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Deterrence: Its Past and Future

November 12, 2010

Hoover Institution, NTI

Sam Nunn

Speech/Testimony

Thank you very much, and thanks to all of you for attending. We have an ongoing and continuing partnership between the Hoover Institution and the organization that I chair, the Nuclear Threat Initiative.  We coordinate the Nuclear Security Project that George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger and I—along with Sid Drell and Jim Goodby and Max Kampelman and others who have served in public life—have been part of. And we are here to talk about the very important subject of deterrence.

Napoleon supposedly once said to his gathered troops before they went into battle, “You can do anything with your bayonet but sit on it.” The nuclear equation is almost the opposite.  We live in an age that has changed rapidly—with no Soviet Union and no Warsaw Pact.  More nations are seeking enrichment technology around the globe.  We have the challenges of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea.  And we have the threat of catastrophic terrorism. So we are, as we said in our article in The Wall Street Journal, reaching a tipping point.  

Four years ago in that article, George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger and I called for a global enterprise to keep nuclear weapons and materials out of dangerous hands to avoid the proliferation of those weapons and materials and ultimately to end them as a threat to the world.

We called for ten specific steps and went beyond a general concept of moving toward a world without nuclear weapons to include hard steps required to be able to build the confidence for moving in that direction and eventually arrive at that goal.  For the last two days, we have taken a deep dive into a number of those steps, including the concept of deterrence as we know it now and how deterrence would evolve as we move down the scale of nuclear weapons, eventually going to a world without nuclear weapons.  We have looked at the whole question of verification and most importantly, the question of enforcement—how we would develop the will and the institutions to enforce agreements in today’s world or in a world where we are moving down the scale of nuclear weapons.

We’ve talked about the past, we’ve talked about the present, and we’ve talked about the future.   I’ve described the vision of moving toward a world without nuclear weapons as beginning to climb a very high mountain with the peak fogged in.  Our challenges are to find a pathway or many pathways up the mountain, to talk many into joining us in going up that mountain  --because this cannot be a unilateral mission -- and to identify a base camp or a series of base camps that we can clearly achieve as we eventually scale the peak.  

It is easy to see only the potential for avalanches that may come down the mountain, including, but not limited to, North Korea and Iran. We could lose sight of base camp and common paths leading upward.  Fortunately, George Shultz, Bill Perry, Sid Drell, Jim Goodby and others here at Stanford and the Hoover Institution have assembled a team of experts who have been very helpful in identifying the obstacles and the avalanches, as well as the paths leading upward that we must find ways to pursue.

I have personally been engaged in trying to reduce nuclear dangers since the early 1970s. On my first trip to NATO as a U.S. Senator, I became acutely aware of the tactical nuclear weapon and conventional posture of the United States and NATO—and the corresponding posture of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. At a very young age, as a Senator, it dawned on me that we had a very high probability of using those tactical nuclear weapons and escalating right up the ladder, if we did have a conflict in Europe.  It is very easy in a conference like this to spend so much time analyzing the challenges that we almost inevitably come to a point of paralysis-by-analysis.  It is easy to get into a gloom-and-doom mode because we all do see the huge challenges. 

We were in one of those modes for a brief period today. So I decided to jot down a few things I would share with this audience. This is a list of things that have been accomplished, that gives me room for encouragement and gives me the energy for what I think is a very important quest of protecting God’s universe as well as American security.

Let me just share a few of those with you:

