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Impact: International Security

FSI's Center for International Security and Cooperation was born from a series of Cold War-era collaborations. Today, CISAC is focused not only on the lingering security threats from past generations, but on the known – and even unforeseen – threats of today and tomorrow: Cybersecurity, bio warfare and terrorism. And it addresses those challenges through a combination of research, teaching and policy influence.


Jane Esberg

Jane Esberg is a graduate student in the Department of Political Sciences at Stanford. She has worked at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation (CIC) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IIISS), as well as FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). As a CISAC honors student in 2009, she won the Firestone Medal for Excellence in Undergraduate Research.

When Mikhail Gorbachev visited Stanford in 1990 and declared “the Cold War is now behind us,” he didn’t just shove 40 years of tension between the Americans and Soviets into the rearview mirror. He brought to the forefront the importance of a brand of cooperation necessary for a more peaceful and safer world – a relationship between scientists that was being pioneered by Stanford academics and their Soviet peers.

And for those Stanford researchers, Gorbachev’s visit meant recognition of the years of research and dialogue that had gone on between them and their Soviet counterparts.

“Science has played a major role on the arms race,” Gorbachev told the 7,000 people who waited for hours and jockeyed for the best spot to see him. “Yet science was the first to speak out authoritatively against this folly and then to look for a way out. Here we have to give credit to the joint efforts of Soviet and American scientists, to which Stanford University scientists have made a very substantial contribution.”

Then the Soviet premier named names, acknowledging Stanford scholars for their “patience and perseverance”: Wolfgang Panofksy, Sidney Drell, Bill Perry, David Holloway, “and others from the Center for International Security and Arms Control” – the precursor to what is now the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

That was a quarter-century ago, when Gorbachev commanded crowds more reminiscent of a rock concert than a staid visit by a head of state. It would be two decades before I developed any interest in international relations. And when I did, the story of Gorbachev’s visit to Stanford was well established as a seminal moment in international security and cooperation. 

It was a perfect example of CISAC’s unique ability to bring natural and social scientists together to address pressing global threats, something I came to truly understand and appreciate even more when I was a CISAC honors student in 2009, during my senior year at Stanford, and today as I pursue a doctoral degree in political science.

Coit D. Blacker

Senior Fellow

David Holloway

David Holloway, CISAC
Senior Fellow

John W. Lewis

Senior Fellow, Emeritus

William J. Perry

William J. Perry
Senior Fellow, Emeritus

Norman M. Naimark

Senior Fellow, by courtesy

David Relman

Senior Fellow

Condoleezza Rice

Senior Fellow, by courtesy

Scott D. Sagan

Senior Fellow

Amy Zegart

Senior Fellow, by courtesy
Threats of the future

CISAC’s founding story springs from a series of collaborations born of the Cold War. But today, the center is focused not only on the lingering security threats from past generations, but on the known – and even unforeseen – threats of today and tomorrow: Cybersecurity, bio warfare and terrorism.

And it addresses those challenges through a combination of research, teaching and policy influence.

“There are 21st century threats, which don’t displace the traditional 20th century threats from nuclear science and so forth – they just add to them,” says David Relman, who co-directs CISAC with Amy Zegart and is a microbiology professor at the Medical School and biosecurity specialist. “All these threats feed off the same themes and ideas of governance and ways of mitigating risk and risk assessment.”

Relman’s work at the medical school focuses on the microbiome (the microbial communities that live in the human body), through which he also considers ideas about governance and mitigating risk. Zegart works at the intersection of organization theory and international security, with a particular emphasis on adaptation in intelligence organizations. Her current projects include the effects of using remotely piloted aircraft in conflict, to understand implications for deterrence and coercion; and applying innovations in medical decision-making to intelligence analysis.

From a course comes a research center

Before there were drones, chemical weapons and al-Qaida, there were tanks, ICBMs and the Viet Cong.

CISAC began during the disruptive days of the Vietnam War, when the Stanford campus was awash with sit-ins and demonstrations. The year was 1969 and China scholar John Lewis had just arrived from Cornell to set up Stanford’s East Asian Studies program, when he got a call from physicist Wolfgang “Pief” Panofsky, director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator.

Panofsky invited Lewis to come and chat with some students and faculty on the lawn outside SLAC.

“Instead of a small seminar,” Lewis recalled, “they had turned out the entire staff and all the scientists. I was suddenly handed a megaphone.”

“Pief said: `after this, we ought to create a teaching program,’” Lewis continues, “because the students don’t know anything about what you just said, and they certainly didn’t know anything about what Panofsky and Drell were interested in – namely disarmament.”

Panofsky suggested a teaching program. The course that emerged is still taught today and is CISAC’s signature class, “International Security in a Changing World.”

