear weapons country in the Weapons of Mass Destruction branch right now.
It's difficult for young people to find work in this field. This particular job gives you a sense of security for sure, but that comes with certain restrictions. Where you're in an NGO [non-governmental organization] you can say basically whatever you want and don't have to worry about insulting governments. But inside the U.N., all governments are equal. It sort of curtails one's ability to speak openly sometimes. Eventually it might be nice to work on the outside again. In Washington, for instance, you see people cycle inside and outside the government all the time. You don't see that as much in the U.N. I don't have a lot of guidance in that respect, so I'm just sort of making my own path as I go on.