Co-Chair and CEO, Nuclear Threat Initiative; Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus and Special Advisor to the President, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Former U.S. Secretary of Energy
Co-Chair, Nuclear Threat Initiative; Former U.S. Senator from Georgia (D)
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan discusses the September/October 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine with co-contributors Ernest Moniz and Sam Nunn. The authors discuss their joint article "The Return of Doomsday," which focuses on the new nuclear arms race and how Washington and Moscow can prevent further escalation.
For further reading, please see the September/October 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs, including the article “The Return of Doomsday” by Ernest J. Moniz and Sam Nunn.
*Members may bring a guest to this event.*
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. Good evening. Welcome, everyone, to the launch of the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. I am Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the executive editor of the magazine.
We usually do these events focused on a piece or pieces from the cover package of an issue. The cover package in the September/October issue is fantastic. It’s on autocracy. It has a bunch of profiles of the kind of strongman leaders who are really setting the tone for international politics these days: pieces by Susan Glasser on Putin and Richard McGregor on Xi Jinping and a few others. But we want to do something a little bit different for this issue launch because we had such a fantastic pair of authors of an essay that came in the essay section of the magazine called The Return of Doomsday on the new nuclear arms race and what Washington and Moscow need to do to avert catastrophe, I think it’s fair to say.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the biographies of the two authors because you all know them pretty well: former Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz, former Senator Sam Nunn. They are co-chairs of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, have obviously played very central roles in some of defining events in this field over the past quarter century or so, from the Nunn-Lugar initiative to JCPOA, the Iran deal. And so they are extremely well-qualified to talk about this.
But the piece itself is also really remarkable. I’m not sure how many of you have had a chance to read the issue already, but it is really exceptional for a couple of distinguished former officials, you know, who often feel they have the right to write in, you know, sort of chin-stroking platitudes—not these two, but others—(laughter)—and hover at, you know, thirty thousand feet. That is not the case with them. They really bring bracing analysis, a very clear warning to this, and really get into the specifics. I think the line that has probably attracted the most attention so far comes in the introduction, and I will just read this one: “Not since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has the risk of a U.S.-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today.” And they go from there to lay out a very, very specific set of agenda items, starting with some changes to the politics in Washington, that they think we need to undertake with some urgency in order to avert that danger.
So we will talk about U.S.-Russia. We’ll talk about some other issues on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons agenda. And then, after about a half an hour, I’ll kick it over to members for questions from all of you. I know there’s a lot of expertise in this audience, so we’ll look forward to those questions.
Senator Nunn, I want to start with you, talking not just about the U.S.-Russia but really zooming out and looking at the record of nuclear policy and nonproliferation over the twenty-five years or so since the end of the Cold War. As you of course know, there was a moment of great optimism in the aftermath of the Cold War. There was a time a decade or two ago when Global Zero really seemed to have momentum on the global stage. President Obama had endorsed it pretty explicitly. You and Secretary Kissinger and Kerry—and Schultz was the fourth of those?
NUNN: Right, right, right.
KURTZ-PHELAN: —had endorsed this idea of a world free of nuclear weapons. We’ve come to a very different place today, as you point out. We’re talking about a lot of things, a lot of concerns that seem to be relics of the Cold War. How do you reflect on that period? How did we get from that moment of optimism to the scary scenario you lay out in this piece?
NUNN: Well, I’m not sure you could ever define where we’ve been since nuclear weapons were first developed as being stability, but we’ve been in periods of time that were a lot more stable than we are right now. And Ernie and I really believe we’ve entered into what we call a period of instability.
And by “stability,” just defining my terms—and this is my layman’s language, but—I think that “stability” means that you don’t create force postures or weapons systems if you can avoid it, and you let arms control where possible mitigate the risk of either side believing they’re going to get a decisive advantage by striking first; and contrary to that, having both sides confident that they are not going to basically be disadvantaged by taking time to make a decision to use nuclear weapons. So warning time, decision time is all important.
And right now the article that has been referred to by Dan, Ernie and I believe that we have entered into a period of instability, meaning that we have gone through this period of time going back to where we had a CFE Treaty, Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, that regulated the movement of troops so people in all the countries involved would not feel they were going to be victims of a surprise attack. We’ve gone through that CFE Treaty, no longer here. Russia basically terminated it. The Warsaw Pact ended up on a different side. It needed changing because it to some extent was outmoded, but instead of having plan B we did nothing to deal with the real dangers of conventional forces in Europe. So plan A, the treaty, was destroyed or was abrogated. Plan B never appeared.
The same thing has happened with the INF Treaty. Basically, intermediate nuclear forces, three hundred miles to three thousand miles, were being regulated. The ground—deployment of ground intermediate missiles was banned, whether they were nuclear or conventional. Air and sea were permitted. And so the Russians, we think, violated that treaty, and so it has been now terminated by the United States and there’s nothing to take its place. And the danger is still there.
