Our New Security Framework

Yesterday's military strike in Afghanistan is the most dramatic and visible decision President Bush has made so far in the campaign to protect the world from terror. But it will not be the only one.

When an enemy strikes suddenly and catastrophically, decisions and actions that would normally take five to 10 years are made in a few months. We have an imperative now to integrate this accelerated fight against terrorism into a new security framework that addresses the full range of dangers we face. This strategy must contain both short-term urgent initiatives and longer-term strategic thinking. To do so, we must understand what changed on Sept. 11, and what did not change.

What changed was not our vulnerability to terrorism but our understanding of it. To most Americans, the attack was unthinkable. Now our nation knows better. The terrorists' capacity for killing is limited only by the power of their weapons. We lost our sense of invulnerability, but we also lost our sense of complacency. What did not change is this: The most significant, clear and present danger we face is the threat posed by nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The question is not whether we must prepare for terrorism or for attacks with weapons of mass destruction. These two threats are not separate but interrelated and reinforcing, and if joined together, become our worst nightmare.

For a half-century, the people of the United States and much of the world have lived under threat from nuclear weapons. Many believe the end of the Cold War was the end of that threat. It was not. The danger of a conventional war with the former Soviet Union escalating into a nuclear holocaust has almost disappeared, but other threats have multiplied and grown more complex and dangerous. The specter of terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction is a clear case of this.

As these new threats have multiplied, both the United States and Russia have continued to invest large resources in nuclear strategies left over from the Cold War days: maintenance of strategic forces with thousands of nuclear warheads ready for immediate launch. In today's world it no longer makes sense for either nation to stake its security so disproportionately on its ability to promptly launch a nuclear attack with thousands of warheads. These nuclear postures are not relevant in stopping proliferation; they compress decision time for each president to a matter of a very few minutes; they make an accident or misjudgment more likely, particularly with Russia's diminished weapons survivability and decreased warning; and they multiply the consequences of a mistake by either Russia or the United States. We must think anew.

The threats we faced during the Cold War -- a Soviet nuclear strike or an invasion of Europe -- were made more dangerous by Soviet strength. The new threats -- false warnings, accidental launches, the risk of weapons, materials and know-how falling into the wrong hands -- are made more dangerous by Russia's weakness. We addressed the Cold War's threats by confrontation with Moscow. There can be no realistic comprehensive plan to defend America against weapons of mass destruction that does not depend on cooperation with Moscow.

As the nation has begun to realize, we now face great danger from the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Osama bin Laden has said acquiring weapons of mass destruction is a religious duty. And so we find ourselves, at the dawn of the new century, in a new arms race:
Terrorists are racing to get weapons of mass destruction; we ought to be racing to stop them.

We also must come to an agreement on missile defense -- a debate that has been set aside since the terrorist attacks, but not because it has been resolved. The proliferation of missile technology poses the danger that a rogue state could develop the capability to launch a missile with a weapon of mass destruction at a U.S. city. From my perspective, this threat is not an immediate danger, but it cannot be dismissed because it is more distant or because it would -- for the attacking nation -- amount to national suicide. I believe, however, that protecting our deployed military forces is a much more urgent threat, and mobile theater defense should be our priority focus.

Over the longer run, to the extent we can develop the means to shield ourselves from attack through a limited missile defense, we should do so -- so long as it does not leave us more vulnerable to threats that are more likely, more immediate and more potentially devastating. We must understand that threat reduction, diplomacy, cooperation, military power and intelligence are our first lines of defense against the spread of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. National missile defense is our last line of defense. We have to guard against overinvesting in our last line of defense and underinvesting in all the others.

Nuclear force posture, nonproliferation, missile defense and the fight against terrorism each address separate elements of the threat from weapons of mass destruction. But they must be integrated into a comprehensive defense. In setting priorities, we must start with an objective, comprehensive intelligence estimate that assesses each major risk, ranks every major threat and helps us devise a broad strategy that confronts the full range of significant dangers in a way that defends against one without making us more vulnerable to another.

Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin will be meeting soon in Texas. They could use the occasion to commit each nation to a course of action ensuring that our nuclear weapons and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons materials are safe, secure and accounted for with reciprocal monitoring. Making sure that weapons of mass destruction and materials don't fall into the hands of rogue nations and terrorists is either a priority or an afterthought. If it's an afterthought, after what? What comes before it? If it is a priority, is that reflected in our effort and investment? Are our friends in Asia and Europe doing their share? If not, why not?

I also suggest that the two presidents issue an order directing their military leaders, in joint consultation and collaboration, to devis e operational changes in the nuclear forces of both nations that would reduce toward zero the risk of accidental launch or miscalculation and provide increased launch decision time for each president. Such an order should emphasize that it is the intention of the United States and Russia to stand down their nuclear forces to the maximum extent practical consistent with their security interests.

Finally, when Russia was developing biological weapons, it also was developing vaccines and other pharmaceuticals. When it was devising dissemination mechanisms, it also was working on detectors and protective devices. At this moment, the United States and Russia could combine their biodefense knowledge and scientific expertise and apply these considerable joint resources to defensive and peaceful biological purposes. The two presidents could promote a research endeavor that could motivate other nations to join.

If the United States and Russia begin working together as partners in fighting terror and the threat from weapons of mass destruction, and if they encourage others to join, the world will be a different place for our children and grandchildren. We face major challenges, but a historic opportunity. We must seize it now.

The writer, a former Democratic senator from Georgia, is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. This article is adapted from a speech given to  The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

October 8, 2001

In this op-ed in The Washington Post, Senator Nunn outlines new opportunities for U.S.-Russian relations in light of the September 11th attacks.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI