When Sam Nunn—a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the current co-chairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative—wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal in January with some of the heaviest hitters in the U.S. foreign policy establishment endorsing the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons, the article created quite a stir.
In the essay, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Nunn joined former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry in arguing that the United States should endorse a long-term vision of eliminating nuclear weapons as well as a number of specific short-term steps to advance that goal.
The authors said that reasserting the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world and pursuing practical measures to achieve that objective would be a bold initiative consistent with America’s best traditions. Furthermore, the effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations.
“Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair and urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible. We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal,” they wrote.
In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Nunn said the Wall Street Journal essay generated even more of a response than he expected and will hopefully pave the way for a vigorous global debate on the future of nuclear weapons.
“What it did in the United States—because of the people involved, two former secretaries of state, a former secretary of defense, and myself—was open up a lot of safe ground for people to discuss these issues in a meaningful way. It opened up a lot of dialogue,” Nunn said.
He acknowledged that the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons is very ambitious, especially given the obvious fact that nuclear weapons have already been invented—and can’t be un-invented.
“My response is, yes, the genie is out of the bottle, but there are a lot of other genies about to come out of the bottle. We can stop that, and we can mitigate the risk of the genie that is already out of the bottle,” he said.
Nunn noted that a growing number of nations have signaled their interest in obtaining nuclear weapons and if they succeed, the global political and security environment would become vastly more complex and threatening.
One of the most respected national security and foreign policy experts in the United States, Nunn served in the Senate from 1972 to 1996. He was an influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and was known for hard-line views on security matters.
Nunn decided not to run for re-election in 1996, but he has remained deeply involved in the debate on security issues in the decade since he left the Senate. A professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech University, he is also chairman of the board at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington think tank.
Nunn devotes most of his time to serving as co-chairman and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nonprofit organization working to reduce the global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Nunn’s leadership at NTI was the consequence of a number of conversations he had in 2000 with CNN founder Ted Turner, who was concerned about lax security for many of the nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union.
Initially, Turner had a more sweeping nuclear agenda than Nunn did. Turner was a strong advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons; Nunn was more focused on immediate steps that could be taken to lessen the danger of nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands.
“I didn’t feel like you could do away with nuclear weapons any time soon. I felt like it had to be a step-by-step process. I felt like we had 20 years of work to tackle before we could think about the possibility of envisioning the elimination of nuclear weapons,” Nunn explained.
After months of discussions, Turner and Nunn founded NTI in January 2001, with Turner offering 0 million in Time Warner stock. Its mission is to strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. NTI seeks to raise public awareness, serve as a catalyst for creative thinking, and take direct action to reduce these threats.
Nuclear issues, Nunn argues, should be debated beyond a small circle of experts and policymakers, and closing the gap between threat and response must become a global priority.
Nunn emphasized that NTI is an operational organization that develops, shapes and implements the projects it funds. As such, NTI has created model programs to inspire private and governmental efforts toward threat reduction. For example, it helped to create private-sector employment opportunities for former Soviet Union weapons scientists and defense workers who were impacted by the downsizing of nuclear cities in the former Soviet Union. It also led an international effort to permanently remove and eliminate up to two dozen nuclear bombs’ worth of material from a shutdown civilian nuclear power reactor in Aktau, Kazakhstan.
In addition, NTI is working with the Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance to bring together health experts and ministry of health officials from Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to improve their ability to detect and respond to infectious disease threats as a region.
NTI also produced a docudrama about nuclear terror called “Last Best Chance.” The film, an effort to raise public awareness about the dangers of nuclear terrorism, shows al-Qaeda operatives organizing three separate operations to secure nuclear weapons.
Practical and precise, Nunn can also speak with passion and power about the perils of nuclear weapons. Nunn said his thinking about nuclear weapons has evolved and he now sees real value in setting forth a vision of a nuclear weapons-free world and then identifying specific policies to make that vision attainable.
According to Nunn, the world was both smart and lucky to survive the first 60 years of the nuclear age, but he pointed out that there were some very close calls, including the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the 1979 scare when a technician in Omaha accidentally loaded a simulated attack into the U.S. warning system, and the 1983 Soviet warning glitch that falsely showed five nuclear weapons launched against it by the United States.
However, Nunn cautioned that our good fortune so far should not make global leaders complacent. “In the future, it won’t be enough to be lucky once or twice. If we’re to avoid a catastrophe, all nuclear powers will have to be highly capable, competent, rational and lucky—every single time.”
