Co-Founder, Co-Chair, and Strategic Advisor
Sam Nunn Discusses North Korea and Russia on Political Rewind
Below is a transcript. To listen to the interview, click here.
MR. NIGUT: We are here in the studio with Jim Galloway, the political writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Also the overseer, the editor of the Political Insider blog. Jim, welcome to show today.
MR. GALLOWAY: Great to be here, wouldn't have missed it for the world.
MR. NIGUT: And Lori Geary, the former political reporter for WSB-TV is with us again today. She now is the CEO — do you call yourself the CEO?
MS. GEARY: President.
MR. NIGUT: President of a new media company.
MS. GEARY: Yes, Lori Geary Media.
MR. NIGUT: There you go.
MS. GEARY: Just enjoying it.
MR. NIGUT: There you go. I'll bet there's a website to follow.
MS. GEARY: There is, thanks for the plug though.
MR. NIGUT: And we're very, very pleased that we have on the phone today, Georgia's former United States Senator Sam Nunn. Sam Nunn served for 24 years in the United States Senate, where he became one of the leading authorities on military matters, on foreign affairs. He was the chair of the Armed Services Committee. He was the subcommittee chair of — what was essentially, I think I'm right, Senator, an earlier version of the Intelligence Committee, is that correct?
MR. NUNN: Well, it was the Subcommittee on Investigations which goes way back to the infamous days of the McCarthy committee. But we didn't run it in that direction.
MR. NIGUT: Okay, yes, yes, I guess not. And of course also since leaving the Senate in , you were the — one of the founders, a co-founder of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit which you put together to try to curtail nuclear weapons, to end the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and to prevent their proliferation, and you remain as co-chair of that organization. I think I've got that right.
MR. NUNN: That is right. Ted Turner and I jointly started that. And I have been CEO and co-chair and I'll remain co-chair but former Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz is now the CEO. And we've focused for the last, what, almost 15 years on the question of protecting nuclear materials, making sure we don't have catastrophic terrorism and trying to promote cooperation between the United States and Russia and other nuclear powers to make sure we protect all nuclear materials and keep them out of dangerous hands.
MR. NIGUT: Well, clearly we have you on a day where you were going to have a lot to say about what's going on in the world.
Mr. GALLOWAY: You know, we're not going to call it good luck, we'll just say it's appropriate.
MR. NIGUT: It is appropriate because the world is still reacting with some shock to this statement that President Trump made yesterday.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal safe and as I said they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.
MR. NIGUT: And Senator, just a few hours ago President Trump amplified on that message by tweeting this: "My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. Hopefully, we will never have to use this power but there will never be a time when we are not the most powerful nation in the world." How did you react when you heard that remark?
MR. NUNN: Well I think, first of all, when you're dealing with North Korea, I think statements we make ought to be very carefully framed. I prefer the approach that Mattis, Secretary of Defense, took this morning with a very carefully worded statement that was very appropriate and gave the kind of warning without causing great alarm around the world and possible reactions that we don't want in North Korea and other places. In fairness to President Trump, he is trying to deter conflict by North Korea and this behavior by conflict. But saying that we were going to respond to North Korean threats, which basically occur probably every month, North Korea, always wants to get attention. And they always have extreme rhetoric and they're always making threats. Mattis basically framed his statement to talk about North Korean actions and that is the way it ought to be framed.
But one of the things that I would add is that we’ve got to be careful about South Korea. We can't give the impression to South Korea, our ally, and also this applies to Japan — that we care only about threats against America. We are sworn to help protect the South Koreans. And we need to keep that in mind because we do not want to see a split between the United States and the South Koreans based on their fear of some of our own language.
MR. GALLOWAY: And we do have to remember that the 38th parallel is the distance between Atlanta and Marietta.
