The invention of atomic energy posed a novel global challenge: could the technology be controlled to avoid destructive uses and an existentially dangerous arms race while permitting the broad sharing of its benefits? From 1944 onwards, scientists, policymakers, and other technical specialists began to confront this challenge and explored policy options for dealing with the impact of nuclear technology. We focus on the years 1944 to 1951 and review this period for lessons for the governance of powerful technologies, and find the following: Radical schemes for international control can get broad support when confronted by existentially dangerous technologies, but this support can be tenuous and cynical. Secrecy is likely to play an important, and perhaps harmful, role. The public sphere may be an important source of influence, both in general and in particular in favor of cooperation, but also one that is manipulable and poorly informed. Technical experts may play a critical role, but need to be politically savvy. Overall, policymaking may look more like “muddling through” than clear-eyed grand strategy. Cooperation may be risky, and there may be many obstacles to success.
The Financial Times discussed this paper in an op-ed in international control.