I borrowed the title of my book At the Borderline of Armageddon: How American Presidents Managed the Atom Bomb (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) from Henry Kissinger, who wrote in his memoirs that “No previous generation of statesmen has had to conduct policy in so unknown an environment at the border line of Armageddon.” I wrote the book because I was impressed by the fact that no nuclear weapons were used during the Cold War. That is a very significant achievement.
The year 1986 can be identified as a key turning point not only of the Cold War but also of the nuclear age. The term “arms control” was essentially invented in 1960 during the Summer Study of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which included such distinguished scholars as Thomas Schelling and policymakers like Morton Halperin. The idea was that nuclear disarmament, which had been the paradigm until that point (the Baruch proposal, the Acheson-Lilianthal Plan), was not going anywhere. Their thought was that what we needed to do was to create stability in nuclear deterrence. Because nuclear weapons were not going away, we had to find some way that they wouldn’t be used. Therefore stability, both in crisis situations and in the types of forces being built, seemed to them what we should be after. They said that it didn’t make any difference whether there was a buildup of nuclear weapons or a reduction, the point was that there had to be stability. That could be done in various ways.
A lot of that thinking helped us during the Cold War. It was very useful in making a distinction, called a firebreak sometimes, between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons. Another outcome of this kind of thinking was that it’s probably not a good idea to encourage first-strikes by having offensive forces that can eliminate many missiles on the other side while retaining enough for subsequent attacks. It promotes instability by encouraging the idea that you can launch and disarm the opponent with the first strike.
On the other hand, this thinking led to thinking that said, “Well, we have to think about protracted nuclear war.” Indeed, at the end of the Carter administration, a national doctrine was established that had to do with the idea of protracted nuclear war, the idea that there would be a first strike, a second, a third, fourth, etc. That kind of thinking led to the idea that we had to have more and more nuclear weapons.
Some of that thinking was encouraged by my friend Paul Nitze (1907–2004), probably the chief U.S. theoretician of nuclear warfare. Toward the end of his life I asked him how he felt about Ronald Reagan’s goal of getting rid of nuclear weapons. Nitze replied, “Reagan was more like Harry Truman than any president I’ve ever known,” and he had known them all from Franklin Roosevelt on. He also remarked, “You know, I advised Reagan that we should never use nuclear weapons. In fact, I told him that they should not be used even, and especially, in retaliation.” This went back to his thinking about protracted nuclear war, which had to do with his ideas about how to deter the use of nuclear weapons. But of course deterrence easily blends into the idea of using these weapons in warfighting situations, and that’s what we had gotten ourselves into. That’s what I think Ronald Reagan changed. The decisive moment in that period was in October 1986, at the Reykjavik meeting at which Reagan and Gorbachev seriously talked about eliminating nuclear weapons. A transcript of that meeting is included in George P. Shultz and Sidney D. Drell, eds., Implications of the Reykjavik Summit on Its Twentieth Anniversary: Conference Report (Hoover Institution Press, 2007).
On the 20th anniversary of Reykjavik, George Shultz, who had served as Reagan’s Secretary of State, produced an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on January 8, 2007, signed not only by Secretary Shultz but also by Henry Kissinger; William Perry, who had been the Secretary of Defense under President Clinton; and by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), former longtime chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. These gentlemen wrote that nuclear deterrence had to be looked at, because it was no longer the kind of deterrence that had helped so much during the Cold War. They noted the new threats and dangers, including terrorism. They did not feel the threat of nuclear proliferation was being adequately dealt with, and felt that a new urgency was needed. In particular—and this was the controversial part—they felt that there was a need to revive the idea that Reagan and Gorbachev had talked about at Reykjavik that we should seriously consider the elimination of nuclear weapons step by step over time. It was something Shultz, et al. felt would motivate and activate people to do some of these first steps that otherwise would be seen as difficult and onerous. So their feeling was that we needed to link the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons sometime down the line, taking it seriously, with these first steps. The synergy you get from that, they felt, would make it possible to move more rapidly and to achieve more in a short time than delinking these two, which has typically been the practice.
Hoover held another conference in 2007 out of which came a second op-ed in the WSJ, on January 15, 2008, that essentially reaffirmed what had been said before but also identified specifically a series of first steps that could be taken to lead to a world without nuclear weapons. That particular op-ed was also endorsed by Gen. Colin Powell, President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state; by James Baker, the Secretary of State in the George H.W. Bush administration; and by several other former secretaries of state and defense. So it was a fairly widespread judgment among people who had been involved with the Cold War that the time had come to again look at this subject and that nuclear weapons were not serving our national interest.