MR. NUNN: That is exactly right and it's a very tense place, Jim. And the other thing we've got to be, I think, aware of is that we've had a real breakthrough, and this is to the credit of the Trump administration, on the UN passing very strong sanctions which will cut probably $1 billion as estimated from the exports of the North Koreans and that was a big breakthrough that just happened. And I'm afraid that this recent rhetoric has taken the spotlight off of that, because not only is US-China cooperation essential to basically get North Korea to comply with the UN resolutions and begin to move away from their nuclear program and their nuclear weapons, but also it's a test of US-China relations, which in the long run may be the most important part of all, and that is can we work together to resolve peacefully this conflict? If we can, that is a great news not only for the North Korean question but for US-China relationship and making the world a safer place.
MS. GEARY: Senator, it's great to be here with you today, and today of all days. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. But my question is can you give us your overall sense of what the situation is because I turned on CNN this morning and they had a report from Hawaii saying now if a missile is launched it takes 20 minutes and Hawaiians have 20 minutes and then this emergency blast goes on. And I was thinking to myself are we there, are we there yet or you know are we still — you know there is still a great chance that this is going to be diplomatically settled.
MR. NUNN: Lori, first of all thank you for — after being a great CEO and a former CEO, still being willing to have discussions with Jim and Bill and me.
MS. GEARY: Someone has to, right?
MR. NUNN: Putting this in perspective, I think the last thing the North Koreans would do is launch an attack against the United States. I think if they are going to do that they realize that would be end of not only their regime but it would be end of their country and that would be particularly true if they launched a nuclear weapon. So I don't think it's something the people of Guam need to be alarmed about it and I was glad Secretary Tillerson made that clear. But he also landed there and spent some hours there, so it is important for that to be put in perspective. The greater danger is an attack on South Korea, the greater danger is digging tunnels as they have done before perhaps even putting nuclear weapons on not necessarily missiles but on trucks.
The greater danger also is selling that nuclear material to terrorists who have no return address, don't worry about deterrence and might use it. So those are the dangers we’ve really got to watch. But the bottom line is the North Koreans having nuclear weapons is a threat not only to the United States but it is a threat to the whole world and particularly our friends and allies in South Korea and Japan.
MR. NIGUT: Senator, Glenn Thrush of The New York Times is reporting in the last hour or so that the statement from the President yesterday was made without consultation, that it was a relatively spontaneous statement. Although I'm surprised by that because it sounded somewhat scripted to me. Nevertheless Thrush reports he did it without consulting people in the White House. But more important he did it without consulting our allies, the South Koreans, for example, the British and others. What's your sense of a President who acts unilaterally and makes such an extraordinary threat?
MR. NUNN: Well, I would think we probably ought to see if General Kelly will accompany him to the golf courses when he goes. You know, President Trump, he's got some basic good instincts on a lot of things and obviously wouldn't be elected if he hadn't, and he appeals to an awful lot of people. But his problems almost all stem from his own rhetoric and his own tweets, which are not thought out. They can be clever, they can be entertaining but they can also be very dangerous. So I am hoping that the new Chief-of-Staff, he has already tried to bring some discipline into the White House, but the person who is most important to discipline is the President himself.
MR. GALLOWAY: Senator, one thing that I have noticed over this last week and there's been article in The Post and elsewhere about it, is that the North Koreans are progressing in the miniaturization issue faster than anybody expected. Is that a sign that they're getting help from other people, say perhaps China, perhaps Russia?
MR. NUNN: I think the Chinese would be very reluctant to try to help them now with their nuclear program. There's no doubt there's been some help in the past, and I suspect the Chinese regret that now because this whole scenario is a threat to China. You can imagine the people of China and what would happen if there was actually nuclear explosions on the Korean Peninsula, whether coming from North Korea or whether coming from a retaliatory strike after they have used nuclear weapons.
So the Chinese, in my opinion, really want to restrain and end the nuclear program in my view. But they also worry about other things that we have to be conscious in trying to get China to put maximum pressure on what is — what's on China's menu. And they want to make sure that if North Korea collapses they don't have to bear all the burden. They have got refugees that could stream across the border with millions of people. And they also want to make sure that if there is a collapse, a war in North Korea which ends the regime, which I think it would do, that American troops don't end up on their borders.