Nunn said that in addition to NTI, there are many other important preventive efforts that deserve support: the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the Proliferation Security Initiative, as well as the rollback of Libya’s nuclear program and U.N. Resolution 1540, which states the importance of preventing non-state actors from getting weapons of mass destruction.
These initiatives, he said, represent progress, but the nuclear threat is growing, not receding. There are many developments that concern Nunn, including the danger of terrorists actively seeking and possibly acquiring weapons of mass destruction, in addition to the fact that there are nuclear materials, often lightly secured, in more than 40 nations.
Nunn is also worried that the knowledge to build nuclear weapons is widely available today, that the number of nuclear weapons states is increasing—with North Korea and Iran’s programs likely to spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and Asia—and that Russia and the United States continue to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles that can hit their targets in less than 30 minutes.
“The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point. The world is heading in a very dangerous direction,” he warned.
Nunn argues that there are specific steps the United States can take with other countries to begin moving the world in the right direction. These include working with Russians to eliminate weapons from hair-trigger alert and increasing warning and decision times for the United States and Russia; engaging with other nations to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world; working harder and faster to secure and eliminate nuclear weapons materials that could be bought or sold by terrorists; developing better transparency and accountability measures; creating an international nuclear fuel bank; pushing for the near-term elimination of short-range battlefield nuclear weapons; bolstering verification capabilities; and redoubling U.S. efforts to ease regional confrontations that increase the demand side of the nuclear equation.
Although Nunn acknowledges the path ahead is difficult, he offered a specific example of hope: Under the U.S.-Russian Agreement on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) signed in 1993, 500 tons of highly enriched uranium from the former Soviet Union is being blended down to low-enriched uranium, which will then be used for nuclear fuel power plants in the United States. Shipments began in 1995 and will continue through 2013.
Doing basic calculations, Nunn said that because 20 percent of all electricity in the United States comes from nuclear power plants and 50 percent of all nuclear fuel used in the United States comes from Russia through the HEU Agreement, this means that one out of every 10 light bulbs in the United States today is powered by material that was in Soviet nuclear warheads pointed at us only a few years ago.
“This is an example of the Biblical call to turn swords into ploughshares,” he said.
Nunn has focused on the U.S. relationship with Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union throughout his career. While in the Senate, he was co-author, with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, of the Nunn-Lugar Act, which was passed in 1991 and established the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. This program has provided U.S. funding and expertise to help the former Soviet Union safeguard and dismantle its enormous stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as related materials and delivery systems.
In 2003, the U.S. Congress expanded the program and a year later, Nunn-Lugar funds were committed for the first time outside of the former Soviet Union to destroy chemical weapons in Albania. Nunn and Lugar traveled to Russia, Ukraine and Albania in August to celebrate the 15th anniversary of their program.
Nunn is also part of a small group of U.S. and Russian leaders that has been meeting to develop a broad agenda for President Vladimir Putin and President George Bush to consider. The U.S. group includes Nunn, Shultz and Kissinger, all of whom have met with Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
Nunn said the group is discussing a range of issues, including Kosovo, missile defense, energy, climate change, Iran and North Korea. “The idea of our meetings is to feed ideas to the leaders. The two presidents have a good relationship, but too often there doesn’t seem to be very much meat on the bones. I’ve never understood why. There is so much to be done,” he said.
Since leaving the Senate, Nunn said his career has been challenging and fulfilling, and that he has been better able to frame the debate than create policy from his current position.
“When I was in the Senate, I was juggling 1,400 balls at once. But I loved it. That’s why I served for 24 years. I can focus more now. But I can’t do as much as I could in the Senate,” he said. “In some ways there is no way to match that. I don’t have anywhere the power now I had in the Senate as chairman of the Armed Services Committee.”
Nunn has not ruled out returning to government as a senior cabinet official in a future administration, but said the circumstances must be right and the policy agenda must be ambitious. He is considering a 2008 presidential bid as an independent candidate.
But for now, he said he has a full agenda and will continue to outline a broad vision of a world without nuclear weapons and describe practical steps to advance this vision.
“The top of the mountain is a world without nuclear weapons. We can’t even see the top of the mountain now. That is why it is important to have that vision. What we can see is that we are heading down. We are going in the wrong direction. There are a lot of steps to higher ground. We need to start heading toward higher ground.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.