Since June 2007, the Hewlett Foundation has made $5 million in grants to twenty-two organizations to promote nuclear security. One key part of this strategy has been grants to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University that support the collaboration of Hoover fellow and former secretary of state George Shultz and several colleagues in their efforts toward eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide. Shultz was present in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986 when President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev surprised the world by agreeing on the need to eliminate such weapons. And although those efforts failed, they planted the seeds for the work Shultz and his colleagues continue to pursue. The secretary recently sat with the Hewlett Foundation’s communications officer Jack Fischer to discuss that work and its prospects for success.

How is the threat that nuclear weapons pose different today than during the Cold War?

First, let’s talk about what’s the same. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, there’s always been a threat that a nuclear weapon would go off somewhere with devastating consequences. That’s why, going back to President Eisenhower, every American president has spoken about trying to change that. Kennedy spoke eloquently about it. Carter did. Of course, Reagan was very strong on this.

I agree with what President Obama said earlier this year in Prague. He said the danger of a massive nuclear exchange as feared during the Cold War has diminished greatly, but the danger of a terrorist or an accident causing a nuclear explosion has increased.

In opinion pieces that you co-wrote with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former senator Sam Nunn, and former secretary of defense William Perry in the Wall Street Journal, you called for a renewed international effort to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons. Why do you think there has been insufficient effort to do this?

The subject sort of fell off the table. I know when I was secretary of state, the negotiations with the Soviet Union and the other arms control negotiations were main subjects. But when the Cold War ended, the focus dropped away.

The first President Bush negotiated the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty Agreement with the Russians, which essentially was agreed to at the Reykjavik Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev. And the second President Bush reached the so-called Moscow agreements for further reductions. But the subject was not active.

Why did you decide to embark on this work now?

Sidney Drell, the Stanford physicist and arms control expert, and I have talked about arms control for years, and we thought it would be good to have a conference on the 20th anniversary of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit to talk about its implications. Even though Reagan and Gorbachev didn’t find a way to immediately act on their surprising agreement at Reykjavik that nuclear weapons should be eliminated, their accord helped end the Cold War and led to significant reductions in nuclear weapons.

Out of our anniversary conference emerged the first of two Wall Street Journal opinion pieces we wrote that have helped reenergize interest in the subject. At that point, the Hewlett Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation made grants to explore the steps needed to make the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons possible.

What needs to happen to make progress?

There are two necessary parts: the broad vision that such a thing is possible and then the concrete steps to get there. Without the vision, the steps don’t seem equitable. Without the steps, the vision doesn’t seem realistic. The first op-ed we wrote talked about the vision. So with foundation funding, we held a second conference of experts to discuss the steps. We commissioned papers by distinguished people.

The task in part is to build momentum and consensus. The second opinion piece included a list of former secretaries of state who agreed with what we were saying. Something like 70% of them, defense secretaries and national security advisers, were on board, so that showed there was broad support for our opinions.

After that, we decided we needed a conference in other countries to broaden the discussion. It’s important for this to emerge not as a U.S. initiative, or even as a U.S.-Russian initiative. We think it should emerge as a global effort.

Out of the blue, we heard from the government of Norway, which asked if we’d go to Oslo to discuss these issues. Twenty-nine countries attended the 2008 International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament in Oslo, including all the countries with nuclear weapons. That kept the ball rolling. It was very productive.

One of the things that came through to me was that people are not going to put up with a two-tier world where I can have these weapons, and you can’t. Or you can have enriched uranium, and I can’t. It’s got to be a level playing field.

What are the greatest obstacles to success?

They are doubtless the proliferation threats from North Korea and Iran. It’s hard to see how we’re going to reach zero weapons when countries that are both proliferators and potential users might get nuclear weapons. How are we supposed to get to a world with no nuclear weapons when more countries are getting them?

Then we apparently have the likelihood that there will be new nuclear power plants built around the world. They demand enriched uranium, and if you can enrich it for a power plant, you can enrich it for a bomb. And when the fuel is spent, it can be reprocessed into plutonium. So how do you get control of the nuclear fuel cycle? That’s where terrorists can pose a threat. The hardest part of making a bomb is getting the fissile material. That has to get a lot of attention.

How did the U.S. presidential campaign affect the effort?

All U.S. presidents have supported the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has a section that calls for complete nuclear disarmament. That’s a basic premise of the treaty: the states without nuclear weapons won’t try to acquire them, and those with the weapons will gradually diminish their importance and work to eliminate them.

During the presidential campaign, both Obama and McCain gave powerful speeches endorsing what we were doing. President Obama has a commitment to this on his Web site. Senator McCain gave a powerful supportive speech last June on the floor of the U.S. Senate. We like that especially because we have always felt this is nonpartisan. We think this is a subject of a character that ought to be debated strictly on its merits, not one on which there should be a Republican view and a Democratic view.

What else has happened to put the topic back on the radar of the world’s governments?

Last year, Gorbachev wrote to me and suggested his foundation and the Hoover Institution sponsor a conference on the topic. The Italian government learned of it and offered to sponsor a conference in Rome, which Gorbachev and I co-chaired earlier this year. We had more than 100 participants representing a large number of governments. The assumption was that we all wanted to get to a world free of nuclear weapons, so we discussed the steps to do that.

What are the prospects for concrete steps being taken?

We have all these countries that have, rhetorically at least, signed up with the idea. Last month, the Chinese foreign minister gave a speech in Geneva saying the Chinese government also favors a world free of nuclear weapons. People can wonder, “Well, do they think it will ever happen, and are they going to follow through?” But words matter. Commitments matter. And we now have a large amount of commitment.

We know we’re getting somewhere because the nuclear establishment – the people who have a stake in these weapons – are beginning to fight back. They’re publishing articles saying this effort is all nonsense. A battle is in process. And we are continuing.

How are you continuing?

First, we’ve published five books based on the conferences that will provide world leaders with a roadmap to a post-nuclear world. For example, Drell and James Goodby, a retired senior U.S. Foreign Service officer, recently published a book on the end game. That is, if you’re getting close, how do you actually get to zero nuclear weapons? And there’s an explanation of what such a state means because a post-nuclear weapon world is not the same as a pre-nuclear one. People still know how to make them. So we discuss how you handle that.

Second, there’s a new 50-minute film outlining all these efforts and the stakes of this work that we hope to premiere this fall. Michael Douglas narrates. It starts with an impressive statement by General Colin Powell about his days in command of army units that had nuclear weapons and his reflections on that. Perry, Kissinger, Nunn – we all appear, as do Arnold Schwarzenegger, President Obama, and Senator McCain.

By the time this interview appears, we’re hoping the film will have been premiered at the same time as President Obama’s scheduled appearance at the United Nations, where he’s promised to discuss nuclear nonproliferation.

How do you assess the ultimate chances for success?

This is a daunting diplomatic task, and it’s going to take some good, high-powered diplomacy to bring it off. But it has moved at an astounding rate. When we started planning that Reykjavik conference in 2006, we never could have imagined having gotten this far in this time. So it’s exciting, but there’s a long road ahead. There’s lots of work to be done.