A grant from the Ford Foundation funded the original class and the accompanying textbook, International Arms Control. Later, Ford provided Stanford’s Arms Control Program endowment funds, which Stanford matched. From this came the Center for International Security and Arms Control in 1983. Following the end of the Cold War, in 1993, the Center changed its name to the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Different perspectives, unified scholarship

Drell and Lewis were the center’s inaugural co-directors. Lewis came from a background in the social sciences, specializing in East Asian security; Drell was a physicist at SLAC, who had written and worked with the government on technical issues in arms control. The two set the model of science and social science co-directors that continues today.

The birth of CISAC encapsulated three core principles that still guide the center: interdisciplinary work between the social and natural sciences; a commitment to teaching the next generation of security specialists; and policy-relevant research that makes an impact.

From its inception, the center was an interdisciplinary endeavor, born directly out of interaction between the social and natural sciences.


Given the nature of what I work on, very often having a physicist or a former lab director talking about the technical side of weaponry, or even the bureaucratic politics of energy, adds an extra dimension,” says Scott Sagan, a professor of political science and former CISAC co-director who focuses on nuclear issues. “A mathematician like Bill Perry, a physicist like Mike May, political scientists like me, historians like David Holloway and Norman Naimark, they all provide different perspectives on the same issue.

“That doesn’t happen in many places,” he says.

CISAC is now making a big push into cybersecurity, biosecurity and global health. Perry – who served as defense secretary in the Clinton administration – will launch an online class this fall about the need to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide, based on his personal experiences over the last six decades, and Zegart intends to produce foreign policy debates in an online format as well.

From Ivory Tower to policy world – and back again

CISAC has established itself as an academic center that draws on the expertise not only of scholars, but of men and women who understand the nuances of policymaking and government bureaucracy. Rather than create a wall between academia and policymaking, CISAC has been a model of how information, expertise and influence can transcend the ivory tower and take hold in the policy world.

“The policy world wasn’t terribly strange to me because of the number of people who would cycle in and out [of CISAC],” says former FSI Director Coit Blacker, who is now a senior fellow at the institute and the Olivier Nomellini Professor in International Studies.

During the first Clinton administration, Blacker served as special assistant to the president for National Security Affairs and senior director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC). Blacker came to the Arms Control Program as a fellow in 1977. He was instrumental in bringing Condoleezza Rice to Stanford as a pre-doctoral fellow studying Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

“My early days and association with CISAC helped me in several ways,” says Rice, a former Stanford provost who is a professor of political science and the

Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“As a young researcher [I had] access to great scholars who were really the most important people in the field.” For example, Rice met Brent Scowcroft when he gave a seminar at CISAC. Later, when he became National Security Advisor, Rice joined him as his Soviet specialist. “CISAC made that connection for me.”

CISAC has consistently served as a base both for those at Stanford who occasionally enter government, and those in government who occasionally break for academia. Blacker, Rice, Mike McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia; Paul Stockton, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security; Jeremy Weinstein, former Director for Development and Democracy on the National Security Council and current Chief of Staff to Samantha Powers, director of the U.S. mission to the U.N.; and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Arms Control and recently nominated as Deputy Secretary of Energy, were based at Stanford when they were drawn into the government.

FSI Director Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a former CISAC co-director, served as Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy in the Obama administration. Cuéllar was nominated by Gov. Jerry Brown to serve on the California Supreme Court, and is expected to begin that position in January.

Others have come from Washington to CISAC for varying amounts of time. Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, and Brad Roberts, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, are currently the William J. Perry Fellows in International Security. Thomas Fingar, former Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, is a CISAC affiliate housed at FSI.

Impact on diplomacy

Though inherently a research institution, the porous nature of its community means that issues are approached from both an academic and policy perspective.

“Time in Washington at a senior level does alter the way you approach issues,” says Blacker. “It’s not so much on the one hand, on the other hand; it’s more, if this is a problem to be solved how do we think about constructing a policy to deal with that particular set of problems. And that’s almost in the drinking water at CISAC.”

And the government hasn’t been shy about tapping CISAC scholars who have garnered special access with governments unfriendly to the United States or those that are treated with suspicion by Washington.

John Lewis, one of CISAC’s co-founders, has visited North Korea more than 20 times since 1986. This longstanding relationship afforded him and Siegfried Hecker – CISAC’s science co-director from 2007-2012 and former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory – unprecedented access to North Korean nuclear facilities.

The two of them made international headlines in 2010 when they emerged from North Korea with the news that Pyongyang had a thriving uranium enrichment plant.

“Their goal was to send a message to Washington,” recounted Hecker. “They went so far as to show me and let me hold a sealed glass jar with a 200-gram plutonium metal sample. I was stunned.”

Siegfried Hecker examining machinery at North Korea's nuclear facility in Yongbyon in February, 2008.

