Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Threat Initiative; Distinguished Professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology; Former U.S. Senator (D-GA)
Chief Executive Officer, Carter Center
Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Pepperdine University
Sam Nunn, co-chairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and distinguished professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, discusses preventing catastrophic nuclear terrorism and the future of nuclear security at the International Studies Association 2016 Annual Convention, as part of CFR's Academic Outreach Initiative.
Learn more about CFR's resources for the classroom at CFR Education.
CALDWELL: Hello. I’d like to welcome everyone to this lunch, and a very, I’m sure, scintillating discussion that we’re going to have. My name is Dan Caldwell. I’m a long-time member of International Studies Association. And I chair the Academic Outreach Initiative for the Council.
Today we are going to have a great discussion, but I wanted to just call your attention very briefly to some of the educational resources that the Council has produced, most significantly and most recently something called Model Diplomacy. And it’s described in your materials, but essentially there are ten case studies on various issues. And you can access those at the Council’s website, and you can also see some of those cases at the Council’s booth in the exhibit area. So Model Diplomacy. I’m using it this semester in my class. And I’m enjoying it. And I think it’s a great resource. And then, of course, we have the other typical Council resources of Foreign Affairs, as well as some of the multimedia guides to various issues and so on. So I would strongly encourage you to take a look at that, particularly Model Diplomacy.
And to keep this as brief as possible, I’d like to turn things over to Mary Ann Peters of the Carter Center.
PETERS: Thank you, Dan. Can everyone hear me? Good.
It is my great honor today to introduce Senator Sam Nunn, who will talk with us about nuclear and other existential threats. As I believe all of you know, Senator Nunn served in the Senate from 1972 until 1996. And he was a towering figure there, especially on defense and security issues. He served, of course, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator Nunn’s legislative achievements are many, and they include the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which provided assistance for more than twenty years to Russia and the former Soviet republics to secure and destroy their excess weapons and nuclear materials.
Today, Senator Nunn is co-chair and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization he co-founded with Ted Turner in 2001. And NTI works to bridge the gap between the global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and the global response to those threats. NTI encourages governments to reduce threats faster, smarter, and on a larger scale, and demonstrates how the non-governmental sector can play a role on these issues. So with that introduction, which of course does not do justice to the Senator’s many accomplishments, I’d like to get our conversation started.
Senator, you’ve devoted much of your public life to reducing the threat to humanity from nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. And I understand your commitment dates back to the Cuban missile crisis, fifty-four years ago. Could you tell us about that, please?
NUNN: Well, thank you, Mary Ann. First, I’m delighted to be here. And I thank the Council for gathering this terrific audience. And I also welcome those of you who are from other spots in the United States and around the world for gathering here in Atlanta. Somebody in the crowd probably is guilty of bringing the pollen with you because I have a stopped-up head and you may not be able to hear me very well today, and I may not be able to hear all the questions. But that’s a pretty big advantage when you’re answering questions. You can just pretend that they asked a question and answer anything you want. (Laughter.)
So, Mary Ann, thank you for moderating today, and thank all the audience for being here, and thank you for your outstanding diplomatic career, and your outstanding career at the War College, and as ambassador to Bangladesh, and all the things you’ve done, including propping up Gordon Giffin, our ambassador to Canada for all these years. Gordon was my legislative assistant, so I’m delighted to hear from him all the wonderful things you did.
I did get started in terms of my interest on the nuclear question with kind of an up-close look at the Cuban missile crisis. I was barely turned twenty-four years old. I had gone to work for Washington for the House Armed Services Committee. I was working for a wonderful old Irishman by the name of John J. Courtney. He came in about a week before. He was supposed to leave on a trip with the U.S. Air Force. And there was committee staff—top committee staff from the House and Senate, mostly armed services appropriations.
And he said he had a death in his family and couldn’t go, and would I like to go on a three-week trip to Europe with the Air Force touring NATO bases with about eight other people? I’d never been out of the country at that stage, and so I absolutely agreed. And about four days later, we were off. And long story short, when we got to Europe, we started getting briefed. All of us had top secret clearances. I’d just gotten mine. We started being briefed on the photographs that were coming from—the intelligence from the Cuban missile crisis.
And I remember very well—I’ll cut it short—but I was in Wiesbaden, Germany with the head of U.S. Air Force, a four-star Air Force general, who was in charge of the—what they call QRA aircraft—the quick reaction aircraft. There were fighter planes. Each of them had one bomb, nuclear weapon. And they were going to be released at the very beginning of any war, because they were going to be the first targets. They were the first to arrive, they were going to be the first to get hit.
And the night before the crisis subsided, probably the very peak of it, I was sitting right by him. And I asked him how long he had to get his guys off the ground before we would—we, all of us, right there at the base would be hit. And he said, we have to get off within sixty seconds from the time we get the order. And these planes are one-way missions. They didn’t have the range to be able to go and come back. So the pilots were theoretically going to bail out on the way back after releasing their weapon.
And it dawned on me that that was a pretty bad situation for the world, not just the Cuban missile crisis, but also the question of having to make that kind of a decision in that kind of timeframe. And of course, the president of the United States to this day still has only a few minutes to make those kind of decisions. And the president of Russia has even less time. And for us to be in an age, 2016, and even with the tensions we have with Russia—but for us to still be in that kind of nuclear posture, to me, is absurd.
So that’s where it all started. But I said to myself then, if I ever had an opportunity to try to do something about that existential danger to our own country, to our citizens, and indeed the world, I was going to try to do something about it. There’s one more piece of the puzzle that—Mary Ann, if I could take just a moment—that led to the Nunn-Lugar legislation in 1991. And that is a visit to NATO bases after I was a U.S. senator, which was then about 1974. I wrote a report on that visit.
But that was after Vietnam. Our military was demoralized. We had all sorts of drug and alcohol problems. And one of the last stops I made on that visit was to a tactical nuclear weapon—battlefield nuclear weapon storage depot where, of course, the security had to be very, very tight. At that stage, you had the Baader-Meinhof Gang, terrorism, in Germany—people being kneecapped, politicians being killed around Europe. And I visited that base, and the sergeant handed me a note right on the way out. And he basically said something to the effect: Senator, what the top officers are telling you is a bunch of B.S. If you’ll come to the barracks after you get through with the generals, the sergeants will tell you what’s really happening.
