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Mr. Doomsday

He’s flown on Air Force One. He’s sweated crises in the White House Situation Room. Now Steve Andreasen is closing in on the holy grail of arms control: abolishing nuclear weapons.

Mr. Doomsday
Photo by Todd Buchanan

AT 25, RICHFIELD NATIVE Steve Andreasen was working in Washington for former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke. Soon he was assisting then-Senator Al Gore. By 29, he had joined the National Security Council—­what he calls “the best job in government”—racking up 80- to 100-hour weeks advising President Bill Clinton on defense policy and arms control.

Today, when he’s not teaching at the University of Minnesota, Andreasen is padding around the halls of power in Europe and America, collaborating with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger on ridding the world of nuclear weapons. He recently returned from the Hollywood premiere of Nuclear Tipping Point, a documentary he helped produce on nuclear proliferation (coming soon to the Twin Cities and available free on DVD from nucleartippingpoint.org). Here, he explains why he’s never been more optimistic about our doomsday odds—or more terrified.
 

THE MOVIE features the four principals of Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group I consult with in Washington: former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn—all cold warriors who are now convinced that, unless we change directions over the next 10 years, we’re going to have more nations with nuclear material and more opportunities for terrorists to get ahold of it.
 

MANY ANALYSTS believe that a nuclear weapon will be used within the next decade.

I’ve seen the “nuclear football”—the suitcase with the plans for responding to a nuclear attack. Many people view it as a product of the cold war, but it turns out, 20 years later, that the U.S. and Russia still posture their nuclear forces about the same way, with thousands of warheads that can be launched within minutes.
 

THESE COLD WARRIORS wrote an op-ed three years ago in the Wall Street Journal endorsing the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and outlining the steps to get there. It’s been a game-changer, and now we have a president who has also endorsed the vision. The trick in 2010 will be translating words into deeds, especially with respect to Iran and North Korea.
 

WE WORK HARD, WE PLAY HARD. We were recently in Germany meeting with a number of European leaders. Kissinger hosted us one night at a restaurant in Munich—you know, greasy sausages, slabs of roast pig, an oompah band that played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
 

IT'S HARD TO GO SOMEWHERE with this group and not be recognized.
 

I THINK KISSINGER sees his past experiences more as insights than burdens. He says the hardest decision he ever envisioned making was if President Nixon came to him and sought his advice on using nuclear weapons. And that decision would be even harder today, when you’re talking about more than just two nuclear powers. It’s a nightmare. That’s why Kissinger isn’t burdened by his experiences—they’ve led him to where he is today, concluding that we need to do things differently.
 

I WAS 30 when I began working for the National Security Council and 38 when I left. Those are good years to be working 80 to 100 hours a week.
 

THE NSC IS LIKE A SOVIET GULAG: prolonged periods of sleep deprivation punctuated by intense interrogations. In fact, of the hundred or so people who started with me in 1993, only five of us were still around in 2001—it’s that grueling.
 

BEING A MINNESOTAN prepares you for that pressure cooker. I grew up with the Scandinavian temperament and went to college at Gustavus Adolphus. When dealing with crises, the attitude that it could always be worse goes a long way.
 

THE WHITE HOUSE SITUATION ROOM is a rather small place with only 15 people at any one time seated around a conference table. It’s a decision-making room, and there’s something powerful about that. Don’t ever underestimate ambience—there’s something about gathering people in the West Wing basement, in a secure facility, that usually gets their attention.
 

I NEVER SAW PRESIDENT CLINTON'S TEMPER. I have great respect for the man. His level of intellectual engagement on security issues was phenomenal, and in my area of nuclear weapons and arms control, his judgment was impeccable. You can’t ask for more from your boss.
 

AIR FORCE ONE? You’re always working hard when you’re in there—you’re not invited to be one of three or four people in the compartment with the president just to shoot the breeze. But as rides go, it doesn’t get much better than that.
 

THERE ARE DEFINITELY BACKROOMS where decisions are made, but they’re never smoky. Rules are rules.
 

I HAVE A GREAT COLLECTION of cold war–era movies on nuclear war: Dr. Strangelove, of course; Seven Days in May, the classic Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas film; Fail Safe. I love seeing how people react to crisis.
 

THERE WERE TARGETS in Minnesota during the cold war, no question: various economic and power facilities, civil infrastructure. You’d like to think those targeting plans no longer exist, but there’s no guarantee of that.
 

TWO-THIRDS of all living former secretaries of state and defense, as well as national security advisers, have endorsed our vision. And since we came out with the original op-ed, similar groups in European countries have written op-eds, some countries are explicitly embracing the plan, and others are working in that direction. That’s not nothing.

Tim Gihring is the senior writer and arts editor for Minnesota Monthly.
 


Inside the Situation Room

Could you handle briefing the president?

Each spring, Steve Andreasen runs his students through the wringer. It’s their final exam for the crisis-management seminar he teaches at the University of Minnesota, and it’s not just hard, it’s the-world-may-end-and-it’s-all-your-fault hard. It’s not unlike the scenarios he dealt with in the White House Situation Room during his tenure on the National Security Council. In fact, it’s almost exactly like it: A simulated briefing of the president on security issues. And last spring, he asked me to play the president.

I sat in the middle of the classroom while students explained various events that were supposedly unfolding around the globe: a bomb exploding in Israel, claims of an operational nuclear weapon in North Korea. And then they offered their advice: Ignore North Korea, tell Israel to sit tight. My job was to question them: “You want me to tell Israel just to take it? How am I going to explain that to Lieberman?”

It’s the advisors’ job, Andreasen says, to put things in perspective for the president and to balance priorities. “You can never lose sight of multiple balls,” he says, recalling the week in 1993 when U.S. troops were attacked in Somalia—the infamous Black Hawk Down events—and a coup was threatening in Russia.

After class, Andreasen praised the students for their grace under pressure and, a few days later, he forwarded them a news story: North Korea was, in fact, claiming it had conducted a nuclear test. “Life imitates art,” he wrote.
—T.G.


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