  1. A half-dozen nations have given up nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons programs in recent years: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Libya, and Syria (though inadvertently).
  2. We have dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons in the world, with the Soviet arsenal having changed dramatically. Three of those nations that inherited Soviet nuclear weapons have given them up entirely.  Russia has gone down the scale of nuclear weapons, as has the United States, rather dramatically to about two-thirds of what we had at one time.
  3. On protecting nuclear materials, which is a very important topic of our conference and a focus of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, we have moved significantly in the right direction.  On a scale of one to ten—one being a poor grade, ten being a perfect grade—in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years, we have moved to at least a “six” or “seven,” in terms of securing nuclear material in the former Soviet Union.  When I use the word “we,” I am not talking about just the United States, I am talking about partnerships.
  4. We have helped Russia deactivate thousands of nuclear warheads and launchers. We have worked not only in the nuclear arena but also the chemical arena. We have a long way to go on the biological side. If you look at the light bulbs in this room or any other measure of electricity, 10% of our electricity in this country comes from highly enriched uranium that was in warheads aimed at the United States 25 years ago, then blended down and made into reactor fuel for power generation.
  5. We now have a well-funded effort called the Global Threat Reduction Initiative in the Department of Energy, started in the Bush administration, to help secure dangerous nuclear material, wherever it is, all over the world. Substantial progress has been made. Along the same lines, a Washington, D.C. gathering in April of this year with over 40 heads of state, hosted by President Obama, ended with pledges to get dangerous nuclear material secured wherever it exists.  Much work remains to be done.  But it is a huge start.
  6. We have a better funded, better supported and more capable International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a key ingredient in controlling proliferation.  There is still more we need to do to strengthen the IAEA, but we have come a long way.
  7. The president of the United States and the president of Russia pledged to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. This pledge was endorsed by heads of state at a special summit meeting of the UN Security Council in September of last year.
  8. Groups of former leaders from 14 countries, including most recently in Russia, have endorsed the vision and the steps outlined in our Wall Street Journal article, in total or in part. That is very encouraging.
  9. We have signed an arms control treaty with Russia.  That treaty has the potential to revitalize the verification regime.  Without the treaty, we will not have a verification regime.  It also includes confidence building and makes modest reductions in the number of nuclear weapons in both the United States and Russia.  This treaty of course awaits U.S. Senate ratification and Russian Duma ratification.
  10. We and our organization, NTI, are delighted that we have been able to help create a new organization, the World Institute for Nuclear Security.  This organization, based in Vienna, works with people who deal with dangerous nuclear materials around the world to develop and share best practices for materials security. We have more than 300 members. So we are making progress in terms of the awareness issue, in communicating how important it is to protect nuclear material worldwide.

We have with us Bill Potter, who runs the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies.  Bill Potter is doing a marvelous job in helping educate young people from all over the globe in the dangers that we face in the nuclear arena. Those young people in many cases (because Bill’s been around a long time!) are now in leadership positions around the globe.  Bill, you have important work in education and it makes a big difference.

Finally, we have a lot of work to do in the next few years. Let me just name a few things in closing.

First of all, a nuclear fuel bank can give countries assurance that they will have a steady supply of civil nuclear fuel; this can help countries avoid the need for building new uranium enrichment facilities which is a proliferation threat at this time.

Second, we need transparency around the number of nuclear weapons. Declarations about the number of nuclear weapons in their arsenals have been provided by the United States, Great Britain and France, and we hope others will join. Without this kind of baseline, our work will be very difficult. We also need a baseline inventory declaration of nuclear materials held by all states. Without this transparency it will be difficult to be able to have the kind of data we need for verification and enforcement, as we move toward a world without nuclear weapons.

Third, we have growing support, although we acknowledge there is a long way to go, for a fissile material cut-off treaty which would stop the production of fissile material for weapons around the globe.

And I would list as number four, changes to our declaratory policy which are now being debated.  Declaratory policy is what we say about the purpose of nuclear weapons and how we would use them. In my view, changes to declaratory policy must be coupled with changes in operational doctrine. We must not simply declare but also demonstrate through changes to our operations and force posture that things have changed.

We need to add to this list ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which can help contain and prevent proliferation in new states around the globe.

We also can continue to try to persuade people all over the world that Iran and North Korea and other would-be proliferators are a threat not just to the United States of America, but to global security.

Finally on my list, we know that more than 90% of the nuclear weapons are located in Russia and the United States and that is true of nuclear weapons materials, too. One of the great omissions of the post-Cold War era is that Russia does not have a place in the Euro-Atlantic security regime. It’s not easy, but we’ve got to start debating and talking with the Russians. That kind of debate and discussion is just beginning and in my view, is tremendously important, not just in the nuclear arena, but in the biological arena, the energy arena, the environmental arena, and other arenas. Russia needs to be part of, in some fashion, the Euro-Atlantic security and economic zone.

And finally on that score, the Obama Administration, as well as the NATO leadership, is talking to the Russians about some type of cooperation on missile defense, which could be a game changer. With the United States and Russia having the vast majority of the weapons, it is pretty apparent that if we could find ways to work together to defend against those weapons, people would realize that that perhaps we could have many fewer of them—certainly fewer on prompt-launch status.

So those are just a few of the areas that we need to work on. I could make you another list—but I won’t—of all the challenges, avalanches and rock slides that could come down the mountain, but let me just say that if you look at where we are now, and you look where we were twenty years ago, remarkable progress has been made.  I think particularly our young people need to put that in perspective.

A large part of all this is based on George Shultz—his inspiration, his vision, his leadership. George has truly inspired us all.  I view this overall effort as critical to protecting our nation’s security and also God’s universe.  We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe. What George and the Hoover Institution are doing is, in my view, making the cooperative side run a whole lot faster. Thank you, George Shultz, and thanks to everybody here at Hoover and Stanford.