President Obama raises a toast to Gary Samore and his team in the Oval Office following Senate ratification of the New START Treaty on December 22, 2010.
(White House Photo)
Spotlight on Gary Samore
Author: James F. Smith, Communications Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
In the complex world of the United States government, it’s rare for a lone White House official to oversee a real change in direction on a major policy issue.
Gary Samore not only helped reshape U.S. policy on one issue; he did so with two immense national security challenges during his four years as President Obama’s Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction Counter-Terrorism and Arms Control.
First, Samore worked with the President and his administration to make nuclear terrorism a central policy concern at the leadership level—to the extent that Obama convened a global summit of nearly 50 world leaders on the issue in Washington, D.C. in April 2010, the only single issue summit during the president’s first term. A follow-up summit took place in 2012 in Seoul, South Korea, with another planned for 2014 in The Hague, Netherlands.
Then Samore played a key role in negotiating a rigorous new nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, cutting deployed strategic nuclear warheads by a third and—perhaps even more important, in Samore’s view—creating an ambitious new weapons inspection system through the New START Arms Control Treaty.
Those were signal achievements in a term that saw intense focus on nuclear security issues and WMD threats, not least combating Iran’s nuclear ambitions and confronting North Korea’s weapons program.
In February, Samore left the administration to become executive director for research in the Belfer Center. That brings the Brookline, Mass., native full circle in several respects. He returns to the Belfer Center, where he was an International Security Program fellow in 1980–81; and he returns to Harvard, where he earned his master’s degree in 1978 and his PhD in 1984.
It also marks a return for Samore to the halls of academia and research. Between earlier stints in the State Department and National Security Council, Samore held senior positions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the MacArthur Foundation, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Whether in government or at a think tank, Samore has spent his entire career working to make the world safer from nuclear harm by combating nuclear proliferation. And from early on, he looked beyond the threat of the U.S.-Soviet showdown of the Cold War, even if still quite hot while he was a Belfer Center fellow. His earliest days in research whetted his appetite for that high-stakes nuclear policy work. After earning his doctoral degree at Harvard (with a dissertation on Saudi Arabia’s royal family politics), Samore plunged into highly classified work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Berkeley, working with nuclear scientists to assess nuclear programs in the Middle East and South Asia.
He joined the State Department in 1987 and spent the next 17 years in government positions of growing responsibility, dealing with issues including the nuclear showdown between India and Pakistan, Iraq’s nuclear program before and after the first Gulf War, and the emerging North Korean threat. As deputy to Ambassador-at-large Robert Gallucci, he was responsible for negotiating many aspects of the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework.
In 1995, Samore moved to the National Security Council, a very different creature from the vast State Department.
“The NSC is supposed to be the brain of the U.S. government, to coordinate all the muscles at State, the Pentagon, and the CIA,” Samore said. “The strength of the NSC is that it is a very small, very flat bureaucratic structure.” “The NSC is more satisfying in that you have much more impact on key policies,” Samore said. “On issues of war and peace, you get more access to the principals.”
Samore’s previous position in the Clinton administration was senior director for counter-proliferation. The position he held during the Obama administration was newly created, with broader reach over terrorism threats from WMD as well as nuclear arms control and weapons proliferation.
Obama showed his commitment to address nuclear terrorism by convening the nuclear summit in April 2010 with more than 50 heads of state. Samore called the summit “really fun—you rarely do something entirely new in government,” and this was indeed new.
Governments set specific targets to meet before the summit and hurried to meet them. “Summits are a forcing event. They set a deadline,” Samore said. And unlike most summits that deal with a wide array of subjects, the nuclear terrorism summit stayed focused on a single issue.
The negotiations on the U.S.-Russian arms control treaty were very different, involving just two governments but confronting extremely sensitive concerns on both sides. Cutting the numbers of warheads proved less difficult than getting to yes on the details of inspections and monitoring.
Samore doesn’t see his role at the Belfer Center as directly shaping day-to-day policy. “Government policy is driven by next week’s meeting. It is very tactical, it’s not strategic,” he said. “However, centers like Belfer can provide the big ideas and strategy to help direct government policy.”
He is eager to contribute to the Belfer Center’s extraordinary array of research initiatives, and to helping train the next generation of policy-makers. He also hopes to stand back and take a broader look at nuclear proliferation over the past decade, certainly fodder for a book.
Samore is juggling lives in Cambridge and Washington through the summer, when his daughter graduates from high school and he can move north. He is a passionate tennis player and looks forward to having more time for the courts.
Samore marvels at the diversity among the Center’s fellows now compared with the early 1980s. “Belfer has become much more international,” he said, allowing for impact far beyond just the U.S. government. “This influences the policy landscape in many countries around the world.”
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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