And so I did. About 5:30, 6:00 that afternoon I went by and visited with them. Long story short, there we had all sorts of problems. We had perimeter fencing which was inadequate. We had no dogs. We had no relief that would get to the base if some six or eight people could have taken within an hour or two—it would take at least a couple hours. So you have sitting right there in the middle of Germany, at a time when there was huge pressure against the military, against everything nuclear in NATO, we were sitting there with a powder keg of tactical nuclear weapons that were not being properly secured.
The reason, primarily, was because of demoralization of the U.S. military following Vietnam. That was when officers were being killed by some of the sergeants a certain times of great tension. It was a bad time. Now, you put those two things together, and when I went to Russia in 1991, after Gorbachev had just been released, and I saw what was happening there with a demoralized Soviet Union, a breaking up of the Soviet Union, chemical, biological weapons and materials all over nine or 10 time zones—put all that together, I said something’s got to happen. This is explosive.
So that’s more than you asked, Mary Ann, but that whole history is what led to me coming back after visiting in August of 1991, right after Gorbachev was released, seeing the chaos in the Soviet Union—then-Soviet Union, recognizing it was going to break up, and that’s why I recruited Dick Lugar and we got to work on the Nunn-Lugar legislation. So all of that, unfortunately, is still relevant today.
PETERS: Senator, first of all, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Courtney that he couldn’t go on that trip. And I’m fascinated by the comparison that you’re drawing, implying, between the demoralization of our forces and the consequent carelessness about taking care of tactical nukes, and the demoralization that the Russian military suffered as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991. I also believe, though, that you were—you were on the spot. Weren’t you in Eastern Europe in August of 1991? So you were close to the—
PETERS: Yes. You were in Budapest, yes. And they got you to Moscow quickly?
NUNN: Yeah, that was an interesting phone call. I’d had a friend of mine—back then, another point that’s relevant—we had meeting with the Soviet Duma, in fact, during the days of great tension in the ’80s and early ’90s. Today, we don’t have any meetings with Russia from a parliamentary point of view. If we do, it’s coincidental. One of my Russian friends was called back when Gorbachev was taken prisoner. Three or four days later he was in Moscow, calling me, right after Gorbachev was released. And he said: Sam, you’ve got to come to Russia. And I said, I can’t. I don’t have a visa. He said everything’s happening over here. This is going to be huge in terms of what’s happening in our political system, military system, and so forth. You’ve got to come.
And I said, well, can you get me a visa? He said, I’ll have the Russian ambassador—Russian, he didn’t say Soviet—in your hotel within an hour. I said, well, I’ll believe it when I see it. His name was Andrei. I said, there’s no way the Russian or anybody’s bureaucracy can move that fast. But, lo and behold, the ambassador was there within an hour. And I got—I went to Frankfurt. I had a call from the American embassy in the airport in Frankfurt paging me saying: Don’t come. It’s chaos over here. There’s thousands of folks out in front of the Russian White House. That was the presidential spot in the Duma too. And so I said, well, I’m being taken care of by the Russians—my Russian friend. So I went on.
And that was the three or four days when I saw what was happening, with the Soviet Union breaking up, and talked to a bunch of the Russian military leaders, some of whom were later arrested as having been part of the plot against Gorbachev. Talked to Gorbachev for about thirty minutes. And concluded, we had to do something. And it was all coming apart and it was an extremely dangerous situation. So that’s where all of that kind of came from.
PETERS: Well, I think the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program that came out of your visit and your cooperation with Senator Lugar succeeded over twenty years in destroying hundreds and hundreds of weapons, silos, missiles, and launchers, and in securing a great deal of fissile material and other inputs, including the brainpower of the scientists engaged in the nuclear program. So I think it’s not exaggeration to say that the Nunn-Lugar program saved the world from one or more nuclear incidents, or worse. But taking that forward, Senator, how do you see Russian cooperation on nuclear and WMD issues going forward?
NUNN: Well, the good news is we’ve worked with Russia for fifteen, sixteen years under the Nunn-Lugar program. And the bad news is that they have no cut out that cooperation. But the good news is Russia at least says they are much better able to take care of their own business without help. And of course, much of this is based on pride and not wanting our folks snooping around their nuclear facilities and talking to their nuclear scientists. But we still have to cooperate with Russia. We’re the two countries with ninety percent of all the nuclear weapons and all the nuclear material— ninety percent.
And so when you’re trying to make sure you don’t have catastrophic terrorism, nuclear terrorism, what you have to do, after you study it a little bit, you have to keep the materials out of the hands of terrorists. They can make a bomb. It’s not easy. It’s not a piece of cake. But there is expertise out there to make a bomb. Now, a crude weapon, not one that would fly through space on a missile, but one that would be in the back of a pickup truck pulled into a port or a city. That kind of weapon could be made.
But it can’t be made without either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. And highly enriched uranium is the material that would be the easiest. And it can also be handled without instant death. Plutonium would have a lot more reaction in terms of the radioactivity. So what we have focused on—and what the U.S. and Russia focused on under the Nunn-Lugar program, is getting all that material that we have given to our allies in the Soviet-U.S. days for research reactors—small amounts all over the world.
There were fifty countries that had weapons-usable nuclear material at the end of the Cold War in the early ’90s. We’ve gotten that down to twenty-four more. In the last six years, under President Obama, and he deserves a little credit for this, we have moved from thirty-two countries to twenty-four. As you go down, it becomes harder, and harder, and harder. But the idea is to get highly enriched uranium all over the world under control. And if you do that and you secure it and gradually get rid of it, if you also stop using it in commercial facilities wherever you can, then you’ve come a long way to preventing a catastrophic nuclear terrorism.
Radiological material, dirty bomb material, is not weapon-grade. You wouldn’t have a nuclear detonation, but you take conventional explosions, put radiological material in it, and blow it up in an area. It wouldn’t kill huge numbers of people beyond the conventional fatalities from the conventional explosion, but what it could do, depending on the type of radiological material, it would poison an area. So if it went out downtown Atlanta, downtown New York, and it had cesium-137 in it, that’s a particular kind of material, you would be denied access to that area because it penetrates bricks, it penetrates wood, probably for ten to twenty years.