The other—I would reference the ABM Treaty. We convinced the Russians—Henry Kissinger did—many years ago that if you take defenses and you make them potent enough, the offensive side is going to try to overcome those defenses because no country wants to be put in a position where one country can strike the other with a first strike and there would be sufficient defenses to protect against what’s left, so a great advantage would go to striking first. That was the heart of the ABM Treaty, to basically not have that psychology prevail. We were the ones who convinced the Russians way back. But then we decided we were going to get out of the ABM Treaty, again without having plan B.
So we’ve gone through all of those. Now we’re at a START Treaty. And the START Treaty is the last—the last guy standing, so to speak. It has the verification provisions in it that are so important. If we don’t renew START, which is on the agenda right now, at least we—those of us in favor of renewing it think very much it ought to be done. It could be done by executive order, and then we could go on and deal with other matters that ought to be START II. So it doesn’t solve all the problems by any means, but it is the core of what we have left, and it regulates the nuclear weapon systems that could strike the United States. So we do have a direct interest. Even more interest if you look at protect America first, which is not the heart of what we do with alliances. But nevertheless, if that’s your philosophy then the very priority should be regulating the missiles and not having more missiles that can strike the United States, and that’s what the START Treaty does.
So that’s kind of an evolution to where we are now. But to sort of wrap up this—and we can talk about it some more—is that we believe—and we pointed out in this article—that technology, instead of working to mitigate and reduce risk, is now increasing risk, because we’re not having a dialogue about what to do with new technologies. For instance, if we start—the United States and Russia, or Pakistan and India for instance, or other nuclear countries—start fooling around in warning systems with cyberattacks or command and control, we can have an accidental war that nobody intended because false warnings would be something we need to really be careful about. We have a mutual interest, an existential mutual interest, with Russia in making sure there are no false warnings. We have just as much interest in their warning systems as they do in ours. We have survival based on that. So we are not talking about those technologies.
It’s not just cyber—that’s the one that I think is on the front burner now—but it’s also quantum computing and it’s also artificial intelligence. For the first time in a long time I’m reading in the United States arms control type coverage and nuclear discussions where people are talking about autonomous systems that basically dead hand which we—there was a book written on that about the Russians. Are we moving to the point where machines are going to make these decisions? That’s a huge, huge question for the United States and for Russia.
So that’s sort of a hopefully quick summary of where we—where we have—we have evolved and where we are now moving much more into a period of instability.
MONIZ: I’d like to add one footnote to that—
MONIZ: —on the New START in particular. Sam mentioned the verification is very, very critical, but another feature of the New START is that there is an explicit consultative mechanism, and—not to mention a(n) essentially automatic very simply check-the-box extension for five years. It’s hard to understand how the optimum approach isn’t just extended with a commitment to actual dialogue and using the other five years.
For example—maybe we’ll come back to this—for example, Sam mentioned technology. In discussing are we—how are we going to mutually control/meter the use of the kinds of new technologies that Putin announced last year—hypersonic glide vehicles, nuclear-powered torpedoes, possibly—maybe science fiction—nuclear-powered cruise missile, et cetera. So the way the arms control regime is collapsing is also eliminating our chance to have exactly the discussions we need for stability.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So those would be addressed, in your mind, in that five-year period from—
MONIZ: Yeah, because the New START ends early in 2021. There isn’t much time left. And so right now, we would argue, just go ahead, get the five years with a commitment that we have got to get into the dialogue that’s going to restore stability rather than go into just increasing the odds of something bad happening.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And is it right that if New START does end there will no longer be a single arms control mechanism between the United States and Russia? Is that—that’s where we’ll be?
MONIZ: Correct. And in—and in—and in particular, no verification mechanism, no at least established channel for those kinds of discussions.
NUNN: And no red lines or understandings on cyber, on any of the new technologies. So you’ve got the old world of nuclear weapons, which we’ve been dealing with a long time, and all the regulatory regime will have collapsed on that. And then you’ve got nothing going on in the new technologies, which make the situation more dangerous. So that’s why we believe that we need to all basically understand the threat and begin to deal with it, and the American public’s going to have to understand it. And I would add, too, that the Russian public’s going to have to understand it, too. They got the same problem.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I want to linger on the INF for a moment. Secretary Moniz, as you know, the other side of this debate has argued that the Russians were violating the INF Treaty for a long time, as most people agree. The Chinese were not subject to it, and many of their nuclear weapons would be in violation if they were party to it. The upshot for those critics is that the treaty isn’t worth a whole lot if the United States is the only one that’s in compliance with it. What is your response to those critics? And what would be your solution if you were still in your old job, say, to strengthen it and address those weaknesses?
MONIZ: Well, I think it’s a fundamentally false argument on a number of counts, and that is not to dismiss the importance of the violation of the treaty, OK? I mean, we do have reason to believe that there has been a violation of the—of the treaty with the Russians developing and testing a new—a new missile that is in the INF forbidden range, if you like.