President Obama specifically endorsed that during the presidential campaign, and his White House website specifically endorses it also. His opponent in the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain, also endorsed the idea.
What do we do now? There are several issues on the president’s and all our plates that demonstrate how hard it is to really do these things in a serious way.
First, the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) treaty that was negotiated largely during the Reagan administration dealt with delivery vehicles, missiles and bombs; it places limits on them. By attribution, arbitrarily, it said how many nuclear warheads would be assigned to a given bomber or missile. It also limited the numbers of attributed warheads. It had a very elaborate verification scheme, and it has worked. It has given us excellent experience in how we go about onsite verification of missiles and their warheads. Unfortunately, START runs out on December 5, 2009. If it’s not extended or replaced with something else, all that verification apparatus would disappear with it.
There is another treaty in effect at the same time, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), the Treaty of Moscow, signed by Presidents Bush and Putin in Moscow in May 2002. In contrast to the lengthy START Treaty, this one is less than two pages long. It says that there should be by the end of 2012 some 1,700-2,200 warheads as a ceiling for the U.S. on the one hand and Russia on the other. Unfortunately, it does not define what they mean by a warhead. We have unilaterally defined it, in Secretary Powell’s testimony to Congress, as meaning operationally deployed nuclear warheads. Our definition of operationally deployed means bombs that are located either on or very near a bomber or actually on a missile. It did not say that anything had to be done about the delivery vehicles themselves or about the excess or reserve warheads. We probably have a reserve of perhaps around 2,000 nuclear warheads. Probably we’re getting down to roughly 2,000 deployed. So one can estimate that we have 4,000 warheads in all.
If you look at the START Treaty—and we’re still using those counting rules for START accountability—we theoretically have close to 6,000 nuclear warheads. So the contrast between the limits of START, on the one hand, and SORT, on the other, is remarkable. One would like to do something about that.
Ideally, one would like to negotiate a new U.S.-Russian treaty. In fact, that is what Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said officially on March 7 at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament. He included in his text a few paragraphs from President Medvedev himself, who essentially said, We want to negotiate a new treaty that would be legally binding, and it should deal with not only warheads but also delivery vehicles. In a discussion in Geneva between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov, it was generally agreed that that’s what we should do.
This brings us to the question of how one goes about negotiating between now and December 1 a fairly elaborate treaty. Even if you do a fairly simple treaty, putting verification measures and counting rules in place is not very easy. The START treaty includes a provision that both parties can extend the treaty by five years if they choose to do so without any need to go back to their respective legislatures for approval. There are some who would have us do that right now, to allow ample negotiating time for a new treaty. Others say no, we all understand the problems and we can do it if we’re serious about it. If we don’t succeed by December 1, then we can extend START. So those are roughly the two options. The more important question is what the nature of this agreement might be. Those who want to do it quickly say, let’s take two or three bites of the apple. Let’s talk about 1500 deployed nuclear warheads instead of 1700. Let’s make it fairly modest. That way we’ll get a good start, we’ll have succeeded in doing something. Then we can do more later on. Those who have been involved in the Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn initiatives tend to think in more ambitious terms, and the number 1,000 nuclear warheads is a typical number that’s used. Probably a number of us would prefer to see a more ambitious treaty than 1,500.
All of these issues are now undecided and have to be decided fairly quickly. In the State Department, a lot of people who would be doing these things are not yet in place. There is no undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Ca.), who’s been nominated, is an excellent choice. She represents the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory district in California.
There are several other items in addition to that particular agenda item with Russia. One of the most important is ballistic missile defense. The Bush administration decided to establish in Poland and the Czech Republic elements of a BMD system that it said would be used against a ballistic missile attack from Iran. That has caused tremendous problems for Moscow. It’s not clear that the system would work very well. It’s being reviewed. The most likely outcome is some sort of postponement. But this and other issues we have to deal with the Russians on are going to be with us for quite some time.
The second issue has to do with the nuclear fuel cycle. This is a much broader issue than Russia. Here we have the problem we call the nuclear renaissance. Nuclear power plants are becoming more popular as a way of generating power for reasons having to do with carbon footprints and so forth. The Yucca Mountain repository for spent fuel rods unfortunately has not worked out. The administration I believe is suspending funding for it. Which means there’s no place for all the spent fuel rods to go aside from the cooling ponds which are located near a number of reactors around the country. In the short term, that probably is OK. One answer however would be to find some interim above-ground storage site, possibly around the Nevada Test Site. Some solution, however, has to be found, or the whole promise of nuclear power will be stunted because there will be no place to put the fuel rods after they’ve been used.
