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Thinking the Unthinkable: A World Without Nuclear Weapons

  • AUTHORCarla Anne Robbins, The New York Times
  • Jun 30, 2008

Thinking the Unthinkable: A World Without Nuclear Weapons


When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev talked at the 1986 Reykjavik summit about giving up all of their nuclear weapons within a decade, it was dismissed as a trick or more frightening proof that the American president was out of touch with strategic realities. The deal fell apart over Mr. Reagan’s refusal to limit testing of a missile defense program that was notional then and is still.

In the days after, Mr. Reagan’s advisers denied that he had seriously entertained any such idea, until the Russians released quotes from the meeting. Britain’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, flew over to bludgeon her old friend out of such foolishness. James Schlesinger — the voice of the Washington establishment — thundered in the journal Foreign Affairs that Mr. Reagan’s performance was the dangerous result of “casual utopianism,” “indifferent preparation” and a lack of understanding of strategic “exigencies.”

Two decades later, a who’s who of the national security establishment — George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn — is calling on the United States to lead a global campaign to devalue and eventually rid the world of nuclear weapons.

None of these men (two former secretaries of state, a former secretary of defense and a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) are given to casual utopianism — or anything casual. They are trying to shock sensibilities.

In two opinion articles in The Wall Street Journal, they described a frightening new world of ever-expanding nuclear appetites, in which traditional deterrence no longer works. They argued that the only way for the United States to rally the cooperation it needs to confront such dangers is with a clear commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

They called for backing that up with policies that have also long been anathema to hawks: including banning all nuclear testing, taking American and Russian missiles off of hair-trigger alert and agreement on “further substantial reductions” in both countries’ arsenals.

“I do not believe we can do this as a demand by countries that have nuclear weapons to countries that do not,” Mr. Kissinger says.

It is hard to see their proposals as anything but a rejection of President Bush’s failed nuclear weapons policy. Mr. Bush’s aides have spent eight years ridiculing arms control agreements as “old think” and denying any relationship between what America does with its own nuclear weapons and its obvious inability to constrain others’ behavior.

The president grudgingly signed his one and only arms reduction treaty in 2002, deciding that each country could then decide on its own whether to make further cuts. Meanwhile, the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon lobbied for a new generation of more usable nuclear weapons, like earth penetrators to go after buried caches of those elusive W.M.D.’s and low-yield weapons. (With fewer casualties, they argued the president would be less likely to be “self-deterred.”)

Today — 19 years after the Berlin Wall came down — the United States and Russia still have more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, thousands ready to launch within minutes. North Korea may or may not be persuaded to give up its weapons and Iran is mastering the skills it needs to make its own. Many other countries have developed a sudden enthusiasm for nuclear energy — and for fuel programs that could someday help build a weapon. In the midst of all this, the danger that terrorists might buy or steal a weapon, or the makings for one, is also frighteningly real.

It is a measure of how blasé Americans have grown about such things that the Shultz & Co. initiative has gotten so little popular attention. But the proposal has grabbed the attention of the national security establishment here and abroad. An additional 14 former secretaries of state and defense and national security advisers have endorsed the call (Mr. Schlesinger is not on the list). The Norwegian government hosted a conference to help develop their ideas.

Mr. Shultz says the current administration has “been kept abreast of our activity. They haven’t said anything negative; I’m grateful for that.”

He says the goal is to give the next president the political space and the technical support to launch a major initiative to reduce and eventually eliminate the world’s arsenals. “We are increasingly able to answer the question, ‘If I do this how will other people react? Will they think I’m crazy?’ ” he says.

Senator Barack Obama has embraced their proposal. Senator John McCain has not, but has called for a revival of arms control negotiations with the Russians and deep cuts in both countries’ arsenals. After eight years of neglect and denial, that sounds like progress.

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