On the other hand, first of all, the issue of China—you raised China—we should remember the United States and Russia still have more than 90 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world and China’s stockpile is an order of magnitude lower. Public numbers would put it, say, in the three hundred plus or minus kind of—kind of range.
They also have—something that’s not mentioned enough is it’s true for the United States and Russia, and it’s certainly true for China, that also the way the forces are structured is very different. Sometimes we get mesmerized by, you know, Russia and the United States will have 4,123 weapons, but—(laughs)—but underneath that very, very different. For example, the United States has a much greater reliance on the seaborne, on the submarines, for example. The Chinese are also in a very, very different geopolitical situation in terms of their forces.
So, to be honest, I’d have to say that the Chinese argument for getting out of INF comes across to me as a bit of an excuse, I’d be perfectly honest.
And so going back to the U.S. and Russia, the—let’s say that the Russians are cheating. I might add, of course, the Russians accuse us of violating the treaty in terms of possible modifications of our—of our defensive—of our missile defenses in Eastern Europe. To us, the obviously logical approach is you discuss it. It’s been said, people with military knowledge, that if we got together—the U.S. and Russia—in the way that often used to happen—technical exchanges, mutual inspections—we could resolve this issue pretty quickly. To be perfectly honest, and I’m—it’s probably risky to impute motives that have not been stated, but I think, frankly, there are many members on both sides who just wanted to get out of INF.
It is interesting that, including the United States military tested an INF-forbidden missile in a very short time after the treaty was over. That didn’t happen with one day’s preparation. So, you know—so I think that the—that there was a desire on both sides, certain members of both sides’ militaries in particular, who were looking past the INF. But we would argue even its—we should have had a plan B, as Sam said. But even with the treaty gone, why aren’t we involved right now in the kinds of political discussions for a political agreement that would work against at least the destabilizing potential deployments of INF missiles in Europe? After all, the treaty was done for Europe, right? And we could—we could at least handle that as an executive agreement in terms of deployment.
But the level of dialogue right now just isn’t happening on more or less any of these issues, which is a core theme, of course, of our article. And so we—each of these moves just heads to less stability. And right now it’s a slippery slope.
NUNN: Yeah, if we both redeployed ground-based systems in Europe, Russia and the United States, NATO, then those are going to be the first missiles used, if there were any kind of war. Therefore, guess what, they’re going to be the first targets. And so any country that deploys them is volunteering to be the first target. And therefore, guess what? Not any of our allies are stepping up to the plate, that I know of, that want to deploy them. So we may build them and not—they may—they may be orphans. They may not find a home. And I think the same thing may apply in Asia. We’re going to have to watch that one very closely too.
But they also—the added element that we didn’t think about even back in the INF days very much, but the added element is security of those weapon systems from possible catastrophic terrorism. Every time you deploy a nuclear weapon anywhere, you got to have security around it. And back in the old days, one of the most alarming trips I ever had was looking at our tactical short-range nuclear weapons storage facilities in Europe. This was back right after the Vietnam War. So, I mean, it was—it was a nightmare. It was very much of a nightmare. In the mind of the Germany terrorist group, I can’t remember the name, Badhoff?
NUNN: Yeah. They were very active at that point in time. I remember getting off an airplane at Andrews Air Force Base and I was so alarmed by what I had seen in Europe that I—Jim Schlesinger was secretary of defense. And I didn’t even go to the office or home. I called him up and said: I want to come right over. And I did. So, anyway, that’s history, but deploying weapons in other countries mean that security is enormously important. And we got some weapons in Europe right now, including at the air force base in Turkey, that was taken over in the coup.
MONIZ: Well, I can neither confirm nor deny that, so. (Laughter.)
NUNN: OK. Well, I read that in a newspaper, and I have no classified information.
MONIZ: By, the way, I’d just note that on that issue of forward deployment, we do note that—frankly, that forward deployment has essentially no military value. It’s a political statement.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Can we venture a bit further into the perhaps treacherous territory of politics? One of the striking messages in the piece is that, by your analysis, the politics of the Russia issue in Washington are part of the problem. They are inhibiting the kind of dialogue that we need to address these issues. And that’s not to discount Crimea, or 2016 election interference. But I think you state pretty strongly that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle really need to, on this particular issue, get beyond those and focus on what is a more existential threat. Can you talk about what drove you to issue that kind of warning, which is not always a part of these kinds of analyses?
NUNN: Well, that’s kind of right on top of our to-do list. We believe that there has to be a coherent kind of approach between the executive branch and Congress. And right now there simply is not trust on Capitol Hill for the executive branch to deal with Russia. Russia is the third rail right now. And right now it’s poisoned the talk to the Russians. And so when you have 90 percent of the nuclear weapons around the world in two countries, you’ve got to have discussions. And the more we disagree the more important discussions are. And so right now what we’re proposing is looking at the old model of the arms control observer group, back in the Reagan administration, where we worked very closely—I see Bud McFarlane here. We worked with the White House. We worked with the State Department. And we had appointed by the leaders of Congress an arms control observer group. We went, talked to arms control people. We were very, very active. And that’s why INF—the INF Treaty was passed quite readily.
