Keeping the Nuclear Peace, With Michael Krepon

Michael Krepon, cofounder of and distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the rise, demise, and possible revival of arms control efforts across the globe.

January 11, 2022 — 30:44 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Michael Krepon

Cofounder, Stimson Center

Show Notes

Michael Krepon, cofounder of and distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the rise, demise, and possible revival of arms control efforts across the globe.

 

Books Mentioned in the Podcast

 

Michael Krepon, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control (2021)

 

Statements Mentioned

 

Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races,” The White House, January 3, 2022

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is Keeping the Nuclear Peace. With me to discuss the rise, demise, and possible revival of arms control efforts is Michael Krepon. Michael is the Co-founder and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Stimson Center. He co-founded the Stimson Center in 1989 after previously working in the executive branch on Capitol Hill. Michael received the Carnegie Endowments award for lifetime achievement in non-governmental work to reduce nuclear dangers in 2015. He's the author and editor of 23 books, most recently Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, which was published in October. Michael, I want to thank you for being here and congratulate you on the publication of Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace. I just want to say it is worth it for the introduction alone.

Michael Krepon:

Jim, you're too kind. And thanks for doing this with me.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, I'm happy to do it, Michael, because it's a timely topic. Recently the P5, that is the United States, China, France, Great Britain, Russia issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to reducing the nuclear danger and their commitment to ultimate disarmament. But at the same time, we have US-Russian negotiators meeting in Geneva amidst rising tensions. One of the topics on the agenda will be the question of arms control and the modernization programs on both sides. Looming over that, of course, would be the modernization programs of other nuclear powers. So I'd like to go back to a question you started your book with, and that is the question of why is it that nuclear weapons haven't been used in the 75 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Michael Krepon:

Jim, the easy answer is deterrence has kept the nuclear peace, the ability to wreak havoc, destruction, catastrophe on the other guy. That answer is only half right because deterrence is extremely dangerous, and it's meant to be dangerous. Otherwise, it doesn't deter. And the more one strengthens deterrence, the more uneasy nuclear arrivals become. So deterrence by itself helps keep nuclear peace, but it doesn't work without diplomacy. Without diplomacy, deterrence only works in one direction, and that is to increase nuclear danger. We count on diplomacy to reduce nuclear danger. And the diplomacy of arms control during the Cold War had many, many setbacks, but it was remarkably successful. And we tend to lose sight of that success.

Jim Lindsay:

Let me talk a bit about several of the points you had there, Michael. Let me begin with this question of, deterrence is dangerous. It's dangerous because it produces arms race competition? Is it dangerous because countries begin to worry that they may be attacked? What's the nature of the danger inherent in deterrence?

Michael Krepon:

The way I look at nuclear deterrence, Jim, it's driven by lots of things. There are domestic constituencies, there's domestic politics, there's sharpened geopolitical competition. But the essence of deterrence is to avoid disadvantage and to seek advantage, and those two drivers do lead to arms competitions. And what we lose sight of is that those two drivers are also in play if deterrence fails and there is a mushroom cloud on a battlefield. So if there is a mushroom cloud, there's likely to be more than one mushroom cloud because those same two drivers, seeking advantage and seeking to avoid disadvantage also apply to nuclear war fighting. So the essence of public safety is not to cross the nuclear threshold. And deterrence doesn't help with that problem. Diplomacy does.

Jim Lindsay:

So in essence, it's the ultimate security dilemma. As you seek to gain advantage, you make your adversary feel more insecure, which leads them to pursue behaviors that will make you more insecure. And it goes on and on.

Michael Krepon:

That's the way it seems to work. There are matters of scale, and matters of scale matter. So the United States and the Soviet Union went completely off the charts in their competition, off the charts. 125,000 nuclear warheads were produced since 1945. And most of them were produced, they were made in the USA or made in the Soviet Union. We're also seeing scaled down competition now between India and Pakistan and between India and China. So one of the really hard problems in the president's inbox is there's not just one nuclear armed rivalry as there was during the Cold War. We got four of them.

