Senator Nunn Testifies Before the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States

Senator Nunn Testifies Before the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States

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Former Senator Sam Nunn
Co-Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Testimony Before the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States

I am honored to be with you today to discuss strategic posture issues facing the United States and the world. I am especially pleased to be with so many friends with whom I have worked closely over the years – particularly Chairman Perry and Vice Chairman Schlesinger.

Over the last 60 years, thousands of men and women across the world have worked diligently to prevent nuclear war, to avoid overreacting to false warnings and to reduce risk.

We have been good, we have been diligent, but we have also been very lucky. We have had more than a few close calls. If we’re to continue to avoid a catastrophe, all nuclear powers will have to be highly capable, careful, competent, rational — and if things go wrong, lucky — every single time. India and Pakistan have already had more than one close call, and their nuclear age has just begun.

We do have important efforts underway and some important successes, but the risk of a nuclear weapon being used today is growing, not receding. The storm clouds are gathering:

  • Terrorists are seeking nuclear weapons, and there can be little doubt that if they acquire a weapon that they will use it.
  • There are nuclear weapons materials in more than 40 countries.
  • The know-how and expertise to build nuclear weapons is far more available today because of an explosion of information and commerce throughout the world.
  • The number of nuclear weapons states is increasing. A world with 12 or 20 nuclear weapons states will be immeasurably more dangerous than today’s world and make it more likely that weapons or materials to make them will fall into the hands of terrorists with no return address. Developments in cyberterrorism pose new threats that could have disastrous consequences if the command-and-control systems of any nuclear-weapons state are compromised.
  • With the growing interest in nuclear energy, a number of countries are considering developing the capacity to enrich uranium to use as fuel for nuclear energy, but this would also give them the capacity to move quickly to a nuclear weapons program if they chose to do so.
  • Meanwhile, the United States and Russia continue to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles that can hit their targets in less than 30 minutes, encouraging both sides to continue a prompt launch capability that carries with it an increasingly unacceptable risk of an accidental, mistaken or unauthorized launch.

The bottom line: The world is heading in a very dangerous direction.

With these growing dangers in mind, former U.S. Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, Commission Chairman Bill Perry and I published an op-ed in January 2007, and a follow-up piece in 2008, in The Wall Street Journal that called for a different direction for our global nuclear policy with both vision and steps.

We said that U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage – to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally. We see that as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world. We underscored the importance of intensive work with leaders of the countries in possession of nuclear weapons to turn the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise.  

We made the point that terrorist groups are “conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy” and even among states – “unless urgent new actions are taken” — the United States will find itself in a nuclear era “more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence.”

The four of us, and the many other security leaders who have joined us, are keenly aware that the quest for a nuclear weapons free world is fraught with practical and political challenges. As The Economist magazine wisely said in 2006: “By simply demanding the goal of a world without nuclear weapons without a readiness to tackle the practical problems raised by it ensures that it will never happen.”  

We have taken aim at the practical problems by linking the vision of a nuclearfree world with a series of steps for reducing nuclear dangers and carving a path towards a world free of the nuclear threat.  

We believe that without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible. Under George Shultz’s leadership, we have recently published a book of papers commissioned by the Hoover Institution and the Nuclear Threat Initiative titled Reykjavik Revisited: Steps Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons.

Leadership from the nuclear powers is important. We don’t believe our example is likely to inspire Iran, North Korea or al Qaeda to drop their weapons ambitions, but we believe it would become more likely that many more nations will join us in a firm approach to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials and prevent catastrophic terrorism.

My bottom line — I believe that we cannot defend ourselves against the nuclear threats facing the world today without taking these steps. We cannot take these steps without the cooperation of other nations. We cannot get the cooperation of other nations without the vision and hope of a world that will someday end these weapons as a threat to mankind.

This will be a challenging process that must be accomplished in stages. The United States must keep nuclear weapons as long as other nations do. But we will be safer, and the world will be safer, if we are working toward the goal of deemphasizing nuclear weapons and keeping them out of dangerous hands — and ultimately ridding our world of them.