We are proposing that there be some type of leadership-appointed group. Probably committee chairmen in the House and the Senate, dealing with nuclear weapons, dealing with NATO—which is also a matter of considerable concern, our primary alliance—and also dealing with Russia. And out of that we’d hope we would have some kind of coherent policy and create a political space so that we can have our professionals talk to the counterparts in Russia. We just don’t have that kind of dialogue. In fact, there’s legislation that doesn’t prohibit quite, but it greatly discourages military dialogue. And the professionals have got to talk about these things, and in particular the new technology. So that’s one of our priority proposals. And we have talked to people on Capitol Hill. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m hoping it will.
MONIZ: I want to quibble with the wording of your question.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Fair enough.
MONIZ: You said moving past Crimea and election interference. I just want to emphasize, we are not in any way suggesting that we don’t address those issues, including through sanctions on Crimea and the like. It’s just that we have to be able to walk and chew gum. We have to address these issues with Russia, which are extremely serious. But what we’re saying is, but never forgetting the responsibility we have for addressing a common existential threat.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Right. Creating space for those kinds of discussions—
MONIZ: And then creating the political space for that discussion. Again, I think as Sam said, these discussions—military-to-military, et cetera—they are not a reward to Russia. They are just a recognition that we share a common responsibility by having over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
NUNN: Yeah. We—for the last several years have, not just in this administration, we have—we’ve treated diplomacy and dialogue with the Russians on these crucial, common, existential issues as if it were a reward or a punishment for bad behavior. And again, the truth of it is, the more differences we have with a bigger country that could destroy the United States—even at the expense of its own destruction—we have every reason, from our own national security point of view, to have that kind of dialogue, even when we disagree.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So let me get your thoughts on a couple other issues in the nuclear file before we go to members for their questions. Talk a bit about Iran. Secretary Moniz, you were—spent a lot of hours or days of your life helping to hammer out the JCPOA.
MONIZ: Including nineteen consecutive days.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Nineteen. (Laughter.) We’re at a moment where there is speculation about a return to negotiations in this administration, or perhaps we’ll have to wait until we get into the next administration to get back into negotiations. But in any case, where do you see JCPOA today? Do you think it’s something that can be returned to pretty straightforwardly, or has enough changed in the last few years that there would really have to be a renegotiation? And if so, what are the issues that, if you were back at that table, you would want to press on? And are there things you would want to change, in terms of the timetables, or expanding talks in any way?
MONIZ: Maybe it’s worth first giving a very short recap of what the JCPOA is, because frankly it’s kind of misunderstood, in many ways. JCPOA has got—when all is said and done there are two elements. Iran is—has significant constraints on what it can do in a peaceful nuclear program for 15 years. The second part is an unparalleled, not sunsetting, commitment to verification and transparency measures. And in my view, the second is far more important than the first. I’m not denigrating the first but—(laughs)—that’s. I would speculate that if Iran, or any other country, wanted to develop a nuclear weapon—and didn’t have nuclear weapons, wanted to develop them—I find it hard to understand that they would use declared facilities, facilities that they have declared to the IAEA. It’s going to be covert.
And it’s the verification and transparency measures that address that. Jim Clapper said it very well in 2015, that as an intelligence professional he was not going to stand in front of anyone and say with 100 percent certainty we will find any covert nuclear activity anyplace, anytime. But the agreement raises the bar so high to avoid detection that Iran or anyone else—but Iran in this case—would be at enormous risk and would expect—if caught at that now—would expect the international community to be together again, as they were in the negotiation, to hammer them, to use technical language. (Laughter.) So that’s what the JCPOA is.
Now, what we’ve seen obviously with the United States withdrawal is that Iran has started to chip away at elements in the first bucket. Three hundred kilograms? Well, let’s do 320 kilograms of enriched material, et cetera. Let’s start taking a few centrifuges out of—out of storage. Now let’s start hooking up some of the experimental centrifuges and maybe put—not yet—but maybe put uranium gas in there. All of those are reversible. But I don’t want to minimize the slippery slope, especially, in my view, if they start also pulling back—and I’m concerned about this—on the verification transparency measures, the cooperation with the IAEA. Things can go south in a hurry there.
So where do we stand? Not very good shape. (Laughs.) Certainly the European efforts to help with the commerce, especially oil sales, have not gone very well. I mean, they’re not to zero, but they’re 300,000 barrels a day maybe, maybe a bit more. So I think going forward—now, to the second part of your question—I think going forward the reality is I think politically in the United States it’s going to be very hard just to go back to the JCPOA as it was. And that includes if a Democrat wins next year’s election. I don’t think the political dynamics is going to make that very easy. So somehow I think we have got to look at a bigger problem to solve that problem.