So the economic repercussions of a dirty bomb are huge. And that’s what I really talked about in my recent trip to Russia, not just radiological, but the whole way we could cooperate. And one of the proposals I’ve made—and I’ve been trying to shop it in the U.S. government also—is that U.S. and Russia, even though we have great differences in views on Ukraine, on Crimea, and all of those things—Syria—we at least ought to be able to make an announcement at the presidential level that the U.S. and Russia are going to form a working team of intelligence people, energy people, from both countries, that would do everything possible to keep weapons of mass destruction, including by limited to nuclear, out of the hands of ISIL or any other extreme violent group.
If we were to do that, it would be symbolic during this period of tension, but it would also give us a substantive umbrella to continue to work on these problems, which are no longer being addressed by the Nunn-Lugar problem. Let me just give you one parable to show you how significant the last twenty years have been. One of the things we did in the early ’90s—and the Clinton administration deserves a lot more credit for this, and it was a carryover from the Herbert Walker Bush administration. So both deserve a lot of credit during that period of time. Very crucial things happened.
One thing that happened, Ukraine now in play, so to speak, with all the tension and confrontation, Kazakhstan and Belarus, three countries in the former Soviet Union, gave up all their nuclear weapons. The Ukrainians had more nuclear weapons than any other country in the world except U.S. and Russia. They had more than China. That was a huge accomplishment in the early ’90s. And one of the ways we got them to give it up in the ’93, ’94 time frame, was to tell them, the highly enriched uranium is worth something. It can be burned with—blended down to low-enriched uranium, converted into nuclear fuel. It can then be burned in nuclear power plants. That is a very—is worth a lot of money. So we got Ukraine, and we got Russia both, the excess material. We made a contract. And we said: We’ll buy that material coming out of those weapons.
And the Ukrainians got their portion of the material that came out of the weapons. They were delivered to Russia. The U.S. helped Russia with financial. Russia blended it down, and we bought it. For fifteen years after 1994, so until recently, we basically bought that material. And if you look at nuclear power in this country, it’s twenty percent of our electricity, about one-fifth. And if you look at the material that was burned during that fifteen-year period in the United States, fifty percent of that material came from weapons that had been aimed at us, blended down highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium. So by definition, ten percent of all the electricity in America during that fifteen-year period was basically from weapons that had been aimed at us.
So that’s one of the examples. And it shows you how important the relationship between the United States and Russia is. The two countries with ninety percent of the nuclear weapons and material simply have to keep communicating. And one vehicle would be what I just proposed. But right now they are—my Russian friends tell me that the distrust in Russia towards us—and I know it’s the same here towards them—is higher than it ever was during the Cold War. So this is a dangerous situation, when you see military forces in close proximity, when you have a NATO ally, Turkey, shooting down a Russian plane. This is really dangerous stuff.
And I think we really have to realize that. The Russians have to realize it. Because you cannot work this nuclear danger and reduce risk without a U.S.-Russian cooperation. So at the very least, we’ve got to cooperate on that subject.
PETERS: Senator, I am—I never thought before about the use to which the weapons-grade material from Ukraine and Kazakhstan was put. I think that’s one of the best swords into plowshares stories I’ve ever heard. So I will repeat it, if you don’t mind, in that context.
In 2001, you and Ted Turner co-founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative to work on nuclear and other WMD threats. Now, NTI has had a major impact, but as you have said many times, publicly and in print, more needs to be done. And in particular, you have said that we need an effective global system that covers all nuclear materials—military materials as well as civil use materials. Could you explain that and why it’s important?
NUNN: Well, President Obama, again, deserves a lot of credit for that. And it’s been a continuous thing. George W. Bush administration worked on it. And we’ve had—this is one area that’s been bipartisan, thankfully. But we have focused over the last six years in this—and two weeks from today there will be another heads of state meeting in Washington with probably fifty or sixty heads of state being there, that will focus on a narrow subject but a crucial subject, that is getting rid of as much of the highly enriched uranium and securing what’s left as we possibly can all over the world.
And that is the subject matter of that conference. But we’ve got to—we’ve got to have a continuity on that. We’ve got to have sustainability. And right now, there’s no plans for any future summits. So what happens after President Obama goes out of office? Do we continue in some fashion? That’s the umbrella that I’ve tried to describe, where U.S. and Russia—under U.N. Resolution 1540, which already covers this subject, could lead the effort that would be another form, another umbrella working on the same thing.
But on the military materials, this is important, Mary Ann, the focus has been—when I mention fifty to twenty-four—the focus has been on countries with small amounts of highly enriched uranium. The vast stockpile is in the military, not material that are in weapons right now that are deployed, but all the nuclear systems that go—get stored everywhere. And you might have seen where an eighty-two-year old nun broke into the facility in Tennessee, Oak Ridge, and stayed there for several hours, right outside of a silo containing all sorts of nuclear material.
So we still have problems in our own country, but the thing that we at NTI are trying to do is saying to the summit conference, look, not only do you need to focus on sustainability, we’ve got to find some fashion of focusing on the eighty-three percent of that material that is held by military. Now, most of that is in weapon states. And there are nine weapon states, including the U.S. and Russia. But we’ve got to focus on that too. And there are ways to do it. People say, how can you do that? It’s classified. Well, it may be classified, but there are ways you can work around it, as the U.S. and Russia found out over the years. You can have third-party giving assurances. You can do a lot of things.
So we’ve got to not only find a way to sustain this effort, we’ve got to find a way to broaden the scope of it to cover that eighty-three percent. And it has not covered radiological. They mentioned radiological. Twenty-three countries at the last summit in the Netherlands signed up for looking at the radiological. That’s the dirty bomb stuff I was telling you about. But you’ll be interested to know that most big hospitals in this country, including children’s hospitals, that have blood transfusions have blood irradiators. Those blood irradiators are primarily done by radiological material that has cesium-137. That cesium-137 is in small quantities, small tubes, in a shielded area that protects people who are working in the hospital.
But we’ve got that stuff all over the country and all over the world. And the Department of Energy is trying to help secure it. But at the pace we’re going, we’ve got another thirty years to do that. So what we’re trying to do is speed up the effort. We, outside government, NGOs, we’re urging hospitals to take their own initiative, because if a hospital material got out, a dirty bomb goes off in downtown Atlanta, guess what the consequences would be in terms of the legal liability? Huge. So it’s in the hospital’s best interest to find a substitute. The good news there is there is a substitute that uses x-ray technology instead of radiological material. So we’re trying to get that word out.