The trip highlighted the central importance of interdisciplinary cooperation. In his 2004 statement to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hecker said: “The role of scientists, and I should add engineers, is very important to the diplomatic process … to bring clarity to the issues so as to facilitate a diplomatic solution.”

Read Siegfried Hecker’s Senate statement on North Korea’s nuclear program

The White House and Pentagon recently revealed the details of another Hecker initiative, to clean up the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. The area contained enough fissile material for a dozen nuclear weapons, essentially left unguarded after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Hecker was able to enlist the help of Russian scientists to help clear out the site, due in part to his years of trust building with the Russians as director of Los Alamos and his more than 40 trips to Russia.

Scott Sagan, then CISAC co-director, medical school professor Herbert Abrams, and historian (and former Ambassador) Thomas Simons ran workshops in Islamabad on the physical security of nuclear weapons. This work became particularly crucial following the 9/11 attacks. Before the terrorist attacks, the U.S. government avoided engaging Pakistan on nuclear security for fear it would violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But afterward, Colin Powell – who was then secretary of state and feared the potential for nuclear terrorism – offered Pakistan help with its nuclear security.

The “Nuclear Safety in South Asia” project paved the way for the Strategic Plans Division to work with the U.S. government and national laboratories on physical protection of nuclear weapons and materials.

“I have gotten a sense of pride that we were able to get the conditions that permitted that to take place,” Sagan says. “And that we were able to create a sense in Pakistan among senior people there that this was an issue.”

Partnering with Sagan, medical school Professor Herb Abrams, and historian (and former Ambassador) Thomas Simmons ran workshops in Islamabad that introduced the concepts of personal reliability programs and nuclear emergency search teams to Pakistani military and paved the way for the Strategic Plans Division to work with the U.S. government and national laboratories on physical protection of nuclear weapons and materials CISAC scholars have also created research projects that apply their academic expertise to real-world situations.

Cuéllar, the former CISAC co-director who now leads FSI, launched a partnership with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees focused on using design and technology to aid refugees. Cuéllar is encouraging CISAC and the other centers within FSI to put aside traditional academic boundaries and collaborate with other schools on campus, including the geospatial center, the design school and law school, as well as dozens of organizations around the world “The uniqueness – the strength – of  CISAC is the convergence of several different agendas that are all complimentary to each other,” Cuéllar says. “A training agenda, that works through honors program and predoctoral fellows; a teaching agenda, that works through interdisciplinary classes that touch a lot of undergrads at Stanford; a policy-oriented research agenda, which is about incredibly high-quality research but that has some connection to problems that people are facing in the here and now; and a policy engagement agenda of conferences and meetings, some unofficial diplomacy.”

Terrorism expert Martha Crenshaw runs a project funded by the National Science Foundation/Department of Defense Minerva Initiative, Mapping Militant Organizations. This project provides detailed, annotated information on militant terrorist groups. Stephen Stedman works on peace agreements and spoilers; Holloway on Russian and nuclear history; and Sagan on nuclear safety and proliferation all offer other examples of CISAC work with profound academic and policy impacts.

Former U.S. Army Special Forces Col. Joe Felter, a senior research scholar at CISAC, is building the largest conflict database in the world to help militaries and government better understand counterinsurgency.

My academic home

But CISAC’s mission is not solely set on influencing policy and applying academic solutions to practical international security problems.

The center’s founders knew from the beginning that they needed to teach.

“Everyone considers themselves a mentor at this place, whether formally or not,” Zegart says. “I realized how unique this place is, in its multidisciplinarity, in its collegiality, in its rigor, in its multigenerational approach.”

Thousands of students, including me, have taken “International Security in a Changing World,” as well as another signature CISAC class, “Technology and National Security,” co-taught by Hecker, a plutonium scientist, and. Their most recent class used biosecurity as the basis of the final project.

“International Security in a Changing World” now includes not only traditional security topics such as nuclear weapons, but food security and the Arab Spring. The popular course culminates in a two-day U.N. Security Council simulation in which the students debate a pressing, real-world issue such as how to curb a rogue state or levy sanctions against a nation that is in violation of some international norms.

I arrived at CISAC almost 40 years after Lewis delivered his speech on the SLAC lawn. As a freshman, I took a part-time job as an office assistant in 2005, before becoming a CISAC honors student during my senior year at Stanford University.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, this first job at CISAC would have a profound impact on my career and research choices. While helping file North Korean press releases in 2010, I became enthralled by the questions the CISAC community asked about the world.

I also saw how much care and passion goes into research. There are two giant filing cabinets in the CISAC copy room. One is filled with meticulous alphabetized files for Sagan’s The Limits of Safety. These files were stuffed with newspaper clippings, government documents, interviews, and handwritten notes. When I later worked as Sagan’s research assistant, these files were often a more reliable source of information than Google.