And I think an area that we’re giving some thought to is that there’s a lot of interest in nuclear activity, for whatever reason, around the entire Gulf region. Maybe we have to kind of solve the whole issue—and there are many issues there—in order to have Iran get something for an increase, let’s say, in timescales for some of their nuclear restrictions. And you could also talk about maybe some of those verifications measures should be present elsewhere, for example. So I think there are—if one wanted to have a creative negotiating discussion right now, there are some levers, I think, that we could pull.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And that means addressing Israel, or what’s the—what are the hard issues there?
MONIZ: I was addressing the Gulf countries. (Laughs.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: OK. OK. Had to ask. (Laughter.)
MONIZ: That’s later. (Laughter.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me close before going to questions from members with a simple question to both of you on North Korea. Are we at the point where the United States needs to give up on pursuing denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapon state, even if it’s not officially recognized as such?
NUNN: I would say no. I think President Trump was right in starting the dialogue. I don’t think they had a plan when they started meeting as to how you were going to really achieve the goal to denuclearization. I don’t think we should give up on it. I think we ought to continue the sanctions, but we ought to also greatly intensify the dialogue. And I think the dialogue ought to include an approach that is if they do certain things then we help them pay for those things. And I think it ought to include hiring their engineers and scientist that move away from developing nuclear weapons up front. They ought to stop producing nuclear material. The bottom line, it’s got to be step by step.
We wrote a report at NTI two or three months ago that was basically taking the CTR program, so-called Nunn-Lugar Program, where we dismantled some 8,000 warheads with the cooperation of Russia in Ukraine, Pakistan, and Belarus. And there are a lot of lessons. It’s not a parallel. Not completely apples to apples. A lot of differences. But there are a lot of lessons we learned there. And one of the things we learned is that you basically have to have a win-win every step of the way. And it’s got to be step by step. And it’s in our interests to make sure their engineers and scientists that know how to make nuclear weapons work on dismantlement, and are gainfully employed, so they don’t end up going to other countries in the world and causing proliferation problems.
So I do not think we ought to give up on denuclearization. I do think we’ve got to have a common definition of what denuclearization means. Obviously we don’t now. And I think we also need to begin really thinking seriously about the other side of the coin which North Korea will demand, and that is security guarantees. What are security guarantee means? I don’t think we even defined those terms between the two countries. But I haven’t given up. And I do think the dialogue was overdue and Trump deserves some credit for starting it. Now they’ve got to have a strategy to put meat on the bone.
MONIZ: Yeah. And I would, first of all, agree with everything that the gentleman from Georgia has said on the subject. But add to it a couple things. One is, so when we talk, say, step by step, well, some—there’s some fairly obvious logic, for example, on the nuclear side. No more tests. They keep that—make permanent effectively the moratorium there. You want to stop the production of new nuclear weapons materials. Eventually you get to the weapons themselves, and the kind of program that Sam said. I would add just one other thing, a little bit of lesson from the Iran negotiation.
I think as Sam implied, it’s hard to see getting, in my view, to the end of the step-by-step process without addressing the regional security concerns. It’s not just about Korean nuclear weapons. It’s—there’s China and South Korea and Japan, obviously, and the whole security context needs to be addressed. And the analogue to the Iran negotiation is that a reminder that while we—while the United States had full responsibility for the face-to-face negotiation with Iran, we had another negotiation. France, Germany, U.K., Russia, China, EU, because we had to go into our discussions with Iran knowing that we had the support of—or, could get the support of the group. Because it was a multilateral agreement.
There’s an analogy here in North Korea with the six party—the six parties. All of those six parties are going to have to be involved. But we have to figure out how there’s one voice, in my view, in the negotiation. Otherwise, too many wedge opportunities, too many opportunities to not converge. So I think it’s a—it’s a hard, multi-year process. It’s a harder negotiation, in my view, than with Iran. And that was not a walk in the park. And we won’t get there until we have a realistic view this is not going to be a big bang solution.
NUNN: I think there was a misconception to begin with that—I remember one of the top people in the administration said when they announced the discussions were going to take place that it was—the analogy was Libya. And to me, that was the beginning of the real problem in not having a strategy. Libya did not have nuclear weapons. They had centrifuges. So we flew in and—
MONIZ: And parts.
NUNN: And parts. And we flew in, and we flew them out. But flying in and taking a North Korean nuclear weapon out—Sig Hecker, who ran Los Alamos for many years—said that any engineer or scientist that goes—gets on an airplane with a North Korean nuclear weapon that hasn’t been previously dismantled has got to have their head examined. You’re going to have to do it not to North Korea, you got to do with North Korea. They’ve got the scientist and engineers who put those weapons together are going to have to help take them apart. But guess what? You can give them economic benefits.
And when I say “you” here, I mean the United States, Japan, South Korea. We all have a stake. China also has a stake. So I think it’s got to be step by step. There’s not, you know, going to be a grand celebration with blue ribbons, but it can work. I think it can work. I’m not optimistic, because the talks have bogged down, but I haven’t given up. And I guess I’m cautiously hopeful that it can move forward. But it’s got to be step by step.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I believe the Libya model was invoked by a certain former national security advisor, so.
