Spotlight: Steven E. Miller
October 24, 2007
Related: Steven E. Miller, Director, International Security Program; Editor-in-Chief, International Security; Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom
Steven E. Miller is the director of the Belfer Center’s International Security Program. He began his association with the Center as a predoctoral fellow in 1977. In 1979 he joined the staff of what was then called the Center for Science and International Affairs and in 1981 he was named assistant director by founder Paul Doty.
Just days after the coup attempt against Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, which marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, four leaders at the Center for Science and International Affairs (now the Belfer Center) assembled for a meeting.
As those in the room at the time realized, they were at the precipice of a major challenge to the world order: the potential disintegration of the planet’s largest nuclear power.
Just days before, officials in the first Bush administration had told the public not to worry about the future of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. Yet when those present began to review the facts, they immediately thought otherwise: The Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and even more nuclear material.
“We scared ourselves to death thinking about the possibilities,” said Steven E. Miller, who participated in the meeting along with then Center Director Ashton B. Carter, Assistant Director Kurt M. Campbell, and Senior Fellow Charles A. Zraket.
From that realization of the danger, the group worked around the clock. They woke up for 6 am working breakfasts at Henrietta’s Table. They stayed late. Miller recalls being so tired that he fell asleep in the shower.
In the end, the group produced a 129-page self-published monograph – which formed the first comprehensive analysis of what would happen to the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. This became widely known as the “Harvard Report.” Miller, Carter, and the others piled 2,500 of them in the Center’s library and mailed them out to policymakers and anyone else they thought would pay attention.
The report marked a high point in a long line of policy-relevant papers for Miller, and it quickly gained international attention. Miller traveled throughout Western Europe and to London to brief officials, while Carter briefed officials on Capitol Hill. As the first major substantive report on the subject, the report directly influenced the creation of the Nunn-Lugar Act, which allocated U.S. funds to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states.
"We've had quite a few products with impact come out of the Center, but this was probably the most ‘right place, right time’ product we’ve ever had," Miller said. "It had enormous impact on the Hill and on the way that the issue was framed."
Miller, now director of the International Security Program and editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal International Security, came to the Center first as a predoctoral fellow in the mid-1970s. From there, he rose through the ranks to a staff assistant, then on to assistant director. He left the Center for several years in the 1980s to teach at MIT and also to serve as a fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden. He returned to Harvard in 1991.
After the Soviet Union's arsenal was consolidated in Russia, Miller teamed up with Graham Allison, now director of the Center, Richard Falkenrath, and Owen Coté to delve deeper into the question of the safety of nuclear materials in Russia. Again, after some digging, the team began to see urgent problems. They realized that if nuclear materials leaked out of Russia, that could not only blow a major hole in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but the materials could also fall into the hands of anyone with means to pay the black-market price for them.
Miller and the others launched a “blitzkrieg” to get the work done, which culminated in the book Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy. The four were invited to brief the National Security Council on their findings.
Miller’s work has continued to involve him in the most pressing problems in American foreign policy. In 2002, as the Bush administration laid its plans for invasion of Iraq, Miller wrote a prescient piece for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled “War with Iraq: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives.” In one section, headlined Bogged down in Baghdad? Running postwar Iraq may be a nightmare, Miller laid out the case that the real problems might start after the war was won. “What will come of Iraq?” he wrote. “How will it be governed? How long will the United States need to stay in Iraq and with how large a force? How violent is post-Saddam Iraq likely to be? How much will it cost to restore Iraq to a healthy state?”
Miller finished the piece by arguing that the Iraq war was a high-stakes gamble, and not worth the risk. He wrote: “How far does the course of events have to diverge from the rosy scenario painted by the Bush administration before the war ends up looking like a costly, counterproductive mess, or even a disaster?”
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