A World Free of Nuclear Weapons: An Interview With Nuclear Threat Initiative Co-Chairman Sam Nunn
ARMS CONTROL TODAY
Interviewed by Daryl G. Kimball and Miles A. Pomper
Sam Nunn has long been a leader in the U.S. national security community. A Democrat from Georgia, Nunn served four terms in the U.S. Senate from 1972 to 1996, including as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is currently co-chairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to reducing the risk of the use and spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
In January 2007 and this past January, Nunn and three other senior U.S. statesmen from both parties—former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry—co-authored op-ed articles in The Wall Street Journal calling for the United States to champion the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons and outlining several immediate steps toward achieving this goal. On January 24, Arms Control Today met with the former senator to discuss this initiative and relevant U.S. arms control and nonproliferation policies.
ACT: In essays in The Wall Street Journal in January 2007 and January 2008, you and other prominent Americans called for “a world free of nuclear weapons,” asserting that the current approach to dealing with nuclear dangers is inadequate. How did all of you arrive at this dire conclusion and ambitious solution?
Nunn: I think all of us probably arrived at the conclusion at different times and different ways. We then converged together with that view over a period of several months. In my own case, it was several years of my evolution to [come to] that conclusion.
I believe that the threat has fundamentally changed. We went through the Cold War, where we had a great danger of escalation from conventional [warfare] to tactical nuclear weapons, right up the ladder to strategic nuclear weapons. I was convinced that, at the battlefield front, [NATO’s] military people were going to ask for nuclear release at the very beginning of any conventional war. So I spent a great deal of time in the Senate to try and strengthen conventional forces in Europe so we could raise the nuclear threshold and make it where we would have at least several days, maybe even weeks, to make a decision [to go nuclear].
[More recently,] the work we’ve done with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)—particularly on the fuel bank, securing and reducing nuclear material stockpiles, trying to convert reactors around the globe from using highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium, and advocating a fissile material cutoff—has convinced me that we simply are not going to get the cooperation we need around the globe to take the steps that are essential for our security without having a restoration of the vision that was laid down in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Whether we agree on the interpretation or not, the world perceives that the countries with nuclear weapons made a pledge to step-by-step reduce them, make them less relevant, and eventually get rid of them.
The nuclear fuel bank is aimed at trying to prevent proliferation of uranium-enrichment facilities all over the globe. But when you start talking to people about the fuel bank, you find out pretty quickly that there’s no interest even among our best friends, in setting up another have and have-not regime: those who have and can enrich uranium and those who have not and will not be able to enrich. That is why it’s hard to get traction in terms of sanctions against Iran. It’s hard to get unity on a lot of things and, I think, it will get increasingly difficult.
Therefore, in my view, we’re moving toward a nuclear nightmare with more enrichment, more nuclear materials, and more know-how around the globe and terrorist groups who have made it very clear they are doing everything they can to get these weapons. Thus, I believe the vision and the steps go together. The way I like to express it is that we ought to make nuclear weapons less relevant and less important, prevent nuclear weapons or materials from getting in the hands of dangerous people, and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons as a threat to the world.
ACT: What do you think are the biggest challenges in convincing nuclear-weapon states to pursue this kind of path?
Nunn: People don’t know that the nuclear-weapon states have a hard time thinking about national security without nuclear weapons. They’ve become so relevant. For a time in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union broke up, I thought it was an opportune time to make nuclear weapons a lot less relevant, particularly with the Nunn-Lugar program. But that time passed for a lot of reasons that you can debate. I think that expanding NATO and putting the military first after the collapse of the Soviet Union rather than making an economic expansion with the European Community was a fundamental mistake. It gave the Russians the feeling that they were, as they pretty much are, excluded from European defense and security. Now, the Russians are in the position that we were in when we ordered up thousands of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. They feel that their conventional forces are not strong enough, requiring them to have not only a nuclear deterrent in a very active way, but a heavy reliance on battlefield nuclear weapons and first use. It’s not unusual that the Russians would come to that conclusion. That’s the conclusion we had during the Cold War. I think the nuclear powers have varying reasons [for possessing nuclear weapons], but it all goes to dependency on nuclear weapons psychologically.
With U.S. conventional capabilities now and with the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, I really think we are in a totally different threat environment. The current threat environment is one where not only is there no need to have a confrontation with the Russians, but there’s every reason for our own security to have cooperation. While the threat environment has changed, the psychology of nuclear weapons for the nuclear powers in most cases has not changed. That would apply to India and Pakistan for obvious reasons. It would apply to Israel and the Middle East. It would apply to China. Everybody is kind of looking at everybody else.
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