Even a quick glance at the steps we are proposing in our two Wall Street Journal essays reveals that none of the steps can be accomplished by the United States and our close allies alone:

  • Changing nuclear force postures in the United States and Russia to greatly increase warning time and ease our fingers away from the nuclear trigger.
  • Reducing substantially nuclear forces in all states that possess them.
  • Moving toward developing cooperative multilateral ballistic-missile defense and early warning systems which will reduce tensions over defensive systems and enhance the possibility of progress in other areas.
  • Eliminating short-range “tactical” nuclear weapons – beginning with accountability and transparency among the United States, NATO and Russia.
  • Working to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force – in the United States and in other key states.
  • Securing nuclear weapons and materials around the world to the highest standards.  
  • Developing a multinational approach to civil nuclear fuel production, phasing out the use of highly enriched uranium in civil commerce, and halting the production of fissile material for weapons. 
  • Enhancing verification and enforcement capabilities – and our political will to do both.
  • Building an international consensus behind ways to deter and, when necessary, strongly and effectively respond to countries that breach their commitments.

The most difficult and challenging step is the need for redoubling our efforts to resolve regional confrontations and conflicts that give rise to new nuclear powers. The obvious candidates here can be found readily in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

We also must urgently address security concerns that give existing nuclear powers the reasons or excuses to keep their nuclear weapons operationally on the front burner, which in turn cause much of the world to believe that we are not living up to our Nonproliferation Treaty commitments.  

There can be no coherent, effective security strategy to reduce nuclear dangers that does not take into account Russia – its strengths, weaknesses, aims and ambitions.  

If we are to be successful in dealing with the hydra-headed threats of emerging new nuclear weapons states, proliferation of enrichment, poorly secured nuclear material and catastrophic terrorism – many nations must cooperate. We must recognize, however, that these tasks are virtually impossible without the cooperation of Russia. It is abundantly clear that Russia itself faces these same threats and that its own security is dependent on cooperation with NATO and the United States.

It is past-time for the United States and Russia to take a deep breath and ask — which of our vital interests can only be addressed by cooperation with each other?

If we made up a wish list on essential agreements in the nuclear arena, what would be on my list between the United States and Russia?  

  • Missile defense;
  • START Treaty;
  • Tactical nuclear weapons;
  • Biological issues;
  • Energy;
  • The US-Russian 123 Agreement;
  • Euro-Atlantic Security;
  • Joint missile threat assessment;
  • Warning time;
  • Afghanistan – narcotics.

We have entered into a number of important agreements with Russia:  

(1) Expanding and accelerating the existing Nunn-Lugar program to improve security – Russia and U.S. Bratislava – February 2005

(2) Working together with other countries to prevent nuclear terrorism — including best practices for nuclear security — Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism July 2006

(3) Reducing inventories of highly enriched uranium and plutonium — early 2002

(4) Working together on a global cleanout of HEU – to return civilian fuel to the U.S. and Russia from 3rd countries — Joint announcement – U.S., Russia, GTRI – 1st term

(5) Nuclear energy cooperation – (cooperation on civilian nuclear energy) — Bush-Putin 2006 — 123 agreement

(6) Nuclear weapons reductions – Article VI of NPT – Moscow Treaty/Kennebunkport

(7) International fuel cycle assurances — to work together and with the IAEA to allow all nations to enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy without proliferation of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing.

(8) Missile Defense cooperation — to strengthen confidence and increase transparency in the area of missile defense by setting up joint data exchange – early warning and other joint projects – 2002

The good news – President Bush and former President Putin have agreed to all of this.

The bad news — grading from 1 to 10 in terms of implementation, most of these important agreements would get a 1 to a 5.

The Mountaintop

The reaction of many people to the vision and steps to reduce and eliminate the nuclear threat comes in two parts – on the one hand they say “that would be great.” And their second thought is: “We can never get there.”

To me, the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the top of a very tall mountain. It is tempting and easy to say: “We can’t get there from here.” It is true that today in our troubled world we can’t see the top of the mountain.

But we can see that we are heading down — not up. We can see that we must turn around, that we must take paths leading to higher ground and that we must get others to move with us.

Once we get to higher ground there will remain serious obstacles between us and the top. We must develop ironclad verification procedures and assurances for monitoring and enforcing a prohibition on nuclear weapons, if we are to ever achieve a prohibition. We must be able to respond quickly and decisively to any attempt to cheat.

Both the direction and the destination are important if we want others to move with us. Both the good and bad news is that, given the big steps required to move upward, we have time to work on the transition from higher ground to the top. We must begin.

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The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index


The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index

“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.


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