Confronting a Nuclear Tipping Point

Confronting a Nuclear Tipping Point

The idea of nuclear disarmament is gaining traction internationally, but countries supporting it must counter the nuclear proliferation risk created by Iran and North Korea, and make sure disarmament treaties include strong verification mechanisms, says former Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

March 11, 2010 1:16 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The idea of nuclear disarmament is gaining support internationally, with the United States leading the charge and China and Russia expressing interest, says George P. Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state from 1982-89. But talks on concluding a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Russians and the pending Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty should emphasize verification, says Shultz. Supporting de-nuclearization efforts must also include forcefully countering a nuclear proliferation tipping point, he says. "Iran has to be confronted; North Korea has to be confronted; the nuclear fuel cycle has to be confronted, and so on," he warns. "A lot of concrete things will have to start getting done."

You, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn have all been talking and writing about the need for "a world without nuclear weapons." You’re also warning that the world is at a "nuclear tipping point." What do you mean?

We’re at a point where we may see a proliferation of nuclear arms--more nations getting them and more probability that a terrorist group will get their hands on fissile material. We had a conference at the Hoover Institute in 2006 commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Reykjavik summit between President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev in which nuclear weapons reductions between the two super powers were first really discussed. That meeting turned out to be very productive, and out of that came the first of the articles that Sam, Henry, Bill, and I wrote, calling for a world free of nuclear weapons.

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


[Margaret Thatcher said] "George, how can you sit there and allow the president to agree to a world free of nuclear weapons?"

By the way, back in 1986, when I came back to Washington from Reykjavik I was more or less summoned to the British ambassador’s residence. And Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "hand-bagged" me. That is, you know, she carried that little stiff handbag, and she whacked me. She said, "George, how can you sit there and allow the president to agree to a world free of nuclear weapons?" I said, "But Margaret, he’s the president." She said, "Yes, but you’re supposed to be the one holding his feet on the ground." "But Margaret, I agreed with him," I said. Her reaction was typical. I think people were enamored of the idea of deterrence through nuclear weapons.

Henry Kissinger is your colleague in this effort to eliminate nuclear weapons, yet nobody more epitomizes, to me, the idea of détente through equilibrium in nuclear weapons.

Yes, but Henry gave a very interesting speech in Munich about a year ago, and he closed with this sentence: "Our age has stolen the fire from the gods; can we confine it to peaceful purposes before it consumes us?" At any rate, the reaction to our initial essay was not all positive, but even people who thought it was improbable we could ever get where we wanted to go thought the many steps we recommended would make the world safer.

How do you deal with nuclear countries like India and Pakistan, which are consumed with mutual wariness, or Israel, which has nuclear weapons because they’re deterring an attack from Arab states or Iran?

You get some momentum going, and you get everybody on board that this is an objective that needs to be achieved. Actually, both the official spokesmen for India and Pakistan have said, "We’re willing to give up our nukes if the other country will do so." And the UN Security Council meeting last September that was chaired by President Obama passed a resolution unanimously calling for a world free of nuclear weapons.

More than that, if you look at the statements made--read Chinese President Hu Jintao’s statement, or Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s statement--they are all very supportive. In some ways, the one that riveted people the most was from President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who said, "This is a great objective, but let’s get real. If we can’t do something about Iran and its desire to get nuclear weapons, and North Korea, where are we? We’ve got to get busy and do something about these things."

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


I gave a talk in Paris recently and was more or less saying that we’ve come a long way and, in a sense, we’ve won the rhetoric battle. People now are all saying, "Yes, we agree on this objective." So now comes the battle of action. Iran has to be confronted; North Korea has to be confronted; the nuclear fuel cycle has to be confronted, and so on. A lot of concrete things will have to start getting done.

Despite sanctions and world pressure, Iran continues to enrich uranium. How do you get them to stop?

It would be a catastrophe if Iran got a nuclear weapon. I hate to see all these articles that are appearing talking about "living with a nuclear Iran," because that’s the whole point of the nuclear tipping point: It will tip drastically. We’ve got to figure out how to stop it.

