Former Senator Sam Nunn Remarks at the Foreign Policy Association’s Andrew Carnegie Distinguished Lecture on Conflict Prevention Honoring David Hamburg

Thank you, Hugh Roome, for that generous introduction.  Thank you, Noel Lateef, for the Foreign Policy Association’s leadership in expanding understanding and informed dialogue on U.S. foreign policy challenges.  This is more important than ever in today’s complicated and complex world.

Thank you as well to my friends with the Carnegie Corporation of New York who are here tonight – Vartan Gregorian, Deana Arsenian, and Jeanne D’Onofrio.  I am grateful for all that you continue to do to make the world a safer, better place.

I am not here to make a speech about the current political scene, but I think it can be explained very clearly by the Will Rogers quote, “Politicians are like diapers.  They need to be changed often and for the same reason.”

I am here this evening to honor the legacy, work and outstanding leadership of Dr. David Hamburg on conflict prevention. David and Betty Hamburg are at the top of my list of our country’s most thoughtful, caring, accomplished and creative couples, and I consider them to be national treasures.  For decades, they have worked to solve problems, improve the prospects for humanity and prevent deadly conflict.  I have been honored to work closely with David over many years and to benefit from his vast experience, his wisdom and his marvelous spirit.  I am also delighted that David is spending some of his valuable time in our NTI office in Washington, where his insights and example are truly inspiring to all our staff.

Let’s flash back to September of 1991. I had recently returned from an exciting and fascinating, but alarming, trip to Moscow just days after President Gorbachev was released from the coup attempted by members of his own government and the Russian military. I was convinced that the Soviet Union was coming apart, and with it the largest arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials in human history could be up for grabs across 11 time zones.  Shortly thereafter, Dick Lugar and I joined together to work on what some immediately termed a wacky idea – to spend U.S. defense dollars to secure and help destroy Soviet weapons of mass destruction.  We argued that the U.S. must work with our Cold War adversary to protect the world from disaster if and when the empire broke apart.

Some of our Senate colleagues immediately criticized this effort as “aid to the Soviet military,” and the idea was initially in trouble.  But under David Hamburg’s leadership, the Carnegie Corporation had recently funded a crucial report on the immense danger to the United States and the world of the possible loss of control of Soviet nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

This Carnegie report -- and its co-author, current Defense Secretary Ash Carter -- helped us overcome strong opposition in October and November of 1991.  In mid-December, in what Congressional Quarterly called “a remarkable last-minute turnaround,” the Senate approved the Nunn-Lugar Amendment 86-8.  Two weeks later, President Bush signed the bill into law.  Two weeks after that, the Soviet Union collapsed.

Not for the first time, or the last, the roles of Carnegie and David Hamburg were indispensable, and this continues on both counts today.

I have encountered and worked with many brilliant leaders in my years in the public arena.  Some have great breadth on a range of diverse topics; some have great depth in areas of specialty.  My bottom line: I have never known anyone that could match David’s breadth of experience and depth of knowledge and his huge heart to go with it.  What a combination.  Thank you, David – I salute you.

Years ago, Secretary of State Dean Acheson was asked by a young person how he would describe foreign policy. He replied, “Foreign policy is just one damn thing after another.”  Today, that’s clearly true, so setting priorities is essential. Many things are important, a few are vital and a very few are existential. 

Tonight, I want to discuss what is potentially the most deadly threat to the future of mankind – nuclear conflict – a danger that David Hamburg has worked years to prevent.

Albert Einstein many years ago said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but I am sure World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” 

Beginning in 2006, George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger and I have discussed the dangers relating to nuclear weapons and our continuing obligation to address these risks. 

Since then, we have authored five essays in the Wall Street Journal detailing our conclusions and their implications. Let me reduce this to three key points:

First, we are in a new and dangerous nuclear era with outdated nuclear policies and an increasing risk of nuclear use.

Second, in this new era of nine nuclear armed nations, reliance on nuclear weapons for security is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective, as a deterrent to prevent war. 

Third, U.S. leadership and new approaches are required to protect our security.  We need to take practical steps with other nations that reduce nuclear risks now and build the essential foundation to ultimately end them as a threat to the world. 

In our five essays, we outlined a series of steps urgently needed today, as well as longer range goals.  This policy framework was initially adopted by both Republican and Democratic candidates for President in 2008.  In 2009, President Obama in his Prague speech, as well as the UN Security Council later that year by unanimous vote – including Russia, China, France, the UK and the U.S. – called for steps to make this world safer for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.  This was encouraging.

If, however, we look at what has been accomplished over the past decade, the report card is mixed.  On the plus side, in some areas, progress has been made in reducing nuclear dangers and advancing nonproliferation, through the hard work of many governments: 

  • The New START agreement provides a new and legally-binding framework for reductions and verification of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces, an essential component of strategic stability.
  • The Nuclear Security Summits, led by President Obama, have contributed to significant reductions in the number of countries with weapons-usable materials that could be used to build nuclear bombs. We have gone from 50 countries to 24 countries in the last 25 years. 
  • The recent nuclear agreement with Iran is a significant step forward in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.  It is not a permanent guarantee, but it does buy very valuable time, if successfully implemented.