Michael Krepon:

We got the US and Russia, of course, the US and China, that one's heating up. We got India and Pakistan, and we got India and China. And there is disputed territory on both the east and west of the subcontinent, and there are clashes. And the clashes between India and Pakistan on the one hand and India and China on the other are becoming increasingly testy. And the P5 statement that you mentioned, where the old permanent members of the UN Security Council say nuclear war shouldn't be fought, can't be won, that's all well and good. But most of the nuclear danger now, not all of it, but most of it is happening in Asia. And the P5 structure really doesn't grab hold of that.

Jim Lindsay:

Obviously India's not a member of the P5, just for starters.

Michael Krepon:

And Pakistan as well. And there are four countries in Asia now that are increasing their nuclear stockpile. Pakistan is doing this in a very concerted fashion. They have four plutonium production reactors that don't show up in the news. India has a two-front problem, and they're working the problem, including with nuclear. And China is expanding its force structure in a pretty significant way.

Jim Lindsay:

Michael, I want to get into the question of how to make arms control work for the world we currently live in. But before we do that, maybe we should talk about how we made arms control work in the past. And I guess my first question to you would be how did arms control get off the ground in the early years of nuclear competition? Because obviously arms control was not the first option that the United States and the Soviet Union had, in large part because arms control requires you to do deals with people you don't trust, and people that you worry are going to say one thing and do another. So how did arms control take root?

Michael Krepon:

Arms control, as you say, Jim, wasn't the first option. The first option was disarmament, abolition. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the genius that corralled other geniuses to produce two types of atomic bonds in Los Alamos applied his extraordinary intellect after the war ended to come up with a plan for nuclear disarmament, and it had no chance of success. An Iron Curtain was falling across the European continent, and Joseph Stalin, how could you possibly trust Joseph Stalin? So disarmament was the first option, and it was quickly discarded. And it was replaced by the pursuit of dominance. Dominance was the second option.

Jim Lindsay:

We were going to win.

Michael Krepon:

It came pretty quickly. The Soviet Union was hell-bent on getting atomic bombs, and we upped the ante with hydrogen weapons, and the Soviet Union followed suit in 1952, '49 US, '52 Soviet Union, hydrogen bonds, unlimited destructive capacity. And the arms race was on full bore. Arms control became the third option, and it wasn't even conceptualized until the very beginning of the Kennedy Administration, the end of the Eisenhower Administration. And there were all these brilliant people in a couple of zip codes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who said, "Look, we need to deal with mutual vulnerability. We don't trust the other guy. They don't trust us. We got to deal with problems that are in front of us."

Michael Krepon:

And the first problem was the problem of surprise attack. And the second problem was that this arms race was being manifested by nuclear tests in the atmosphere, which were a horrific public health problem. And it took a terrible crisis, the closest we've come to nuclear exchanges over Cuba to get arms control started. And it started where it was most needed, which was to stop these tests in the atmosphere, testing by the United States, Soviet Union and Great Britain. China continued to test and France did as well. The last test in the atmosphere was in 1980, but testing limitations were the first real gain of arms control. Arms control showed that you could still do business with an adversary on issues of common concern, and it took off from there.

Jim Lindsay:

And obviously the issue with atmospheric testing is the fallout, radioactive fallout, which then ends up, among other things, in the food chain.

Michael Krepon:

Mother's milk, the food chain, children's bones. We knew that this was a huge problem back then. We didn't know the scope of the problem because it would take decades to really be numbered. And some people claimed it wasn't that big of a problem, and that not falling behind the Soviet Union was a bigger problem than stopping atmospheric tests. So we had a big debate over this partial Limited Test Ban Treaty, and almost 20 senators voted against it because they just didn't trust the Soviet Union and they dared not fall behind.

Jim Lindsay:

So looking at the edifice that was built on top of what was originally the partial Test Ban Treaty, we had both global treaties, but also bilateral treaties, United States and the Soviet Union. I should correct myself, not just treaties but other agreements or arrangements. Which are the ones that you look back on and see as being the most significant, Michael?

Michael Krepon:

The architecture of arms control during the Cold War was built around treaties. They were tacit agreements that were really important. And after horrific crises over Berlin and Cuba, probably the most important tacit agreement was that Washington and Moscow agreed not to play with fire in each other's backyards. And then there were codes of conduct to prevent dangerous military practices. There were confidence in security building measures, nuclear risk reduction measures, communication channels were open. All of that was part and parcel of arms control, but the real weight-bearing instruments, they were treaties, and they were multilateral treaties and bilateral treaties. The most important multilateral treaty happened, and we tend to forget about this, during Lyndon Baines Johnson's Administration. LBJ was convinced, after a lot of back and forth within his administration, to pursue a nonproliferation treaty. And the principal argument against this, and it had very high-standing supporters in the State Department, including the Secretary of State Dean Rusk, was that you know what? We needed to supply our allies with nuclear weapons to deal with the Soviet threat. And LBJ was persuaded.