So one of the most important things here is for the United States and China to have very quiet, confidential talks. And I hope they are happening about what is not only our menu, but what concerns the Chinese. Both of those things have to happen if China and the United States are going to work together, which is essential for this situation to be resolved peacefully, but also much broader to bring about increased stability in a dangerous world.
MS. GEARY: And Senator, we've heard so much about this timeline about North Korea and kind of their capabilities. What is your opinion, are they there yet, are they still a year out from, you know, being able to put a nuclear bomb on a missile, like where are they on this timeline? Because we heard from the Washington Post that some folks in the US government didn't realize they were this far along that they were a couple years out. But in your opinion where are they?
MR. NUNN: Lori, I think they're making a lot of progress and that's very dangerous. They have increased the distance of their reach with their long range missiles. They have reduced according to recent reports the warheads down to a lower weight because lower weight is essential for more distance and the big long pole in the tent now seems to be whether they could actually have a re-entry vehicle that survived and did not get destroyed in re-entering the atmosphere after a long-range flight. So all of those things they are making progress on, I don't think they're there yet.
But again we have to be careful that we don't just define this North Korea threat as a threat against America. They already can threaten South Korea with nuclear weapons. They already can threaten Japan with nuclear weapons. They don't have to have a long-range missile. So while that's of great concern and we need to be focused on it, we've got to be very careful we don't give the impression that all we're concerned about is US security here. We have an alliance and if we start splitting up that alliance based on the perception in South Korea and Japan that we're not on the same wavelength in terms of protecting them, then it's going to weaken the whole alliance and make war more likely.
MR. GALLOWAY: So America First doesn't work there.
MR. NUNN: I think it's got to be America first always, but it is got to be America first with our allies. And allies are part of a sacred obligation.
MR. NIGUT: Senator, you know, it's interesting to me because when I hear you talk about President Trump, I hear in you a caution about not wanting to be too overly critical and you are very fair minded in wanting to give him credit where you think it's due, which I appreciate. But here's my bigger question on that, you know very well that a great many people in the United States think President Trump first is unfit to be president, that's fine. But more importantly, in this situation, a looming crisis of nuclear proportions, really don't trust that he is the kind of leader who can guide us through this safely. Want to share your thoughts about that with us?
MR. NUNN: Bill, I wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed that appeared about a month before the election in November of '16 — it appeared in probably October of '16 —
MR. NIGUT: Yes, we talked with you about that on this show as a matter of fact. So talk about it again.
MR. NUNN: And I think there are a lot of characteristics President Trump has that he has got to refine and adjust if he's going to be a successful Commander-in-Chief as well as President. And I do worry about the loose rhetoric. I worry about the impression he gives of a “ready, fire, aim” philosophy. I don't think he wants a war; I think he wants to deter. But he is got to start listening to the good advisors around him, and he's got some good advisors but he simply seems to not be willing to listen.
MR. GALLOWAY: Senator, let me ask you, one of your points has been that the danger of an accidental launch of us misinterpreting another nation's moves and vice versa. But there's also — there was a really interesting article in this month's edition of Scientific American where it says that — where they argue that maybe the US nuclear weapons system shouldn't be under the sole control of one human being.
MR. NUNN: Well, eventually I'd like to get rid of all nuclear weapons in the world. We are a long way from that, and the United States and the other nuclear powers have to understand that the world is counting on us to restrain development of new weapons wherever we can. We have to modernize but not create the impression that everybody's got to have nuclear weapons or the world is not going to be safe. We can't expect nonproliferation if we don't set the example. But we as US and Russia, we can not move unilaterally, we have to move with Russia, and we have to have China, Britain, France and others join in at some point. But there are a lot of steps in this process. I won't go into them. I've also outlined those steps in a Wall Street Journal article with George Shultz and Bill Perry and Henry Kissinger.
So this is not simply saying we want to get rid of nuclear weapons and everything goes away. The world without nuclear weapons in not today's world simply subtracting nuclear weapons. We have to take care of a lot of trouble spots. We're talking about one of them this morning but it is also Iran, it is also India, Pakistan. So there are a lot of dangers and we have to work these problems and let the world know that we are going to hold them accountable, other countries by not proliferating their weapons but we have got to be held accountable ourselves. We, being the nuclear powers, for making the world safer, and right now we're not doing that very well especially with US-Russia confrontation.
