Great Decisions series brings timely topics, conversation to West Michigan

Pictured from left to right: Piram Prakasam, Jakob Lempp, Michael Van Denend, Erica Kubik

Although the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan has been bringing the eight-week Great Decisions series to West Michigan since the mid-1950s, it seems as though this year’s edition of global affairs and international issues programs have been almost predicting world headlines.

As President Trump stepped on the tarmac in Vietnam for disarmament talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Great Decisions speaker Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, was explaining the intricacies of nuclear negotiations to audiences at Aquinas and Calvin Colleges.

“What we have always known as the ‘grand bargain’—that the world will always work toward reducing nuclear weapons and the scenarios deemed acceptable to use them—is currently in jeopardy,” Davenport said.

Davenport noted that numerous nations, including the U.S., have been backsliding on nuclear commitments, pulling out of long-standing treaties and more recent agreements, and also developing “lower-threshold use” weapons that may be judged as more acceptable to use in conflict.

She reminded audiences that every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson has engaged in negotiations to reduce weapons and saw the value in arms control and nonproliferation.

“We have achieved much success over the years,” Davenport said, “and we were getting close to a point where it was globally understood that the sole purpose of a nuclear arsenal was to deter an attack.”

Now, she says, rhetoric and actions have heated up the issue once again, with non-treaty nuclear states such as India and Pakistan getting into military skirmishes wherein one can easily see a calculated decision being made to use a lower-grade nuclear weapon. While not producing a Hiroshima-like result, the actual use of nuclear material in warfare could open up a frightening escalation of nuclear radiation and destruction.

When it comes to North Korea, Davenport believes the country will never give up its nuclear arsenal unless there are strong guarantees of non-interference and a relief of sanctions. Even then, the fragile status of the Iran nuclear treaty makes North Korea and other nations wary of long-term commitments.

Negotiations such as this take time, Davenport counseled, and must be done slowly, step by step. The main thing is to “keep talking and maintain open diplomatic channels.”

Not only has Davenport brought current-headline information to the Great Decisions series, presentations from former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Jim Nealon on immigration policy and Amy Celico of the Albright Stonebridge Group on the China-U.S. trade war bringing a broader understanding of the complex issues behind these national and international debates.

The series is at his half-way point, with four presentations completed and four more to go. Information on the topics, speakers and times of events are available at