You had this phony election in Iran, and it sparked an uprising that basically was saying "the people of Iran realize that they’re not being governed well." Inflation is very high. Unemployment is high. If there were a misery index in Iran, it would be through the sky. Meanwhile, the people who are at least nominally in charge are continuing their nuclear program. So what do we do?

I hate to see all these articles that are appearing talking about "living with a nuclear Iran," because that’s the whole point of the nuclear tipping point: It will tip drastically. We’ve got to figure out how to stop it.

First of all, we recognize that this is not something that we’re going to go along with. Second, we take a no-nonsense approach. For example: I read that these little Iranian speedboats go buzzing around our ships in the Gulf. We should tell them that there’s a red line here, and when they cross the red line they get blasted out of the water. And it seems to me there are all sorts of ways to tighten the vise of sanctions. We want to be sure that the regime is not able to block the use by the opposition of information technology, and we should be discreetly supplying the stuff to the opposition as we did in the Soviet Union in the Reagan administration. We supported people who were on our side. We didn’t put boots on the ground, but we supported them. A determined effort like this will get somewhere.

President Obama is a strong advocate of eliminating nuclear weapons. He gave a major policy speech in Prague last year. There’s a Nuclear Security Summit conference in April in Washington to be attended by forty nations, and in May there’s a Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in New York. Should the U.S. government be doing more?

No. President Obama has taken this up very strongly and well. It’s also very important to take note of the fact that Senator John McCain, who supported this idea during the election campaign, made a powerful speech on the floor of the Senate last June. We’ve tried to keep our effort as best we can non-partisan.

Negotiations for a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty are due to resume in Geneva next week. Reports say the United States and Russia are close to an accord that will limit deployed nuclear weapons on each side to between 1,500 and 1,675, from the 2,200 agreed to in 1991. Nuclear-delivery systems would fall more sharply--to between 700 and 800 each from the current limit of 1,600.

The previous treaty expired in December, and they have [mutually] agreed to continue to abide by its terms, as I understand it, while they continue the negotiation. I am encouraged by the fact that our negotiators are hanging in. They’re not saying, "OK, we’ll just wrap this up, agree to whatever the Russians want." It’s very important that they insist on verification provisions that are adequate and need to make a good treaty. A bad treaty is worse than no treaty.

How easy it will be to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty finally agreed to by the Senate? It doesn’t look like there’s great enthusiasm for it.

No there isn’t. This is something that has to be worked out carefully. You have to recognize that the situation today is very different than it was eleven years ago, when it was first considered by the Senate. A senator could very well say, "I was right to vote against it then, and I can be right to vote for it now." Why? Because the scene has changed. Now you can verify whether or not a small test has taken place, and the capacity of our labs, if they are properly supported, can verify the safety and security and reliability of our stockpile. I understand the president’s budget now gives the kind of support that’s needed, so these are important developments, and I hope that senators have an open mind and are willing to look at them.

At the Reykjavik summit, Gorbachev offered virtually to give up all nuclear missiles and nuclear weapons in return for the United States limiting the Strategic Defense Initiative program to testing in the laboratory for ten years. If had Reagan agreed, what would have happened?

The idea of a world free of nuclear weapons would not have gone down well in Washington and among our allies in 1986, even though President Reagan had advocated openly, many times before Reykjavik, for a world without nuclear weapons. It was not a new idea with him at all, but I don’t think the world was ready for it.


Top Stories on CFR

International Organizations

The 2022 FIFA World Cup has kicked off in Qatar, and billions of fans worldwide are tuning in to the world’s most popular live event. And yet as in years past, the Qatar Cup is transpiring under the shadow of controversy.

Middle East and North Africa

The kafala system regulates the lives of tens of millions of migrant laborers in the Middle East, but growing outrage over human rights abuses, racism, and gender discrimination has fueled calls for reform.


Government leaders are optimistic that COVID-19 is becoming endemic, meaning more predictable and manageable. But many scientists say it’s too soon to behave like the pandemic is over.