The front end of the fuel cycle is interesting because there are a lot of different ways of dealing with that. One of them is to multilateralize it. That happens to be what the director general of the IAEA is recommending now. We ought to be able to internationalize the U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC). There are four uranium enrichment facilities being built and planned in the U.S. Three of them are in some sense multinational—Urenco, which is a Dutch-British-German consortium; Areva, a French firm; and GE-Hitachi, which is Japanese-American. The fourth is a plant in Piketon, OH to replace the gaseous enrichment facility there with a centrifuge facility. USEC would probably be interested in having some partners in this enterprise, because it’s very costly. So we could go to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and say yes, we plan to internationalize all our facilities, why don’t you? The Russians already are doing it at Angarsk in Siberia, the Chinese have a passing interest in it. So one could probably do that.
The third issue is how to go about reviving the NPT, which no one still believes to be the cornerstone of stability. People don’t believe that there’s going to be nuclear disarmament, which the NPT promised. Therefore it’s limping along. We need to get everyone to accept more rigorous safeguards through something called the Additional Protocol, which is a more elaborate way of inspecting countries to see whether there are any illicit production facilities.
We also have to prepare for a big meeting that’s coming up next year, the NPT review conference. The last of these conferences, which are held every five years, was a disaster. It led to a situation where the non-nuclear weapon states are up in arms. They say, not only do you want us not to have nuclear weapons, you don’t even want us to have civil nuclear power. The two-tier system was doomed to break down. It was created in an artificial way in 1968, during the Cold War. Saying that certain nations can have nuclear weapons and others can’t is somewhat unnatural.
Another important negotiation which has been stagnating for a long time in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has to do with cutting off the production of fissile materials for use in weapons. That’s something we and the other nuclear powers have already done, but India, Pakistan, and some others have problems with it.
Finally, there’s the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has been with us essentially since 1958. This could be a world’s record for any negotiation, not that it’s been negotiated all during that time, as some presidents did nothing on this. I was down on the Hill talking to Senate staff last week who told me they didn’t think the votes were there yet to ratify this treaty. They thought it would take at least a year and a hard push from the administration to get it done. To those like George Shultz who look at these issues, a lot has been happening in the past ten years with respect to verification and the stockpile stewardship program, which aims to ensure that nuclear weapons remain safe and reliable. Verification techniques now permit us to monitor nuclear explosions underground down to tons rather than kilotons. For example, there was an underground test in North Korea, a subkiloton test, that was detected by the international monitoring system set up under the CTBT. It was detected in Canada because the gases had escaped and blown across the North Pacific. So the verification techniques are greatly improved. In addition to the international monitoring system, there’s also a private system by universities and private institutions.
The Stockpile Stewardship Program is designed to look at nuclear warheads not from the point of view of blowing them up but of understanding the physics of what happens to these nuclear materials. Plutonium has a shelf life of probably over 100 years. There was a worry at first that it would be unstable, but we now understand it much better. We’ve put in place the National Ignition Facility at Livermore, which just went into full service. It is capable of producing nuclear fusion on a very small scale. In addition, there are a lot of computer simulations. So that program has been much more successful than anyone thought and gives us a significant advantage. It permits us to retain the moratorium we’ve been under since 1992. But instead of having a treaty where you’d have onsite inspection when you wanted to look at something we’re worried about, we have a moratorium and can’t do that.
There are some concerns about what other countries are doing and what the treaty means. The Clinton administration testified that there was a clear definition of the scope of the agreement. Subcritical hydrodynamic testing would be permitted, while hydronuclear—any chain reaction—would not be. The Russians told their legislature the same thing. There are people who suspect that some illicit testing might be going on in Novaya Zemlya, but it’s hard to know what they mean as there is no treaty, it’s a unilateral moratorium. If we need to concern ourselves with whether the Russians are gaining some advantage,… then the answer is twofold. We can conduct hydronuclear tests, too, because there isn’t any agreed definition of what a moratorium means. Or we can ratify the treaty and go look at Novaya Zemlya and see what’s going on.
Verification always comes up in these things. I noted earlier that the 1-½ page Treaty of Moscow that Bush and Putin signed had no verification. All the verification we got was from a treaty that’s not part of this and may expire on December 5, the START treaty. Nor is there any definition of nuclear explosions in the 1963 LTBT. Verification always has to be put in perspective in terms of whether we get something out of this treaty. When we went into this, there was no great advantage for any sophisticated nuclear power in terms of hydronuclear testing. Those countries already have such a high level of expertise that that kind of testing would not yield great results.
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