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Undergraduates attract senior arms control specialists to their forum
On a fall day in 2010, two undergraduates with a shared interest in arms control (and differing thoughts on the subject), decided to bring nuclear arms control specialists to Boston College for a public forum that would fuel discussion among students. Half a year later, on April 15, 2011, undergraduate volunteers were welcoming 10 high-profile speakers—from the State Department, Congress, the press, and the education and nonprofit sectors—to the Fulton Honors Library for a daylong symposium. Presiding over the program, titled “The Obama Administration and the Future of Nuclear Arms Control,” were its organizers, seniors Sam Ratner and Leon Ratz.
Both Ratz and Ratner were political science majors. “Leon comes from this very strong human rights background,” says Ratner, referring to Ratz’s eight years as a volunteer with Amnesty International, helping to organize New Jersey high school students against the death penalty and, more recently, serving on the organization’s U.S. delegation in meetings with Amnesty’s decision-making body. Where Ratz believes that eliminating nuclear weapons is both achievable and necessary, Ratner professes to a “realist” perspective, considering such a goal far-fetched and doubting that it is “even particularly desirable.” They agree on at least one matter: There wasn’t enough discourse on the subject at Boston College. “We’ve both spent more time than we should on other campuses in Boston, going to talks and conferences,” says Ratner.
The two became friends when Ratner volunteered at a previous conference spearheaded by Ratz, in September 2010. Ratz, whose family emigrated from Ukraine in 1994, and who grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, had organized what was essentially a closed meeting, held at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) being developed in the United Nations. Intended to set standards for the global trade in conventional firearms, the treaty was (and still is) stalled in negotiations. Ratz had the idea to provide a forum for representatives of interested countries to be held away from the U.N., a kind of “retreat” where, in a less formal atmosphere, they might “find new areas of consensus.” The meeting drew around 100 officials from 35 nations and 15 non-governmental organizations, and was funded by the foreign ministries of Australia, Austria, and Luxembourg.
En route to the ATT meeting site one day, Ratz got into a conversation with Ratner, a Vermont native and graduate of Milton Academy. As Ratz recalls it, the discussion ranged widely over the field of arms control. “We figured we could work well together on these kinds of issues. A month later, we were working on a new conference.”
Ratner and Ratz chose to orient the nuclear arms symposium toward students, devising a program in consultation with members of the political science faculty, including Jennifer Ericson, Robert Ross, and the vice provost for undergraduate affairs, Donald Hafner. They settled on three main topics: nuclear threats from Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan; a fissile material cutoff treaty, proposed in various forms by presidents Eisenhower, Clinton, and George W. Bush to restrict production of weapons-grade nuclear materials (also, the subject of Ratz’s senior thesis); and President Barack Obama’s nonproliferation agenda. The two drew up a list of potential speakers.
“I figured there was no way we’d get close to these folks, the caliber of individuals we ended up getting,” says Ratz. Those individuals included Christopher Hill, who led the U.S. delegation in the six-party nuclear talks with North Korea in 2007 and was the ambassador to Iraq from April 2009 to August 2010; Frank von Hippel, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, and co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials; and Joseph Cirincione ’71, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a grant-making foundation dedicated to supporting efforts to halt the production of weapons of mass destruction (Cirincione is also a past director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). According to vice provost Hafner, who served during the Carter Administration as an advisor to the U.S. delegations negotiating with the Soviet Union on strategic nuclear weapons and weapons in outer space, these are “the kind of people” whom “Secretaries of State and Defense, and National Security Council advisors rely upon.” For the keynote address Ratz and Ratner secured Marcie Berman Reis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and Nuclear Security.
“Ninety percent of the speakers came from cold e-mails,” says Ratz. “We just said, ‘we’re students, we’re interested in these issues, we’d like to do a conference on this, do you want to come and speak?'” After the first “yes” came back, it was easier to persuade others.
The event was funded by a coalition of eight Boston College student organizations, including Americans for Informed Democracy, the Japan Club, and the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Student Association. Some 100 students and faculty attended throughout the day. Claire Ruffing ’11, an economics major from Upstate New York, served as the conference’s logistics coordinator. “Once the day of the conference came, she was the boss,” Ratz says.
On April 15, as the first of three panels was about to convene, the organizers hit a snag. The car service hired to pick up the New York Times‘ chief Washington correspondent, David Sanger, from Logan Airport mistakenly delivered him to Boston University. Ratner sprinted from Fulton to College Road to try to track down the car, which reportedly had reached the Heights and was circling campus—with no luck. “By the time I finally got back to Fulton,” he says, Sanger “was sitting there speaking on the panel,” alongside Ambassador Hill and Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and until last year the Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Hill and Heinonen spoke on the need to contain nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, respectively. Sanger addressed what the panel seemed to agree is the more serious threat: that non-state groups and terrorist organizations might acquire fissile material from poorly secured stockpiles in Pakistan.
In addition to the panel discussions, which were moderated by Boston College political scientists, Ratz and Ratner organized a lunch in the McElroy Commons faculty dining room, where students could meet the panelists. “This conference was definitely about getting these interesting people to speak, but it was also about students getting to know these people on a personal level,” says Ratz.
“At my table, we had Joe Cirincione, who was holding forth on his time as a campus radical [at Boston College],” says Ratner. In an afternoon panel discussion, Cirincione passionately urged students to join the effort toward a nuclear-free world.
At another table, a former senior government official “kept making jokes about Kim Jong Il,” says Ratz. “I didn’t think anyone could do stand up comedy about North Korea, but I was proven wrong.”
After the symposium, relates Ratz, “We had a bunch of students say, let’s do this conference again next year.” A group of students also expressed interest in forming a Boston College chapter of Global Zero, an international movement that through grassroots activism, lobbying, and education seeks the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Student efforts will have to carry on without Ratner and Ratz, both of whom graduated in May. Ratz, the recipient of the Edward H. Finnegan, SJ, Memorial Award, Boston College’s highest graduation honor, will pursue a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, continuing his study of arms control issues. “The idea is to hopefully one day work in the State Department and be on the front line of these negotiations,” he says.
Ratner, who wrote his senior thesis, “The Albany Movement as an Insurgency,” on the U.S. civil rights movement (inspired by University-sponsored research he undertook last summer in Albany, Georgia), is on a different track. He is applying to the Army’s Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. “I think service is important,” he says.
With one headed to diplomacy and the other to defense, Ratner and Ratz are on divergent paths. But they will always be side by side, at least in one sense. “I just realized this recently,” says Ratz. “The two of us are next to each other in the yearbook.”