Alumnae Spotlight: Whitney Raas

Whitney Raas

Degree: MS in Political Science, 2006
Thesis: A Thousand Suns: Political Motivations for Nuclear Weapons Testing
Current Position: Physical Scientist, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation
Recent Publications:
Whitney Raas, “The Emerging Non-Proliferation Environment,” in Debating 21st Century Nuclear Issues, Owen C.W. Price and Jenifer Mackby, eds., (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2007).
Whitney Raas and Austin Long, “Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities,” International Security, Vol. 31, No. 4, Spring 2007, pp, 7-33.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the interlocutors, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

1. Your position at the State Department puts you right in the middle of the U.S. effort to promote international consensus on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. What do you see as fruitful areas of international cooperation in this area during the coming year?

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made it clear that arms control will be a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, and there are a large number of issues that need to be addressed.  Among the most pressing issues is negotiation on a post-START treaty.  The START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) provides one of the primary means of verifying our disarmament agreements.  This treaty is set to expire in December 2009, and extending treaty provisions beyond the expiration date will require serious attention from both us and from Russia. 

It is in the interest of both countries to negotiate a follow-on treaty to START, and likely that this will be a topic of intense discussion throughout 2009.  Another important deadline is the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.  The NPT requires review conferences every five years, with the next one scheduled for 2010.  The last NPT review conference in 2005 ended with serious disagreements among the parties to the treaty, especially with regard to disarmament by the nuclear weapon states, and the 2010 Review Conference will provide an opportunity for the new Obama Administration to work with the international community on a consensus for recognizing the importance of and strengthening the NPT. 

With respect to proliferant countries, addressing Iranian, North Korean, and Syrian nuclear weapons development allegations will also be at the forefront of arms control discussions and international cooperation.  The IAEA has now held the Iran nuclear file for over six years without a resolution regarding past nuclear weapons development, and Iran has continuously defied five UN Security Council Resolutions requiring suspension of uranium enrichment. The six-party talks with North Korea have been stalled over the issues of sampling of material at known and suspected nuclear sites.  In November 2008, the IAEA released its first report regarding allegations of Syrian nuclear weapons research, following the bombing of an alleged nuclear reactor at al Kibar by Israel in September of 2007, concluding that the building destroyed in Syria had many features similar to a nuclear reactor of the sort designed to produce plutonium.  In the cases of Iran and North Korea, the United States works closely with its international partners in the P5+1 and the 6 Party Talks, respectively, to urge Iran and North Korea to comply with international demands.  These talks will be of great importance over the next year, requiring sustained commitment and cooperation between the U.S. and our allies, and we will hopefully see some resolution of these proliferation issues.

2. In recent work for the Center for Naval Analyses, you visited Afghanistan to assess results of civilian reconstruction projects there. Can you give us a feel for the life of an American analyst in Afghanistan?

child in AfghanistanMy experience in Afghanistan was fairly unique for a civilian deployed to a war zone.  I spent two months with a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Khost, a small province on the eastern Afghanistan border slightly north and west of Miram Shah in Pakistan, and two months in Nuristan, a north-eastern province on the southern edge of the Hindu Kush, on small bases with fewer than a hundred U.S. military personnel and a few tens of Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police.  The role of the PRTs in Afghanistan is to interact with the local population and the provincial representatives of the Afghan government, which meant that I was involved in trips off the base into the provincial towns and villages, at least twice a week, talking to local government officials, working with Afghans to improve the construction of a dam or a school, attending ground-breaking ceremonies and meeting with village elders to discuss the needs of their communities.  While on the base, I analyzed a variety of information, such as data regarding population support of the PRTs or of the Afghan government, to help the military determine what sort of reconstruction and development provides the most impact in the province.

3. Can you tell us what you learned about civilian reconstruction projects in Afghanistan?

Security challenges in Afghanistan make reconstruction activities difficult, although no one disputes the need for the development of infrastructure, especially roads, schools, hospitals, and electricity supply systems.  However, without teachers, or books, or doctors, or maintenance equipment, maintaining new reconstruction projects is difficult.   We have not done a very comprehensive job of ensuring that the infrastructure we build can be supported within the budget or capabilities of the Afghans, which is counterproductive to the counterinsurgency effort.  The roles that NGOs and USAID play in funding training programs and long-term development projects is invaluable, while the military does a great job of channeling funds to Afghan contractors for construction.  There needs to be a greater synergy between the short-term construction and long-term development – or additional funding to USAID, the Department of State’s new Office for Reconstruction and Stabilization, or to the Afghan government itself instead of the military – for reconstruction in Afghanistan to be fully functional.

3.  The State Department is putting together a new civilian reconstruction corps that leaders could call upon to respond to crises around the world. Is this something that might be suitable for SSP alums? Will you be putting your name in for it?

At this point the civilian reconstruction corps is open only to current government employees for full time or standby positions. Given Secretary Clinton’s focus on development and diplomacy, I would imagine that the role of this corps will change over the next few years.  If SSP alumni have backgrounds in law, or justice, or conflict resolution, I would imagine that there will be very interesting opportunities available in the coming years.  It’s something that I will certainly be looking into.

  4. Your work at MIT included a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering as well as the Masters degree in Political Science that brought you into the SSP community. Are you finding that the skills you developed in the two programs are complementary and useful in your career?

Absolutely!  My work at the Department of State focuses primarily on nuclear technology and nonproliferation, and the ability to bring the technical information to those who make policy decisions is paramount.  For certain subjects such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, the technical issues are quite complex. The inter-relationship between technical material and its application to international relations and arms control means that I benefit significantly from both degree programs at MIT.