And these are some of the things we work on. And I think we’re making a little progress on that point. I think the hospitals are really—they’re beginning to see that for the substitute technology it’s worth it. You greatly reduce liability. But also, right now, the U.S. government will get rid of the stuff. That’s the most expensive. How do you get rid of it? And the U.S. government will help get rid of it. And while that program is still authorizing and going on, we’re trying to encourage hospitals to step up to the plate, buy the new technology, and at least reduce that risk. It’s not the only one, but it’s significant.
PETERS: Thank you, Senator. And if anybody here is on the board of a hospital—(laughter)—that does that. I’d like to change course just a little bit, Senator, if that’s OK. The Nunn-Lugar legislation, of course, was a stellar example of cross-aisle collaboration in the national interest. The same can be said of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, that restructured the U.S. military, and introduced the indispensable concept of jointness. And although that piece of legislation doesn’t happen to bear your name, we all know you played a major role in assuring its passage.
For most of us—maybe I shouldn’t speak for the rest of you—for me, it is hard to imagine the current Senate producing a piece of legislation based on that kind of statesmanship and compromise. Why do you think we’re seeing the decline in that great tradition? Is the system broken? And is there hope?
NUNN: I think it’s badly bent, if it’s not broken. Lugar’s an unusual guy. And he was a terrific partner. But there was also a different climate then. And we had what we called an Arms Control Observer Group. And that group was—Ted Stevens and I chaired that, under the two leaders, Robert Byrd and Bob Dole. So the two leaders were working together. They’d quarrel like mad. Both of them had, you know, big Ds and big Rs all over them. But they worked together. And they asked Ted Stevens and me, under their auspices, to head up the Arms Control Observer Group.
So for about six or eight years, we would go to Geneva, we’d go to Vienna, all the places there was arms control. And we would meet with the Russian negotiators. We would meet with the Soviet negotiators then. We would meet with the U.S. negotiators. So we understood what was going on. We understood the obstacles. So I would say the difference was also leadership. Lugar was unusual, he was a terrific partner, and we both totally trusted each other. We didn’t agree on everything. We disagreed on a number of things. But we always trusted each other.
You have to have trust to make government work. You have to have trust to make local church committee work. You have to have—you have to have trust to make a faculty meeting work. So these things are just endemic. (Laughter.) If you don’t trust each other, you can’t –you can’t do business. That’s the way—and particularly that’s true in a democracy. I guess you don’t have to have as much trust in a dictatorship. But the leaders created the climate. And you know, Barry Goldwater and I worked—we totally trusted each other. And Barry would call me and ask advice.
And some of his Republican colleagues got angry with him because of that, because he trusted me and knew I wasn’t going to go out and say things that were in confidence. And he knew that if I said something, I was going to do it. I felt exactly the same way about him. So that’s the reason we were able to pass the Goldwater-Nichols bill. We worked together. In fact, Barry and I had one staff person. And we agreed on this when it we took on—we knew we were going to be taking on all the military services, with the possible exception of the Army.
And we knew we had to have a unified staff. And back then, you had a Republican staff and Democratic staff. And so we had one guy. We said, you’re going to represent both of us. So Jim Locher—and he wrote a book on this subject—he was the guy. And we both had total trust in him. And two or three times we had to overrule when our staffs tried to come in and take over—primarily, Barry’s staff, you know, beyond Jim. And so I remember once I had to go to Barry and say: I hate to tell you, Barry, but one of your guys is overruling Jim on the Goldwater-Nichols work. And he said, well, I’ll be damned. And picked up the phone and stopped that right then.
So, you know, that’s what you have to do to have it. It’s human nature. But right now is a poisonous atmosphere. And I don’t know—I mean, we’ll get over it. America goes through these bumps. Our system is still the best in the world. But my colleagues who are still there tell me that I wouldn’t be enjoying the Senate today as we know it. But, you know, we fought like mad back then. And we had all sorts of differences back then. But we could—we knew that we could fight on one thing, and the next day we might be agreeing on the next thing. That’s the way you have to work the system. It’s just not working that way now.
PETERS: That’s certainly true. Thank you, Senator.
I’d like to open the floor to questions, if that’s all right with you. If you have a question, please stand. I’ll try to look all around. Say you name and your affiliation. And please keep your questions brief, if you can, so that we can get to a number of them during the time we have left.
Yes, lady—the blonde lady. Thank you.
Q: Can you hear me?
MARTEN: Thank you so much for this terrific discussion. It was really, really valuable. Thank you to both of you. I’m Kim Marten from Barnard College at Columbia University.
I know from the work that I’ve done that Vladimir Putin would support things that cause profit to go to his civilian nuclear industry, because that’s that nuclear industry that he’s very much associated with in his networks. Can you imagine something that would forward the ability to have U.S.-Russia cooperation that would bring profit to Russia’s civilian nuclear industry? And can you imagine that being acceptable to U.S. leaders today, given the sanctions environment?
NUNN: Well, that’s a great question. We just had—the reason we went over—I had some private meetings where I discussed this idea about U.S. and Russia on ISIL, working together. But we had—the main reason for our trip to Russia, we took a bunch of American scientists and experts, and we met with our counterparts in Russia—about forty people around the table for two days.
And we—the mandate to the group—we had about six or eight papers written—was to discuss various programs we could work together on. And of course, the U.S. wants to still work with Russia on security. Russia doesn’t want to work with us on security, because after Ukraine we cut off the civil cooperation. We cut off the research and development work. They want to work on environmental remediation, they want to work on civil nuclear.
Long story short, we had over sixty projects that these experts proposed that—and the premise was, if our two countries can remedy some of the confrontations and conflicts, and if we start working together, what is it our group, outside government, would recommend? And we’re going to put out a report this summer that will boil it down to probably ten projects. I mean, it’s a Christmas list right now, but the point is there are a lot of things we need to work together on.