MR. GALLOWAY: Should the US nuclear arsenal be under the — should the President be the only person with his finger on the trigger?
MR. NUNN: This would be a tough question if were having the Constitutional Convention back in the 1700s because I don't think the founding fathers with their Declaration of War being reserved for the Congress ever envisioned this kind of situation. And I do believe that the President of the United States should have very close advisors around him. I don't think you can change this under the Constitution because time is such a precious commodity when you're dealing with nuclear weapons.
But one of things I've tried to say over and over and over again and to get the President of Russia as well as the President of the United States to understand this and give their military leaders the order to find ways working together to give decision makers i.e., President Trump in this case and President Putin, more decision time. When a president has only four or five or six minutes of decision time, whatever it is, we need to do everything we can to give each president more decision time before they would have to make the, God help us, the decision to launch nuclear weapons against each other.
Russia and the United States have an obligation not only to their own citizens but to the world to move in that direction. An hour decision time would make a huge difference, two hours would make even more, a week, a month. That's the direction we've got to move in. More decision times make nuclear weapons less relevant to security in all countries. And then you can gradually move away from it.
MR. NIGUT: Senator, we have to take a break. Can you — we would like to talk with you about Russia, do you have a few more minutes after the break to talk with — Russia with us.
MR. NUNN: Sure.
MR. NIGUT: Thank you. In the meantime, two things. We're going to post — Olivia Reingold will post on the blog, on the Political Rewind blog which will be up right after the show today, your Wall Street Journal piece the headline of which was, “Only Hillary Clinton is prepared for the Nuclear Threat”. And we'll also post a link to the website of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, so people can get more information. But stay with us for just a few more minutes we're going to take a very short break, we'll be back with Senator Sam Nunn.
MR. NIGUT: Lori Geary and Jim Galloway joining me in the studio. Senator Sam Nunn is on the telephone. Senator again, thank you so much for spending some time with us. I know your time is somewhat limited, but we'd be remiss if we didn't get an opportunity to talk to you for just a couple of minutes about the interesting and I think odd relationship that we have between the President of the United States and Vladimir Putin, and Russia and the United States.
And I sort of frame those separately because on one hand, there are those who think that relations between the Russians and the Americans are at a lower point than they've been since the Cold War, and yet we have a President who, in every way, seems to want to do his best to befriend Vladimir Putin. What do you make of all of that in the most general way?
MR. NUNN: Well, I think the President has probably been somewhat careless in giving the impression that he thinks Putin is a strong leader and an admirable person. I think we have all sorts of problems with Putin but let me add, I have to add this, I think President Trump is correct in the fact that he believes that we have to get along with Russia. And that means that we have to recognize the two of us together have 90 percent of the nuclear weapons and nuclear material. We have to recognize that Russia is the only country that can destroy the United States while we are having lunch even though they would be destroyed in return; a small solace to us. We have to recognize that if we're going to prevent catastrophic nuclear terrorism and keep weapons grade material out of the hands of terrorists, we've got to work with Russia.
So we've got to go through these elections, rather investigations not elections — the investigation about the elections, we’ve got to understand whether Russia and — whether there was any collusion between the Russians and United States citizens. We ought to see whether that is a crime, all that has got to continue but in the meantime the world is dangerous and we got to communicate with the Russians. Our military needs to increase communication with the Russian military to avoid accidents, miscalculations; we are flying planes and ships near each other in Syria and in Europe; that is extremely dangerous. We have all sorts of responsibilities just together not just on each other but to the world. So all these things have to be done.
One of the things that I have done recently is we had a letter, a joint letter to President Putin and President Trump, signed by the former Russian foreign minister, by myself, by Igor Ivanov the [former] Russian foreign minister as well as the Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador and Des Browne former [UK] defense minister. And we proposed two things: one, that the two countries agree, like Gorbachev and Reagan, that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought. That is an important signal to people out there on the warning systems and people who were making crucial decisions in the chain of command.