I graduated from the Honors Program in 2009. My thesis topic applied organizational theories to the relationship between democracy and terrorism, using Chile as a case study. My adviser was Kenneth Schultz, a professor of political science and CISAC affiliate. It drew heavily on ideas I had been exposed to researching for former CISAC fellow and current Princeton professor Jacob Shapiro. Its core argument relied heavily on Crenshaw’s influential work on the organizational behavior of terrorists. My thesis will come out as an article in Terrorism and Political Violence this year.

The Honors Program was launched after Sagan – co-director from 1998-2011 – noticed that when it came to writing senior theses, undergraduates with interests in security returned to their departments. So he created the CISAC Honors Program in 2000. The program now has more than 150 alumni from such diverse majors as political and computer science, history, biology, and science, technology, and society. Current honors students are working on topics such as the NYPD’s contentious anti-terrorism unit, cybersecurity, the complicated territorial politics of the Arctic, U.S.-India nuclear cooperation, and China-North Korea relations.

What makes the CISAC honors program unique is that prior to the school year, students travel to Washington, D.C., for two weeks. They conduct intensive work on developing thesis topics and meet some of the best-known policymakers, journalists and think tank personalities. I had meetings at the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department; two years before, the class met President George Bush.

The Honors Program asks students to conduct academically rigorous research, while keeping in mind broader policy implications and maintaining the ability to communicate across audiences. The tools that it emphasizes – careful research and communicating research to a diverse audience – has led its alumni to careers in government, business and academia.

“CISAC is a really excellent program for students, mainly because of the supportive network that it gives you,” says Elle Stuart, an honors student who graduated this June and won the Firestone Medal for Excellence in Undergraduate Research for her CISAC Honors thesis: The Polar Bear in the Room: The Changing Arctic and the Role of Institutions in Shaping Cooperation. “It’s not very often that you get to be on a first-name basis with people who are quoted in The New York Times every other week.”

After graduation and a stint on a Stanford Haas Fellowship in Peru, I returned to CISAC as an assistant to Scott Sagan. My time as a staff member only further confirmed what I had felt as an undergraduate: That I belonged to the CISAC community and its strong focus on mentorship.

Rebecca Slayton, a junior faculty fellow, highlights the willingness of CISAC scholars to support her work on technology policy.

“People have just volunteered their time for me,” Slayton says. “Even the ability to just talk to people informally after seminars helps me keep moving intellectually.” A dozen senior faculty routinely will show up to help students and fellows practice for dissertation defenses, job interviews, congressional testimony or policy briefings. 

Slayton highlights Senior Research Scholar and Associate Director for Research Lynn Eden in building a sense of community among the pre-and postdoctoral fellows who visit for one or two academic years. After initially coming to Stanford in 1987 as a post-doc, Eden was later brought back as a so-called “super fellow” because of her knack in creating cohesion among the fellows.

In addition to Rice and Blacker, former CISAC fellows include Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; John Rohlfing, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative; Gloria Duffy, president of the Commonwealth Club of California; Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Ride was a science fellow at CISAC from 1987 to 1989

Today, I’m pursuing my PhD in political science at Stanford, in no small part due to the intellectual and personal guidance I received from CISAC. I owe an enormous debt to the work of Crenshaw, Stedman, Holloway, Perry, and numerous fellows and visitors.

  • CISAC co-founder Sidney Drell.
    Photo by Christian Pease
  • Former Stanford student Jessica Miranda Garcia talks to Sudanese refugees in an UNHCR refugee camp in Ethiopia for CISAC’s Rethinking Refugee Communities project.
    Photo by Beth Duff-Brown.
  • John Lewis speaks with Chinese General Xiong Guangkai, who has collaborated with Lewis for 25 years. William J. Perry is seated at the right during this PRC Foreign Ministry Annual Conference on Sino-U.S.
    Security Relations and Cooperation held in Beijing in 2012.
  • William J. Perry talks to college students taking part in the William J. Perry Project, which hopes to educate college students about the nuclear nonproliferation.
    Photo by Christian Pease
  • Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and a former CISAC science fellow, delivers the 2002 Drell Lecture.
  • Condoleezza Rice and Coit Blacker lecture in CISAC’s signature class, International Security in a Changing World, in 1989.
  • Scott Sagan teaching his Face of Battle class.
    Photo by Rod Searcey
  • CISAC honors students chat in front of the White House during their two-week Honors College, September 2012.
    Photo by James Kamp.
  • A brainstorming session during the Rethinking Refugee Communities boot camp session in 2012.
    Photo by Rod Searcey.
  • Mikhail Gorbachev greets George Shultz, former secretary of state, during the Soviet president’s 1990 visit to Stanford.
    Photo by Chuck Painter
  • Amy Zegart and David Relman chat with Vinton G. Cerf before the annual Drell Lecture in 2014.
    Photo by Mathew Sumner