And one thing that was proposed was the—evidently there’s huge amounts of radiological material that I didn’t know about, our government may have, in the -stan countries out there—Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and so forth. That’s not far from where ISIL’s operating. And ISIL’s already claimed that they have—they’ve got radiological material, probably from a hospital. Our government is not commenting much on that, but it’s certainly entirely possible they could. So this scientist was proposing that we work together to try to secure that radiological material, and at least get it in a form that could not be used in a dirty bomb. So there are all sorts of things we need to work on.
Now, the trust has been greatly damaged. And Russia’s takeover of the Crimea was a violation of their solemn pledge they made back in ’95 when—or ’94, ’95, when Ukraine got rid of their nuclear weapons. And the United States, Great Britain, and Russia all assured them that we would respect their sovereignty. Well, you take Crimea, that’s not exactly respecting their sovereignty. So there’s a huge problem here. There’s a Kiev agreement now that we really need the Russians to comply with. And we need to get them to get their allies to comply. And we’ve got to get the Ukrainians to comply too. They aren’t in complete compliance. So getting those two sides together is a really tough equation.
Along that line, one little incidental story here that’s worth probably talking about, I went—I met with Russian military leaders after Gorbachev was released and the Soviet Union collapsed, and it was Russia then. He also was president. I met with him several times. One of the times I met with him, they were trying to get Ukraine to give up their nuclear weapons. We were trying to get them to too, so U.S. and Russia had the same goal. Ukrainians at that point were saying they were going to keep those weapons. They didn’t have the code. They had the physical possession of the weapons. They didn’t have the code, but they were saying—they announced this in the paper—that they were seeking the code. And they thought their scientists could develop it.
So some people are saying today, including some people in this country, if Ukraine had kept those nuclear weapons, Russia would have never taken Crimea. False. I was absolutely convinced in several conversations, one in particular when I was sitting there with the entire Russian general staff, that they were planning very actively during the next several weeks, if Ukraine didn’t give up those weapons, they were going to go get them. And we were going to have a war back then. They never would have tolerated having that many weapons right next door that they didn’t control. So those were dicey areas, but when I hear people say if Ukraine just had those nuclear weapons there wouldn’t be any problem over there now, that is completely false.
And Kazakhstan gave up their nuclear weapons, and has been a real champion, not only getting rid of their weapons, but getting rid of their highly enriched uranium and other material. So, you know, occasionally we ought to pat countries on the back that have gotten rid of nuclear material and nuclear weapons. We focus on those, like North Korea and Iran, and properly so, that are a real problem. But occasionally there ought to be some gold stars awarded for countries like South Africa who gave up their nuclear weapons, Ukraine, Belarus, and, of course, Kazakhstan. Also, South Korea gave up a very active nuclear program. Taiwan gave up a very active nuclear program. So the Non-Proliferation Treaty has had leaks in it, but by and large over the years if you’d asked President Kennedy back when he was president how many countries would have nuclear weapons today, he would have probably guessed more like twenty rather than the nine that have them now. So some things have been working. And we’ve got to strengthen them.
PETERS: I think that’s a very good point. Thank you, Senator.
We’re going to go to Ambassador Charles Shapiro first, and then the gentleman at the table behind him.
SHAPIRO: Hi. I’m Charles Shapiro from the World Affairs Council in Atlanta.
You described the range of U.S. political views from Barry Goldwater, I don’t know that you get much further to the right, to President Obama, a progressive Democrat, and everybody in between. Do you have that same confidence in our current crop of presidential candidates—(laughter)—that they are as concerned about the nuclear threat and will work on this as assiduously?
NUNN: Well, one of my Republican friends asked me the other day about who I would advise him to vote for in the Republican primary. And I basically said, well, of those left, the one I know is a good guy is John Kasich. I said, beyond that, I think I would advise you to write in Hulk Hogan. (Laughter.) But that was all the advice. My Republican friends don’t want my advice, and so forth. But, no, Hillary Clinton is extremely well-qualified. I mean, I think we are very fortunate on that. She is having a vigorous primary. I thought Jeb Bush was very well-qualified. I think John Kasich is qualified. And there are probably some of the other Republicans that I don’t know that may be. But by and large, I have been surprised. Like everybody else, I did not know that someone like the frontrunner on the Republican side would be able to—be able to get the kind of votes that he’s gotten.
We’ve had angry electorates before, but they’re in larger numbers now. And the dangerous thing is, I understand the frustration. I mean, the economics of the blue-collar worker in the last thirty years has really not made much progress, if you look at inflation and so forth. So there’s a lot of anger out there—anger with the trade bills, anger with immigration, all of these issues. But I think if you look very deep, a lot of this is we are being overwhelmed with technology. All the blessings of technology are apparent, and we certainly wouldn’t want to go backwards, and we’ve got to go forward. But technology has basically done more displacing of jobs in America, by far, than any kind of immigration or any kind of trade bill. You can debate those all you want to, but the technology is what’s happening.
I had one of the top scientists—actually, he went to Georgia Tech. And we got the Nunn School folks today, International School of Tech, Joe Bankoff and crowd. But this particular individual has done very well in the business world. And he told me that in twenty years, seventy percent of the jobs in America wouldn’t be here. And I said, you’ve got to be kidding. I mean, that’s an astounding number, I mean, even if you cut it in half. He said, no, the artificial intelligence and robotics is coming very, very, very fast. And it’s not just blue-collar jobs. It’s white-collar jobs. So I think we have a profound kind of challenge on both the job front and the education front in terms of the changing technology. I think a lot of this is overwhelming people.
But what we’ve got to watch is, you know, H. L. Menken once said that for every complicated, complex problem, there’s an answer that’s simple, easy, and wrong. (Laughter.) And right now, people can give simple, easy, and wrong answers because of the frustration. And it can be very attractive to people because it is simple, it is easy. But I think that we cannot—we’ve got to have a lot more rationale. This is not a rational election year. It is not rational. I’m hoping it will get more rational, but it’s not at this stage.
GROVES: Sir, thanks for your comments. I’m Bryan Groves. I’m an Army strategist and a PhD candidate at Duke.
You’ve talked about the need to secure and reduce nuclear material. I’m wondering if you could give us your perspective on the need and prospects for modernization of the American nuclear force.
NUNN: Well, we absolutely have to modernize. We’ve got the triad—for those of you who, like Donald Trump, had never heard of it—is the land-based, air-based, and sea-based—submarines, land-based missiles, and bombers. All three legs have to be modernized. There’s no question on that. The real question is, can we pay for it? Right now, the estimates are that the plans that are on the books in the Obama administration now are—would cost a trillion over the next thirty years—a trillion bucks. That’s a lot of money, even in today’s world.