Michael Krepon:

There was this newly formed Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. It was set up at the very beginning of the Kennedy Administration. People at ACDA and the Pentagon combined forces to convince LBJ that nonproliferation can work, but it won't work if we supply all our friends and allies with nuclear weapons. And the deciding factor, I think the critical factor was that the Chinese fired off their first nuclear test. And the US and the Soviet Union said, "You know what? We can work together on this proliferation problem." And this treaty is absolutely fundamental. And after LBJ, there was another fundamental treaty. It was negotiated during the Nixon Administration, and it was a bilateral treaty, US-Soviet. And in this treaty, both superpowers agreed to enshrine mutual vulnerability or at least to recognize it in an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited the number of defensive sites in both countries in such a way that it was impossible to mount a national missile defense, even if the technology could somehow work.

Jim Lindsay:

Which it didn't.

Michael Krepon:

It helped that the technology was nowhere near working, and it's nowhere near working decades later. And the Pentagon really wasn't enthusiastic about spending money on missile defenses. They were much more enthusiastic about spending money to improve offenses. And so the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was put in place in 1972. There were only two votes against it, Jim, in the US Senate, and you probably remember that. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty did not work in stopping or even slowing down the offensive competition, at least not initially because the offensive technologies then gearing up for deployment were irresistible, and they consisted of putting more than one warhead on top of a single missile. And we knew it would work, and it was cost effective.

Michael Krepon:

And since the Soviet Union was building new ballistic missiles and deploying them like sausages in the late 1960s and early 1970s, these multiple war-headed missiles, called MIRVs were the answer. And so the numbers just rose and rose and rose on the offensive side, even with this Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty became instrumental in stopping increases and facilitating deep cuts only when Ronald Reagan hooked up with Mikhail Gorbachev, and this was three decades after the ABM Treaty was negotiated.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, there's an irony there, isn't there, Michael? Because Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency and won in 1980 in good part by criticizing arms control. He opposed what was then SALT II, the second round of limitations on offensive missiles, which the Carter Administration had negotiated. So how is it that Reagan played into this story, where he becomes in some ways a visionary, I think that's a word to use to describe him, when he didn't seem to be that in 1979, 1980.

Michael Krepon:

Reagan was an innocent in many ways with respect to nuclear theology, but he wasn't a bystander. He was absolutely committed to preventing Armageddon on his watch. He never attended church or hardly ever attended church, but he did believe in his scripture, and he believed that Armageddon was out there. And he also believed that the old-fashioned kind of arms control, strategic arms limitation agreements didn't get the job done. The man was an abolitionist at heart, and we didn't know it until he revealed himself as such during a summit meeting, an amazing summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik. And people were stunned once they found out about what Reagan and Gorbachev were talking about at Reykjavik, because Gorbachev had as little use for nuclear theology and deterrence theology as Ronald Reagan did. And lo and behold, here they are. They are shocking the people around them by seeking to dispense with force structure, runs on the escalation ladder. Forget about deep cuts. Let's go for abolition. And they're trading proposals for abolition.

Michael Krepon:

And they didn't succeed because Reagan's commitment to avoid Armageddon, and Reagan's antipathy to nuclear weapons included something called the Strategic Defense Initiative. The man wanted to make, as he said, nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. And the way he wanted to do that was to set up this futuristic defense against ballistic missiles that would be based in space. And for a while, not too long, that hung up Reagan and Gorbachev. It certainly prevented success at Reykjavik. But soon thereafter, people figured out that there were workarounds the Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev figured that out. If he and Reagan could agree to deep cuts, there'd be no need for a Strategic Defense Initiative. And Reagan was unique in so many ways, but one way was that he was able to hold seemingly contrary views in his own head and live comfortably with them. The guy was an ardent anti-Communist, and he hated nuclear weapons. Previous to Reagan, that was a null set. And he loved the Strategic Defense Initiative, and he wanted abolition, and he wanted deep cuts if he couldn't get abolition.