MR. GALLOWAY: You know it occurs to me, Senator that two years ago you and I were talking about the Republican presidential field and some of the language that they were using. I mean specifically I think it was Marco Rubio's use of the word thug when referring to Vladimir Putin. And now we've got a US President who is doing just the opposite and it just seems to me that we haven't found the proper balance to strike.
MR. NUNN: I think that's right. I think we have to separate Putin from the Russian people. In many respects we have to deal with him, he is their leader, so we can't ignore him. But I think we have to understand there is an awful lot of folks in Russia who want to get along with America.
MR. NIGUT: Senator — sorry go ahead finish that thought.
MR. NUNN: I also think that we have to understand that we have dangers if we're not working with Russia and those dangers can be injurious to the American people. So I can't explain President Trump's attraction to Putin as a person but I do believe his underlying premise that we need to get along with the Russians is correct. But we cannot interrupt the investigations; we’ve got to go forward with them. We’ve got to find out what happened. So that's a very serious matter. Because the Russians have really had a pretty — not just American elections, which they have with disinformation and information warfare campaign going on against both the United States and Europe — that is an extremely —
MS. GEARY: Senator, if I can. I want to ask you, do you think Russia and China are doing enough on their part with this North Korea situation? And where I want to get at is even if this current situation is resolved diplomatically, are we going to be here next year and the year after that because we've been dealing with this problem for decades?
MR. NUNN: I don't think North Korea is going to get rid of their weapons overnight. I think it's going to take time, they want a peace agreement, we still have officially only an armistice. They believe the United States’ embargoes and sanctions are damaging their economy. I think it's mainly their own very bad system. So we've got to deal with it over a period of time. But the main thing is stopping their nuclear tests, stopping their missile tests. Making sure they don't continue to go forward while we are having discussions with them. But discussions with North Koreans are very important. I think those need to happen.
MR. NIGUT: Senator one — if I can ask. If I — I am sorry to interrupt again. If I could ask you one last question and we know your time is valuable, and we don't want to keep you too long. But I'm curious, you obviously introduced Secretary of State Tillerson at his confirmation hearings and were saying his praises. So I'm curious, two things really, are you comfortable that he has done the job the way you'd hoped he would. Also having worked, as you did, for so many years with the State Department, are you at all concerned about what seems to be a dismantling, to some extent, of the State Department and a lack of interest in making sure there are professionals who are on the job and that those jobs that are so important can be filled under this Trump administration.
MR. NUNN: Bill, I think the State Department has gotten demoralized because of the budget cuts. And I believe that they are also understaffed. Secretary Tillerson doesn't have nearly the kind of team he needs to handle all these problems. I think he's overloaded. I think his top people are overloaded. I hope that he can get some top people confirmed. I have great trust in his own leadership and judgment; I've known him for some time. But he's off to a rough start. His first deputy was turned down by President Trump, and he's having a really slow start in getting key people in place while he is trying to handle all these problems. So mark this down as a challenge area at the moment.
MR. NIGUT: Senator Sam Nunn, as you leave us, I do want you to know, people have been tweeting the show as they often do. And before you leave I want you to hear a couple of comments about you, one of them comes from @BiscuitGeorgia who says, "It's really nice to hear highly intelligent commentary in an unmistakably Georgia accent from Senator Nunn." We also have other comments from people who are saying how much they appreciate hearing. J.P. Cunningham says, "Aside from Bill Fulbright, I've never admired more a US senator than I have Sam Nunn. We need him and his insights now more." You know if social media weren't so quick to pick up on false stories, I'd say this sounds like paving the way for you to think about public office again, Senator.
MR. NUNN: I will tell you, I am going to start tweeting first and then I will —
MR. NIGUT: [Laughter] Senator Nunn, we're so grateful to you for taking time. Thanks for being with us on Political Rewind today and sharing your insights.
MR. NUNN: Thanks Bill, Jim, Lori.
MS. GEARY: Thank you.
MR. NIGUT: Bye, bye.
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