Now, the problem is, the forces that we really are much more likely to use—the ships, the planes, the tanks, all the ammo, all the smart weapons, all the, you know, satellites and the warning systems and the connectivity between all of that—those are going to get squeezed by this nuclear buildup. So it’s not simply a question of how much we need in nuclear, it’s what it does to the conventional non-nuclear forces. In my opinion, we can’t afford the program that is now being talked about. It cannot be paid for in any kind of rational fiscal environment, which means that hard questions are going to have to be asked.
My colleague and great friend, I’m a real big fan of Bill Perry’s, who used to be secretary of defense. Bill’s just written a book, and he’s written several articles. And he basically says what I just said. But he also adds to it that it’s time to take a real look at the land-based missile systems, and determine whether we could gradually not modernize those, and gradually get rid of them. The land-based missile systems are weapons that are more like first-strike weapons, because they are vulnerable. They have a strict—they have a very precise location. The enemy knows how to target them. It’s harder to target bombers, because you can get them off the ground in an emergency. It’s virtually, hopefully always will be, impossible—at this stage at least, technology-wise—to target submarines.
So I think Bill raises some very good questions about whether we ought to be modernizing the land-based missile system. This is Dr. Strangelove talk. But what you don’t want to do is to give any—either Russia, U.S., or in years to come, China—any incentive to strike first. You don’t want either of the nuclear powers to feel that they’ve got to shoot weapons quickly or lose them. That’s what you can stability. We have forgotten the stability argument. We had these arguments all the time. We had these discussions. Every system we modernized when I was there went through the argument about stability.
Is this going to make the world more dangerous or less dangerous? Are we going to be threatening Russia so that they have a hair trigger and have to fire their weapons or use them? Are they going to be paranoid, so if a general comes in and says: Mr. President, we think we’ve got a warning, it could be wrong, but if we don’t shoot our weapons right now in the next three minutes we’re going to lose them, because if the missiles are coming—that’s an unstable world that is extremely, extremely dangerous. All of those things are still relevant, but the body politic in Washington no longer focuses on them. Military people do, on both sides.
So we’ve got to really—long answer to your question about modernization—it’s not just money, it’s also stability. We’ve got to start asking the hard questions. And I’m convinced right now that if a lot of people in America don’t start getting interested in this subject, we’re going to sleepwalk, as John Kerry recently said, into another nuclear arms race. And Russia has got their own plans for modernization. They’re spending huge amounts of money they can’t possibly afford. So it’s time for a sober assessment about where we’re heading.
PETERS: Next my former boss, Gordon Giffin, and after him the gentleman in the blue shirt. Gordon.
GIFFIN: Thank you. Thank you, Mary Ann.
Senator, I think back to the early ’90s, after Bill Clinton got elected. There was an ongoing debate about the expansion of NATO and whether or not NATO should be expanded, I guess, east, sort of to Russia. I lose track of what part of Eastern Europe is on the North Atlantic, but I’m not that good at geography. But we, the United States and others, expanded NATO, obviously, to the Russian border. I seem to recall that you thought it was a bad idea at the time. In retrospect it seems to me part of the problems that we’re having with respect to the Ukraine and maybe other problems is because we have through that sort of initiative threatened Russia more than we needed to. Do you have a view on the consequences of expanding NATO?
NUNN: Yes. We didn’t intend it as a threat, but it’s been perceived as a threat throughout the Russian military and the Russian elite. And basically—they basically say if the U.S. had had the problems that the Soviet Union had and we had basically taken Mexico into the Warsaw Pact and put military forces there, what would you think? We saw what happened when they put missiles in Cuba. That was the Cuban missile crisis.
So the Russians in my view erroneously, but nevertheless it’s real and we have to deal with it, they see themselves as having overthrown the Soviet Union—not Kazakhstan and not Ukraine and not those. They basically say Russia rebelled against the Soviet Union. Now, you can argue that. And historians and international experts, like we have in this room, can argue that. But that’s the way they see it. And they also see that United States has been high-fiving in the end zone since the early 1990s. That’s the way they see it.
The key word in dealing with the Russians, in my view, is respect. You know, individuals, whatever their race, color, creed, everybody wants respect. Nations are no different. And so this has been the psychology that we have, I think, not—innocently, in most cases—innocently not grasped. What I argued for 1995, I made a speech in Norfolk in front of a military audience. I said, look, the threat is not there anymore. The nuclear threat is, but not the conventional force threat. So why should we expand NATO as the primary vehicle for welcoming the East Europeans? Why shouldn’t we basically influence the Europeans to expand the European community, the economic side, so it would not be perceived as a military threat?
That was my view then. It did not prevail. Bill Perry in his recent book revealed—which I did not know then. Bill’s a close friend of mine, but he’s so circumspect he never told me this until we had dinner out in Palo Alto about a year ago. And he told me that in the debate in the Clinton White House, where they made this decision to expand NATO, that he was vigorously on the other side of it. He had the same arguments that I did. And basically, he lost the argument. And so we expanded NATO and it had a profound effect on the psychology of Russia. I don’t think it expanded the threat to Russia, but I think it was perceived as doing so.
Now, what we’ve got is we’ve got Article 5 commitments to a whole lot of countries out there and the Russians have built up their military. Article 5 commitment means that if you’re invaded—if you’re Hungary or you’re a Baltic State of so forth—and the United States is bound to come to your—to get into whatever the conflict is. That’s Article 5. It’s been invoked only one time, and that was after 9/11, invoked for NATO to help us. So basically we’ve expanded Article 5 commitments all around Russia, but we haven’t expanded the military capabilities.
It’s kind of the worst of all worlds. You’ve created this, really, psychology in Russia of paranoia. And you basically got Article 5 commitments in countries that you can’t defend. And, lo and behold, in the George W. Bush administration, we were advocating taking in Georgia, the state of Georgia—not this state, but the one over there. (Laughter.) And Margaret Thatcher and some others opposed it. Merkel opposed it. I don’t think it was Thatcher. It was Merkel. And thank goodness. But we basically have no way—look at the map. How are you going to defend Georgia without nuclear weapons? Do we really want to explain to the American people that if Russia—I mean, did we then—if Russia invades Georgia, we’re going to use nuclear weapons? I mean, that’s going on here?