Jim Lindsay:

So let's talk a little bit about the demise of arms control, Michael, because obviously the process that Reagan helped bring about did eventually lead to really deep cuts in the arsenals of both the United States and what was the Soviet Union but became Russia. And it also eliminated certain classes or a certain class of nuclear weapons, intermediate ballistic missiles, that was in the INF Treaty of 1987. But over the past quarter century, we have seen much of that arms control edifice come undone, be actively dismantled. The ABM Treaty was terminated by George W. Bush in 2001. And right now we just renewed for another five years, I guess it's a New START Treaty. But pretty much most of the rest of the formal edifice has fallen by the wayside. Why is that?

Michael Krepon:

Jim, I'm going to step back a second because it's barely recognized in our own country how successful arms control was by the end of the Cold War. All of the key elements of nuclear peace were in place when the Cold War ended. So there were reliable lines of communication. There was trust between Washington and Moscow. There was so much trust that US technical experts at our nuclear laboratories went over to the former Soviet Union and worked hand in hand with the bomb makers in the former Soviet Union to reduce dangers associated with fissile material and nuclear warheads. There was lines of communication. There was trust. There were four structure reductions, massive four structure reductions, treaty driven. There were confidence in security building measures. There were nuclear risk reduction measures. Dangerous military practices had come to a halt, and there were agreements associated with them. All of this was in place when the Cold War ended. And two decades later, here we are, and much of this edifice has fallen down.

Michael Krepon:

Why? Well there were several reasons. It fell down because the Cold War ended, and a lot of people felt the edifice wasn't needed anymore. The only place that the United States and the Russian Federation were equal to when the Cold War ended was the numbers on treaties. And in every other respect, we were utterly unequal. And people said to themselves, "Why do we need these treaties? The Soviet Union's on its back. The Soviet Union has been dissolved, and the Russian Federation is undergoing a great depression, which is even more severe, relatively speaking, than the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s. We don't need equality or treaties that enshrine equality with the Russian Federation anymore." Bipartisanship fell apart after the Cold War ended. And arms control-

Jim Lindsay:

Bipartisanship in the United States.

Michael Krepon:

Bipartisanship in the United States fell apart when the Cold War began to end, and it became increasingly severe over time. And you can't do arms control without bipartisan. You certainly can't do treaties that require two-thirds of the senators present voting when you don't have bipartisanship. The Republican Party changed in such significant ways.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, and that's why the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty went down to defeat in, what, 1999.

Michael Krepon:

The stalling out of arms control really began in the second term of the Clinton Administration. Clinton had a hell of a time getting two-thirds of the Senate to agree to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which was negotiated by Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. And then he crashed and burned trying to get the Senate to agree to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that was on his watch, that he negotiated. So things started to come apart in the second term of the Clinton Administration. Bipartisanship, gone. Treaties, only if a Republican president wants one, and we're going to make it extremely hard for a Democratic president to get one. It's hard enough to do strategic arms control when there's rough equality between the rivals. And it's way harder to do arms control when two of your competitors are not happy with the status quo. And Russia and China are not now happy with the status quo.

Jim Lindsay:

It sounds like, Michael, that part of what happened over the last quarter century is that the lessons that were learned early in the Cold War were forgotten or lost after the Cold War ended. I think in particular about the George W. Bush Administration's decision to leave the ABM treaty. The argument was we wanted to be free of the constraints so we could develop missile defenses, but doing so, increase the insecurity of other countries, Russia, China. And they responded and have responded over the past two decades by developing technologies that could defeat any missile defense. Because while Americans may see it as defensive, Russia and China view these as potentially being used in an offensive mode, enabling a first strike or a disabling strike. And so they've developed things like hypersonic weapons and the like to do so.

Jim Lindsay:

So thinking about that then and looking forward, projecting forward, we have this world in which it's no longer Washington and Moscow, as you point out. We have multiple bilateral rivalries, and we also have interlocking trilateral rivalries. We are in a position here in America, in which it's hard to get consensus on any kind of policy. And it's doubly hard to get two-thirds plus one of the senators voting present to vote on a treaty or vote in favor of a treaty. So how do you think about arms control in the current world in which we live?