MONIZ: One of the three.
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right, that’s right, yeah. (Laughter.)
I have a lot more I could ask but let me turn to all of you for questions. Let me remind you this meeting is on the record. Please wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. And stand and state your name and affiliation. And also limit yourself to one question, and make it a question, so we can get to as many as possible. We will start right back there.
Q: Thank you for an interesting presentation. Bill Courtney with RAND.
The progress on arms control in the 1980s and early ’90s came under liberalizing leaders, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. The current circumstance with Russia is more like that with the leaders before Gorbachev, so the Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko period. That was when they deployed SS-20, invaded Afghanistan, shot down KL007. And today they cheated on the INF Treaty, invaded Ukraine, and shot down MH17. But a difference is that when we had those tension—the tensions earlier with Brezhnev, Chernenko, and Andropov, we did not have a major arms control treaty in effect, because the Senate had not ratified SALT. Today we have the advantage of having the New START Treaty, which is in effect. And so extending the New START Treaty may be even more important because the ability to negotiate new treaties with this security-oriented conservative leadership in Moscow may not be very high. Does that sound like a reasonable argument to extend New START?
NUNN: You take it. I didn’t hear him.
MONIZ: Oh. Yes. (Laughs.) I would say yes. And I would add to it that the future may not be holding a lot of ratified treaties. And we’ve seen with the Iran agreement some of the pitfalls of that, with changes in administration. But it’s the reality. And that just urges me even more strongly to say to hang onto New START, and maybe try to build off of that as we go forward. I mean, having an established vehicle, I think will just make it easier to go forward. But that’s why we’ve got to get into the extension and use the extension for serious hardnosed—there are so many tough issues that have got to be resolved. And five years or, let’s say, six years if it was done now, is not a hell of a long time in that business, as you know very well. (Laughs.)
NUNN: Totally agree with Ernie. Also think after we extend the START agreement by executive, because that I can be very quickly done and very easily done, and we start talking about the multitude of issues that we have to deal with, and bringing policy up to date with technology, I think to me, having dealt with the Russians a good bit, the way to do that is to acknowledge all of the issues in sort of plenary sessions, but then break out into baskets individual issues. And there’s going to be different sequence about when some of them could be solved. I would not try to put them all in one basket in terms of agreements, but I would at least acknowledge these are real issues in some type of dialogue to begin—to begin the process. And I think that’s very important.
For instance, prompt strike. We don’t think of prompt strike conventional weapons as being strategic as much as the Russians do. They feel that prompt strike is strategic, because even conventional weapons can hit their submarines in port and their land-based fixed targets, and so forth. So I think we’ve got to deal with those things. And of course, defenses. We’re not going to get a quick easy answer to that. We’re going to have to discuss that for a long time. But there are approaches to have some understandings on defenses so that we don’t get into the situation I described earlier, where the one side believes they’ve got—are vulnerable to a first strike, with defenses backing up the remainder.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me go to the first row here.
Q: Good evening, gentlemen. Thank you for doing this. David Ensor the director of the Project for Media and National Security at George Washington University.
I would be interested, particularly from you, Secretary Moniz, as a scientist, you talked about the rapid technological change that’s going on right now. What most worries you? I mean, what is the—time is not on the side of those who wish to get this under control, is what you’re saying. Between hypersonics, and AI, and all the other kinds of things that are being worked on so quickly right now—evidence of some success at least in some places, failures in others—what most worries you in terms of getting this thing under control before it get really out of hand?
MONIZ: Well, I’m not going to just—I’m not going to say one. I will give a small set, however. As we discussed earlier, the cyber world is going to be very, very tough to bring under control in this—I mean, in this context in particular, because the nature of the exchanges on cyber in this world are going to be very, very constrained. And secondly, because it’s not necessarily just between two actors. It can—all kinds of third actors can be involved. So cyber is going to be very, very tough. And that’s where I think Sam said earlier we feel that we at least have to move to rules of the road. Now, for whatever it’s worth, and I’ll leave you to judge that, but it is true that Russia—I think it was after the Helsinki summit—did suggest putting a little cyber group together. To my knowledge, that hasn’t really happened.
So cyber is one. Just generally speaking, I’m very concerned about the militarization of space, but also the exposures of space assets. With new technology, it is looking very difficult to protect what are core assets for the nuclear business and many other things. Finally, I would add AI because of the great uncertainty about what people are actually going to do with AI in this—in this context. And if there are—if technology continues to shrink reaction time, there’s going to be a lot of pressure towards going to a more and more of an AI system. And we don’t know what that world really, really looks like. So those are three areas where I think technology is a big concern.