But we were the ones that were advocating that. We didn’t do it. And of course, the Russians invaded. Again, some people say, well, if they had just come in NATO, Russia would have never taken action against Georgia. If Ukraine had just been in NATO, that would have never come up. Crimea would have—I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Nobody can prove what would have happened. You know, that’s more than a hypothetical. I think we would have destroyed NATO because we would have had Article 5 commitments we could not keep. So I’m all for NATO. I’m all for—I was all even in the Norfolk speech for those countries coming in, over a period of time and a natural course. But I was also in favor of not excluding Russia from ever being part of a Euro-Atlantic security kind of thing.
What I’m advocating right now, and what my organization is advocating, is a Euro-Atlantic security track two, not government-to-government, because of strains—too much strain in relationships now, but a track two non-governmental. Europeans, Russians, U.S., Ukrainians, others looking at the future of the whole Euro-Atlantic security, and finding what Russia’s role is. If you exclude Russia from Euro-Atlantic security, and you project that you’re going to have Russia in a period of conflict, confrontation, distrust, we’re plaguing our children and grandchildren with, you know, just mountains and mountains of dangers and risk, in addition to the economic. And they’re doing the same thing themselves. I mean, this—Russia has really harmed themselves grievously by what they’ve done in Ukraine, in my opinion, because all their neighbors distrust them.
So we’ve got—we’ve got a real problem here. I heard a Chinese quoted as saying—actually, Henry Kissinger was one who quoted one of his Chinese colleagues, if I can remember, he said—basically said—he said that Ukraine has lost Crimea. Russia has lost Ukraine. The West has lost Russia. And the globe has lost stability. So I call that a lose-lose-lose-lose situation. And we’ve got to find a way to untangle it. That gets back to my rather simple proposal about the umbrella, so that the Russian people, American people can at least see that we’re working together on something.
And the one other thing I said in Russia, and I’ve said it to our own government too, the U.S. and Russia were adversaries for so long it’s hard for us to get out of that mode. But occasionally, when we do work together on something, it’s important that we say so publicly—that we say so publicly. We never thank Russia. And I told one of my Russian friends jokingly, I didn’t think they had a word in the Russian language that said thank you. (Laughter.) But the publics, if we continue to go in this circle we’re going in now, are going to get so poisoned against each other, even when leaders want to agree, they will not have the basic foundation of support in the U.S. and Russia.
So we’re on a dangerous trend now, with a country that is indispensable to our own security. Kissinger said something the other day too in a speech he made in Russia, that the fates of the United States and Russia are completely intertwined—something very close to that. And it’s true. I mean, you could—basically, they could destroy us in the time we’ve had lunch here. Now, it would be at the expense of their own country because we could survive, retaliate, that’s what deterrence is all about. But it would be of small comfort. And you know, Einstein said something many, many years ago, after he helped invent nuclear weapons. He said: I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but I do know that World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. And I think that’s a very powerful quote.
Just to give you one example, the Pakistan-India, they got a couple hundred nuclear weapons each. And there’s tension now, short borders, a lot of histories, a lot of wars, complete distrust, terrorism all over the place, retaliation, forces near each other. Both of them with several hundred nuclear weapons. There was a supercomputer run a year or two go, it was in a Scientific America magazine. And it basically had run a supercomputer showing what would happen if one hundred of those weapons went off between those two countries. And basically, a couple hundred million people killed immediately. But over the next ten years, because of global cooling, because the sun would be blocked from all the debris, one hundred weapons, there would be something like a billion and a half people starve to death.
Now, even if you put that way down and that it’s exaggerated—I don’t know; I’m not a scientist—it’s a serious proposition. So we’re talking about serious issues here. No country, in my view, has the, quote, “sovereign right” to start a nuclear war. Now, to respond, to have retaliatory weapons, that’s a deterrent. But not to initiate nuclear war. There are some people who still argue at the Pentagon—not many, but some—that you can fire off small nuclear weapons, you know, about the size of Hiroshima—that’s small these days—and, you know, basically stop a war. It wouldn’t escalate. I think that’s—I think that kind of talk is risking God’s creation, is what I think.
So we got a lot—this subject is not on people’s minds these days, and for good reason. But nevertheless, we’ve got to think about these issues. We’re on the verge, as Bill Perry said, of really recycling the arms race of the Cold War.
PETERS: Thank you very much for that, Senator. We’re running out of time, so I’m going to take three quick questions. Please make them very quick. And perhaps you can wrap them all up in your answer. The gentleman in blue, the gentleman to my left, and Tom Johnson.
GREENE: Thank you very much. Owen Greene from the University of Bradford, UK. I thoroughly endorse, as I’m sure everybody else, everything you’ve just been saying.
I wonder whether you could elaborate a little bit. You’ve emphasized the importance of Russian-U.S. cooperation, but the wider P5 and also India, particularly China and India, in terms of the things here. Obviously, there have been attempts that we’re all familiar with a decade ago, but maybe I’m not—I haven’t heard so much about it recently.
PETERS: Thank you. Sir.
KIRTON: Senator, John Kirton from the University of Toronto.
Given our shared nuclear fate with Russia, and the success of the global partnership against weapons and materials of mass destruction that we agreed with Mr. Putin at the 2008 G8 summit, were we right to suspend the Russians from the G8 due to their annexation and aggression in Ukraine? And has the time come to start to think about bringing them back into a G8?
PETERS: Thank you. Tom, last question.
Q: Senator, what should we do about North Korea?
PETERS: OK. (Laughter.)
PETERS: So you got India-China—
NUNN: The first question, China, India, Pakistan, and so forth. There’s a circle out there. India has nuclear weapons when you don’t scratch very deep, originally at least, because of China—China’s nuclear weapons. China has nuclear weapons. China has nuclear weapons because of Russia and U.S. Pakistan has nuclear weapons because of India. So all of these things are tangled. And I’ve always thought, if U.S. and Russia were in a period where we’re getting along, given their relationship with the Indians and our relationship with the Pakistanis—although that U.S.-Pakistani relationship is pretty strained right now in many ways—I thought that the U.S. and Russia, given our experience in the Cold War and warning time and all those things we learned about the hard way, thank God without a disaster, we should share with India and Pakistan and try to help them get off—or not get on a hair-trigger.