Michael Krepon:

I think arms control will stage a comeback. It doesn't look like it now. I think it will because political leaders will face the same dilemmas that US and Soviet leaders faced during their arms race. That vulnerability exists. It can't be corrected. And nuclear dangers have to be diminished. It's a function of leadership to reduce nuclear dangers. How it happens is going to be different, I think, for the reasons you mentioned. Part of it is structural. We're going to rebuild, and there'll be some familiar elements in the rebuild, but I think basically the rebuild will center around norms in confidence security and nuclear risk reduction measures.

Jim Lindsay:

As opposed to formal treaties.

Michael Krepon:

We still have some formal treaties left, and they're rather important. But given the difficulty of doing new treaties and the extreme difficulties of doing multilateral treaties, I think we have to rely more heavily on norms. What are the three norms that matter most? The norm of no battlefield use. There's no treaty among nuclear armed states that codifies this. This is a result of seven plus decades of diplomatic and military practice. We have to lengthen and strengthen that norm because our lives depend on it. The norm of no testing nuclear weapons is also crucial because every test is a declaration of military utility. And we don't want that. That's not a message we want to convey.

Jim Lindsay:

And no country has violated that informal moratorium that's existed since the early 1990s with the exception of North Korea.

Michael Krepon:

North Korea is the outlier. All of these nuclear arms states carry out experiments.

Jim Lindsay:

You can do a lot now with computer simulations is my understanding.

Michael Krepon:

You can do a lot with fancy computers. But tests that provide advances in military utility, they're already two decades behind us, and we can work with that. It's crucial to work with that. I think the third most essential norm is nonproliferation. We have a big problem on our hands with Iran. And if Iran succeeds in acquiring sufficient fissile material, and engineers and manufactures warheads, then we no longer have four nuclear armed rivals, we have five, and perhaps a sixth to come within the Middle East. So it's crucial-

Jim Lindsay:

By which you mean Saudi Arabia will either develop or acquire a nuclear weapon? Or do you have something else in mind, Michael?

Michael Krepon:

I think that hedging strategies are already underway in the Middle East, given how far Iran has moved in the direction of a nuclear capability. And it's not just Saudi Arabia. The UAE is hedging. Turkey will be hedging. So I'd put Saudi Arabia at the front of that line, but the main point is the Iranian nuclear program has to be stopped short of nuclear weapons.

Jim Lindsay:

So let me ask you a closing question, Michael. Given that broader context in which you're hoping to revive arms control in this complicated geometrical space, with potentially new countries entering and further complicating already complex negotiations and diplomacy, what is it that you want to see the Biden Administration do? What should be at the top of President Biden's inbox?

Michael Krepon:

His inbox, Jim, is so full.

Jim Lindsay:

Yeah. Well, that's partly why I asked the question.

Michael Krepon:

Every one of your podcasts adds something to Joe Biden's inbox. And he's begun talks with Russia. He's trying to start talks with China. These need to proceed. But I would urge people in the administration to think more broadly about a nuclear risk reduction strategy built around lengthening and strengthening norms and engaging outliers, not North Korea, but India and Pakistan, along with the P5 in a process that is designed to reinforce norms and to promote the negotiation of confidence building measures. And they could be multilateral, they can be bilateral. But the man, I really don't know how he wakes up in the morning.

Jim Lindsay:

I don't know how he falls asleep at night, that's given everything that is in that inbox. And again, many of the issues in the president's inbox really fall into the category of being situations that need to be managed or mitigated as opposed to problems that you can resolve. And I think that's a major challenge going forward. And again, these things obviously interconnect, making it all the more difficult. We may want Russia to be more cooperative on nuclear weapons, but we're also trotting on, from Moscow's point of view, its interests on a whole range of issues. And so I think some important trade offs that have to be made by the administration.

Michael Krepon:

Couldn't agree more.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, on that point of agreement then, we're going to close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest is Michael Krepon, Co-founder and Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center. His new book is Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control. Michael, thank you very much for joining me today.

Michael Krepon:

Jim, I'm grateful. Take care.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox in Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen. And leave us a review. They help us get noticed and improve the show. The books and articles mentioned in this episode are listed on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed in The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, none of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis with senior producer Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe also did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Zoe. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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