But there are also opportunities, by the way. Actually, just today I was talking with one of the senior people at NTI. Here’s an example of an opportunity. Breakthrough technologies for environmental monitoring. And enormous tool for proliferation, potentially. In fact, I would just—maybe I’ll just end this—at least, this answer with an anecdote going back to 2002. And this is something that my colleagues don’t know yet. This was a discussion with one of our people today. 2002 I co-chaired—this was after 9/11. Speaking of 9/11, we’re 9/12, I guess, today. After 9/11, the next year there was a very unusual workshop organized by the National Science Foundation and the intelligence community. And you can find it on the internet, actually. It’s kind of interesting.
And it took five big technology areas, brought academic researchers. And the question was: What breakthrough basic science might be done to develop new tools, in this case, to combat terrorism? And so I think we also—we’ve been talking about the risks. We also need to think about what are possible breakthroughs that will add actually to our security in this and other domains? And I think—so we’re going to rethink that, actually, for this domain.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Senator Nunn, do you want to add anything to bring us back down to some pessimism after that optimism? (Laughter.)
NUNN: Yeah. Let me give you a non-scientific viewpoint. And if I had my way in terms of a negotiation about the future between Russia and the United States, and eventually China, what I would prefer is a summit conference where President Putin and President Trump and issued one simple mandate to their military leaders: Give us more decision time. Find ways that technology can give us—let’s just assume—I don’t know—but assume it’s seven minutes now. Give us ten minutes to make a decision, because it could be a false warning about whether to launch nuclear weapons. And once you get to ten minutes, give us—give us twenty minutes. Get the experts together. Get the best minds in the world at universities and other places working on how we use technology to reduce risk. And fundamentally, given the trends of the way we’re going now, increasing decision time instead of reducing decision time.
That’s going to take a lot of effort, and it’s going to have to be continuous. But I don’t think anybody in their right mind wants the president of Russia, no matter who he is or she is in the future, to have only two or three minutes to make a decision about whether the United States is really attacking. And I don’t think it’s in the interest of the Russians for the President of the United States, whoever she or he is in the future, to have three or four minutes to decide what is probably the most important decision any human being is ever going to make on the face of the Earth or has ever made. I mean, we got to make technology work for us. And right now, without the dialogue and without that kind of leadership mandate, it’s not going to happen.
MONIZ: I’d just add, if you really want to understand decision time, go, I guess, on whatever media and look at the last episode of Madam Secretary, in that season that ended in May 2018. (Laughter.) NTI consulted on this. And the warning comes. Guess what? The president’s on the golf course. And—(laughs)—
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me go to the—towards the back here, and then we’ll come back to the front.
Q: Thank you very much. Mirna Galic from the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
Secretary Moniz, I’m really pleased to hear that someone is actively thinking about the future of the JCPOA and potentials for a U.S. return to the deal. I’m just wondering if you could speak a little bit more about this notion of whether it would actually be feasible for us to simply return to the deal as it was. When you look at something like the TPP, when we left the TPP the terms of the TPP changed. So we can’t really just walk back in the way that it was. But that’s not true for the JCPOA. And given the fact that although Iran might be pleased to enlarge the deal to include something with the Gulf states, but the Gulf states are not particularly friendly to Iran and may not want to take moves that help bring them back into the fold. Is it really politically feasible for us to just, at least as a first step, try to go back to the deal as it was?
MONIZ: Well, first of all, the example I gave is only one example of ways of enlarging the problem, or the issue. It’s a purely political judgement. I just think that—you know, in the—as a reminder, in passing the JCPOA—(laughs)—oh, excuse me. I misspoke. The JCPOA was never passed. It was not stopped. And to do that we just needed forty-one votes in the Senate. We got forty-two. That’s not exactly, you know, a ringing endorsement in the political—in the political sphere. And I just have a feel now that if—OK, if you take the scenario that a Democrat is in the White House next year, or a year and a half from now, or, frankly, five and a half years from now, I mean, the same thing if the JCPOA were still hanging on by the same thread. That the politics of turning around and being the one to say, yeah, we’re going back with the same deal. And by the way—OK, let’s say it’s in five and a half years. Oh, and by the way, the first seven years of that ten-year constraint are gone. I just think that it would open up a political nightmare.
So I just don’t—I honestly think that—I think it was a big mistake to not keep the JCPOA. I think many—I think there was a clear majority in Congress, and it was—and there were members of both parties—many members of both parties who had voted against the JCPOA but wanted to keep it because it was working, OK? Doesn’t change the fact I think there would be terrible—a terrible political dynamic. Maybe there could be a reset of the clock. I mean, I doubt it, but you know, because that would be huge on Iran’s side. So I just think it’s very, very tough. So I just have a feeling that it’s—we’re going to have to find a way to get back to JCPOA within the context of a bigger—a bigger agreement. Purely political judgement.
NUNN: Let me be a little more—let me be a little bit more optimistic, because I know a lot less about it than he does. (Laughter.) That’s—
KURTZ-PHELAN: But you’ve won elections, so, you know.
