Upcoming Website Maintenance

This Wednesday morning US Central Time, the IES Abroad website will be down for scheduled site maintenance. During this time login and account creation will be unavailable, but we expect this disruption to be brief. Thank you for your patience.

Headshot of Paul Walker.

Paul Walker

Director of Environmental Security and Sustainability, Green Cross International

One of the most impressive peacemaking practitioners of this generation, Paul Walker has worked throughout his career to eliminate nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and to promote peace worldwide through diplomacy, science, advocacy, and education. As Director of Environmental Security and Sustainability at Green Cross International (founded by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1992), and in his role as head of its U.S. office in Washington, DC, Paul and his staff have helped facilitate the safe elimination of more than 65,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, dozens of nuclear submarines, and hundreds of nuclear warheads and launch systems over the past 20 years. In 2013, Paul was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, a prestigious international award often referred to as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize.’ Read on to learn how studying abroad in Vienna helped Paul develop a global perspective and hone skills he continues to draw upon in his work today.

IES Abroad: How did you decide to study abroad in Vienna?

Paul Walker: I was an American Field Service (AFS) exchange student in 1963 from Waltham High School in Massachusetts. I spent a summer in Germany with a lovely German family. When I went off to college in 1964, I was anxious to find a private college that had a junior year abroad program because I had gotten the bug to travel and go abroad. I got into Harvard and Holy Cross. I chose Holy Cross. My German was quite good. The options back in 1966-67 for a German-speaking program were either Vienna or Freiburg. I chose Vienna because it was a larger city, offered more opportunity, and allowed me to take courses at the IES Abroad Center and at the University of Vienna.

IES Abroad: In what ways did you change most during and as a result of study abroad in Vienna?

PW: Back in the 1960s, people didn’t know much about the rest of the world, or even much beyond their own city and state in the U.S. Spending a year in Vienna really woke me up to the fact that we live in a multicultural, multilingual world and that there exist other languages and cultures. I was a music student in grammar school and high school—a solo clarinetist and saxophone player—so I really loved Vienna because of the music and theater. I wound up going to the National Opera almost every single night Monday through Friday because you could get standing room for about 16 cents at the time. I also realized after coming back from Vienna that so many of the problems we were facing back then—the Cold War, civil rights, and other issues—needed not just national solutions but global solutions. It was the recognition that globalization was inevitable and that we were not alone in the U.S.

IES Abroad: What are some of the challenges you remember during study abroad?

PW: It is always a challenge for young students to adjust to a foreign language and a foreign culture, but remember that this was the mid-1960s and the post WWII period for those in Central Europe who had personally experienced the war… Being in Vienna, living in limited living circumstances with Viennese landladies, was a bit of a challenge—from carrying your five very heavy keys to get yourself in and out of your apartment to taking a bath in the kitchen to sharing the toilet in the hall. Adjusting to European university life was also a challenge. I took some of my courses at the University of Vienna. Finally, I was one of the few students who purchased a small VW Bug while I was there. That gave me the means to take off on weekends and drive everywhere in Europe. So, part of the challenge for me was to balance the desire to travel with being a good student and getting the grades I needed. I drove to Turkey, Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, and beyond.

IES Abroad: Did you have an ‘ah ha’ moment during study abroad that critically changed your thinking?

PW: In between semesters in January, three of us drove to Greece and Turkey, and it didn’t occur to us that we’d be driving through the mountains of Yugoslavia in the dead of winter. We wound up in the middle of a blizzard on a mountain road in pitch black conditions and subzero temperatures, and there we ran out of gas. It was a life-threatening situation. We had connected with another VW car driven by a Frenchman, and he was in the same situation. We turned the cars around by hand, and drove them off the mountain pass we were on that had not been plowed. We rolled them down the mountain, one behind the other, until we got to a small village. The family welcomed us in, warmed us up, gave us sausage and goat cheese, and put us to bed. In the morning, they arranged for the Yugoslav army to come and examine the cars and get them repaired, and they gave us explicit directions about how to get to Greece and Turkey because none of us could read the Serbo-Croatian signs. They really saved our lives. We could have died on the mountain pass in the blizzard, and they wouldn’t have found us until spring. As a result of this dangerous incident, I realized that we are all just human beings. We all have to understand each other’s cultures and be helpful to those in other cultures. We didn’t have any common language, and somehow we communicated via hand signals. It was a moving experience, and frightening at the time. It was a life lesson in risk management and a realization that we live in a global society, no matter if you speak the same language or not.

IES Abroad: What skills that you learned in Vienna do you still use in your career today?

PW: Today, I work with many international delegations from other countries, NGOs, and private interests on a variety of issues. Primarily, the cities I work in annually are Vienna, Geneva, and The Hague. What studying abroad in Vienna really taught me was how to work comfortably in an international, multilateral environment where you’ve got translation in at least six languages, a variety of cultures and styles, and assumptions about civil society, transparency, and involvement. Vienna gave me lots of practice at a young age to deal with a multilingual, multicultural environment. Vienna also taught me that we often have very different goals, educational systems, and cultures. To get to an end goal, such as the Iran Deal that we’ve just signed with the Iranians and five other countries, you really have to have a lot of dialogue, be a good listener, and be open to compromise in order to find a win-win solution and consensus. And that’s what we have to do all the time in our multilateral experience in nuclear and chemical weapons and in East-West relations. When you talk to diplomats, they always say that if you are trying to find someone who would make a good ambassador to one of these organizations, one of the top criteria is having a multilateral experience in which you are used to all the give and take.

IES Abroad: What professional achievements are you most proud of?

PW: From a global perspective, I’m very proud of the work we’ve done over the past 20 years in abolishing a whole class of weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons, in particular. We are at 90% destruction, which means that about 65,000 metric tons have been destroyed in eight countries. We have another 7,000 metric tons to go. We have destroyed well over 10 million munitions in Russia, the U.S., Albania, Libya, Syria, Iraq, India, and North Korea, and we have cleaned up buried chemical weapons primarily in China (which were Japanese weapons) as well as in the U.S. and Russia. We have strengthened the Chemical Weapons Convention. Just recently, Angola announced that they would be the 192nd country (out of 196) to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, making it the most comprehensive disarmament treaty in the world

I’m also proud of the work we’ve done over the past 40 years reducing nuclear weapons worldwide. We’re not anywhere close to the abolition of nuclear weapons, but from the 60,000 nuclear weapons we had at the height of the Cold War, we’re now down to about 16,000 weapons. It is largely due to the Americans and Russians recognizing that they had to cut back enormously on their programs, and then most of the world has had to join in the comprehensive efforts. Finally, based on the work of myself and many others across the globe, I’m proud of raising public awareness around global sustainability—the importance of preserving this fragile earth as well as implications on public health for everybody living on this planet.

IES Abroad: What advice do you have for today’s college student about study abroad?

PW: Just do it! If you have the chance, take the risk and do it. You have to be a little brave, but maybe less so today than in the 1960s when we had no internet or other means of communication. Open yourself up to new experiences and new people. Travel as much as you can. Try to learn the language and culture as best you can in an act of assimilation. Don’t just act like an American studying abroad. Reflect from time to time on how globalized the world has become – that we’re all very interdependent and that, in fact, it is to everyone’s benefit to try to understand each other across linguistic, cultural, and economic barriers. You’ll realize how important this is not only to your studies but also to your long-term career.