Unfortunately, Pakistan is developing theater, battlefield, tactical nuclear weapons, which is the most dangerous kind because those as the ones if you have them up on the front line you got to use them quickly, draw them back through the middle of a conflict, or lose them. And so that’s an extremely dangerous situation. And I think China is interested in having some of these discussions. My group went over and played a tabletop exercise with China back in the fall of last year. And it was on a rather simple scenario about missing nuclear material. But I would like to see us play that kind of game with China eventually at a governmental level about what happens if North Korea collapses, which gets to the North Korea question.
And the Chinese, the ones we had this with, were—most of them were government officials. But we were track two. We were NGOs. North Korea, Tom, we have so little economic relationship with North Korea, squeezing them economically, which we’re doing, does not do the job in terms of the enough pressure on them. The recent U.N. resolution, though, which—you know, you got to give—again, you got to give Obama administration real credit for getting this through, Russia and China voted for it—really is a mandate for searching ships, planes, coming out of North Korea, which is very relevant to nuclear, and particularly their export. I’ve always worried about the Iranian nuclear weapon because of what would happen to the area with other countries. I’ve worried about North Korea, because of their desperate economic condition, the fact they might sell the stuff to, you know, terrorist groups.
So that’s a powerful resolution. I’m on a task force right now, Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs and I chair it, on the North Korean question, which we’re going to be reporting—this is a Council on Foreign Relations task force. We’re meeting in about—actually two weeks, three weeks. And we’ll have a report out in the summer. So stayed tuned, but there’s a lot that we’re going to have to think about on North Korea. But it’s not an easy equation for three reasons. One is, we don’t have much economic squeeze to do, because we don’t have much relationship with them at all. Number two, China does, and China’s more worried about the collapse of North Korea than they are about the nuclear weapons. They’re worried about both, but if you ask them which—if you tell them, you know, you got to push hard and you got to squeeze hard and you got to put more pressure on they come and say, well, we don’t want them to collapse. You know, they’ll tell you that in private, anyway.
So we’ve got—what I think we’ve got to do as the U.S. government, at very quiet, secret levels, have got to have a lot of talks with China about what we would do in North Korea does collapse. They fear the U.S. moving troops up to the border. We have to give them some assurances on that. They fear a lot of things relating to what would happen. Huge—millions of refugees would come across the China border. South Korea, interestingly enough, fears some of the same things, because they know that even without nuclear weapons Seoul, the city of Seoul, would be destroyed, even if we won a war against North Korea in about two, three weeks, which we probably would. We and the South Koreans.
But nevertheless, they’ve got—the last count I had was at least 10(,000) or 15,000 artillery tubes sitting within thirty miles of the capital city of South Korea. And so you don’t have to have nuclear weapons to destroy Seoul. That’s been the equation for a long time. And so that’s sort of dilemma number two. And, you know, the third dilemma is the North Koreans don’t have anything but nuclear weapons. You know, that’s their leverage. That’s their ace in the hole. That’s the only way they get recognition. And you can almost predict every few years, when they’re not getting enough attention, they’ll do something stupid just to get the attention of the world. So that’s what we’re getting into.
Remind me of the third question.
PETERS: G8 and Russia. Should Russia come back in?
NUNN: The Russians have to be involved in seeing that the Kiev agreement works, so that you can stop the killing and the confrontations in Ukraine. It’s going to take a long time to repair the damage. But that is essential, if you’re going to begin rebuilding trust. If that happens, and hopefully it will happen, they’ve just made a very interesting move about moving their troops out of Syria, which was a surprise to most folks. And so possibly it could happen. If we had a—what I’m talking about as I refer to the umbrella, psychologically it could change things.
So I don’t think getting back into G8 is on the immediate table, but it is not our fundamental security interest to isolate Russia. It is not in our fundamental security interest—including NATO—for Russia to be an economic basket case. I don’t think it’s going to be a failed state, but I mean their economy—if their economy really torpedoes, and with the price of oil, nobody knows what’s going to happen there, so it could. And so that’s not in our fundamental interest. So NATO’s got a lot of—NATO and the West have a lot of serious thinking to do. Russia ought to be part of the G-8 eventually. But I think we’ve got to make sure, see how the Ukrainian situation plays out.
I think that economic boycotts of a country with nine time zones are questionable. That’s the only tool we had, and I think that—you know, when people compare military power, you know, it’s interesting when people say, well, U.S.-Russia, well, Russia’s a lot weaker than we are. True. Pick the geographic spot for the battle, though. If it’s right next door, that’s a totally different thing than if we’re having a battle out in the middle of the ocean. So NATO has got to take its Article 5 commitments seriously. And if we don’t, one of these days somebody’s going to have an Article 5 violation. And NATO’s going to say, what do we do now? And now, we are building up in NATO, but again we’ve got to make sure we don’t do it in a way that’s so provocative that the Russians are going to basically get more and more paranoid.
So they’ve got to be part of the world community. They have to be part of the Euro-Atlantic security. And we’ve got to find a way to work with them. Now, working with Putin is tough. I will acknowledge that. He’s got a lot of chips on his shoulder, a lot of pride. But you know, that’s the card that’s been dealt. And we got to be skillful enough to play it. The good news is they’re not coming from an ideological point of view. They’re coming from a national interest point of view. And Putin is a national interest guy. He’s not an ideological, take-over-the-world communism. That’s not there anymore. And the economic card is all important. We need to start playing the economic card.
We ought to be pretty good at economics with Russia. For years and years if you’d told all the Republican and Democratic leaders that went through the Cold War that we would come to a time in 2016 so that we basically could forget the ideological differences with Russia, and deal with them on an economic basis, they’d say, you know, that’s terrific. We ought to be able to find ways to work together on energy. We ought to be able to find ways to work together on cyber. One of these days we’re going to have to deal with that. We ought to find a way to work together on dealing with violent extremism. There are all sorts of mutual interests we have. But right now, the strain and distrust is heading in the wrong direction.
PETERS: Well, please join me in thanking Senator Sam Nunn for sharing all this wisdom and thoughts and prescriptions with us this afternoon. (Applause.)
NUNN: Thank you. Thank you.