NUNN: Yeah. The good and bad news about our current president is that he’s unpredictable. And he’s going to be meeting with obviously the top people in Iran, the president of Iran, perhaps. At least, that’s what’s been expected of him. In the case of NAFTA, experts tell me that the new agreement is about 92 percent of what the old agreement was. So if you’re willing—
MONIZ: No, it’s the 8 percent I’m looking for. I don’t know where it is.
NUNN: You got to—you got to rename the agreement. (Laughter.) And you can figure out what name is going to satisfy the president. But it’s going to end up being pretty much what the old agreement was, in my view, if we do get a new agreement. I think—I think it’s probably—odds are probably still against it, but I don’t think it’s 90 to 10 (percent). I think it’s more like 60-40 (percent). I think you may get a new negotiation, and the greatest agreement that has ever come down on the face of the Earth. (Laughter.)
MONIZ: You have succeeded in the first time having Sam and me disagree on something. (Laughter.)
NUNN: But you had a—
MONIZ: You know, because—only because I think the surrounding—Mexico and Canada aren’t quite Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran—(laughs)—you know, et cetera. Anyway, we’ll see.
Look, you heard it here first: I hope Sam is right. (Laughs.)
NUNN: I don’t—I don’t disagree with you on what would happen with a Democratic president. I think your logic’s sound there. But I think with the current president—
MONIZ: Yeah, with the current president.
NUNN: —could very well have, again, the greatest agreement that has ever been written.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me—let me go to the front and we’ll get a couple more in.
Q: Andrew Pierre of Global Insights, with many years at the Council. My issue is arms control, going back to the SALT days and so on.
This last few minutes I have found particularly interesting and sort of prompted my question a little bit. But recently there’s been some interest in Europe, and particularly in France, on returning to the JCPOA. And suddenly the president seems to be saying this may not be a bad idea, now we don’t have to do it at all. If Macron is to reformulate (credit ?), do you see any opening there which might be useful in going to where we all want to go?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Adds to your optimism, I suppose, that scenario?
MONIZ: Well, I think the—first of all, to be perfectly blunt, I would have welcomed more creative proposals a long time ago. This does not make it easier to have reached this point with that offer.
But the reality is—and maybe this is where Sam is right with his optimism. The French—
MONIZ: (Laughs.) He’s backing off already, though. (Laughter.) The—
NUNN: Sixty-forty against.
MONIZ: (Laughs.) The fact is for that credit mechanism to work it seems like it’s still going to need some sanctions waivers from the United States. And so it comes back—if that is what presents the opportunity for the president to go in that direction, to be able to get a dialogue going, terrific. And Macron could be—could be the go between for that. But something has to happen besides Macron’s offer for it work on the side of President Trump and President Rouhani.
NUNN: Some genius may scratch their head and say, hey, are we really going to give the Iranians $15 billion, or would it be better for them to be able to sell a little bit more oil and get the price of oil down all over the world and help consumers and help the economy? Somebody may ask that question in a while. (Laughter.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me do a quick final question right there.
Q: Thank you. Amanda Macias. I cover the Pentagon for CNBC, so it’s a slight financial question.
Mr. Secretary, you mentioned hypersonics. And I’m wondering, as Russia and China sprint to develop these weapons, in your calculus do you take China and their budding piggybank as more of a threat compared to Russia with their crippling economy?
MONIZ: No, because it’s still about counting the warheads—(laughs)—basically. You’re talking about, you know, more than an order of magnitude difference. You mean the hypersonic glide vehicle in particular?
Q: All of the hypersonics that they’re making, both Russia and China.
MONIZ: Yeah. Well, the hypersonic glide vehicle is what is the, quote, “imminent, imminent” technology, ICBM-launched. And you know, we will have a—maybe I’ll just advertise. First of all, we will have a paper coming out fairly soon out of NTI—the principal author if Jill Hruby, the former Sandia director—that looks at the new Russian—there’s a comment about China, but the new Russian—the six Russian new technologies. And all based upon open source, but informed open source, and that will be quite interesting.
The hypersonic glide vehicle is viewed as deployable, most likely, in five or six years. It will—being hypersonic, you know, it may—it may go the wrong way on decision time, although, again, a reminder, ICBMs are even more hypersonic than a hypersonic glide vehicle. (Laughs.) So what’s really different about it is going, you know, five, ten times the speed of sound and being maneuverable. That’s the difference. The hypersonic almost gets a little bit too much attention.
And being maneuverable, you can make a contrarian argument that it could do some—it may have some benefit on stability by being almost impossible to defend against. And one goes back in some sense—(laughs)—to the old deterrence idea, but presumably with relatively few of them developed and deployed.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Senator Nunn, anything you want to add in closing?
NUNN: No, that was MIT answer. I don’t—I can’t compete. (Laughter.)
MONIZ: Come on, Georgia Tech isn’t bad. Come on. (Laughter.)
NUNN: Yeah, but I only made three years. I didn’t get a degree. (Laughter.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam Nunn, Ernie Moniz, thank you so much for a great piece and for joining us. (Applause.)
NUNN: All right. Thank you.