But despite these encouraging accomplishments, progress on many essential steps is halting or absent.  In particular:

  • U.S and Russian nuclear cuts are stalled and other nuclear nations are reluctant to join in arms control reductions – pointing out that the U.S. and Russia still control roughly 90 percent of global nuclear inventories. 
  • The U.S. and Russia still deploy thousands of nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice, increasing the risk of a catastrophic accident or miscalculation based on false warning. 
  • Hundreds of U.S. and thousands of Russian short-range nuclear weapons, inviting targets for terrorists, remain deployed or stored in Europe. 
  • The comprehensive treaty banning nuclear tests remains unratified by a number of nations, including the U.S. 
  • Nearly 2,000 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium are spread across facilities in 24 countries, and no global system exists for tracking, accounting for, managing and securing these materials, including materials under military control, which is 83% of the total.  The good news, as we move to the final Nuclear Security Summit under President Obama’s leadership, is that we have moved from 32 countries to 24 nations retaining weapons usable material over the last six years.

Clearly, the pace of work on these crucial risk-reduction steps does not match the urgency of the global threat.  The world’s efforts remain inadequate to the danger.

Compounding these nuclear dangers is a world that, as George Shultz has said, is “awash in change”:

  • Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists is violating its commitment to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the 1990s.
  • Washington believes Moscow is violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and Russia has its own allegations of U.S. violations.
  • European Union countries are facing new security challenges generated by the Syrian tragedy and open borders, and the Eurozone struggles to maintain unity. 
  • Islamic State extremists are threatening states and borders in pursuit of a caliphate stretching across the Middle East.  They are claiming a dirty bomb capability.
  • Tensions between China and other nations in Asia, including U.S. allies, undermine regional stability.
  • In the nuclear arena, states with nuclear arms have front-burner plans to modernize their forces.  Former Secretary of Defense, Bill Perry recently warned that the U.S. and Russia are on the verge of a new nuclear arms race.
  • Nuclear programs and capabilities continue in unstable countries and volatile regions, while regional conflicts that give rise to new nuclear powers persist.
  • Cyber-related threats loom large, highlighting risks to nuclear facilities, command and control systems and warning systems as well as U.S. infrastructure, both private and public.

All of these events are occurring while thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons remain on high alert and thousands more are in global inventories.

This underscores the fundamental point that George, Henry, Bill and I have been making: that reliance on nuclear weapons for security is becoming increasingly complex and hazardous.

Before we get depressed, in analyzing today’s complex global security landscape and its implications for nuclear threat reduction, we might look back on the work of George Kennan and Paul Nitze, who in 1947 to 1950 played crucial roles in crafting a U.S. national security strategy that guided American policy throughout the Cold War. 

In their work, they assumed a day when the Cold War would end – though few people then or until the Berlin Wall fell conceded that possibility. 

But their vision, along with a set of concrete steps pursued by both U.S. political parties and our Allies, served as an organizing principle for a series of policy initiatives pursued patiently over many years by both Republicans and Democrats.

Just as we did not know when and how the Cold War would end, we cannot predict whether and when the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons might be within reach.  But a clear U.S. nuclear goal consistent with the Nonproliferation Treaty is required to guide our policy, our diplomacy and our defense programs.

We do know that a nuclear-weapons free world would not look like today's world simply subtracting nuclear weapons.  Likewise, there were many changes in the world between 1947 and 1991.

But the “vision” that motivated the policies articulated by Kennan and Nitze was sustained throughout -- and both men lived to see the end of the Cold War.  Nitze was one of the first to make the case, in 1999, for working again toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

With this inspiring example in mind, what are the next steps in nuclear threat reduction?

While there is much work to be done, I continue to believe that the “vision and steps” frame we have been working with global leaders and experts to build remains our best hope to address the strategic challenges of a multipolar world. 

Each step is essential if following generations are to ultimately live in a world without nuclear weapons, but also urgently needed if our present generation is to get the cooperation required to reduce growing nuclear risks in today’s world – for instance, securing all nuclear material globally.

If our next president continues to work within this framework, this will also provide needed reinforcement to the nonproliferation and disarmament pillars of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which need bolstering after a failed Review Conference last year.

Most importantly, world leaders must recognize that we are in a new era.  Nation states no longer have a monopoly on weapons of mass destruction or disruption, including nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological as well as cyber. The world is in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.

Some relationships are vital.  As the two countries with more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear inventories, the United States and Russia have a unique role to play.  Trust between our two nations has severely eroded.  One of my Russian friends who is a defense expert recently posed a powerful question: Could President Obama and President Putin today make the statement that was jointly made by former Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought?

I was in Moscow a couple of weeks ago and discussed with Russians there and Americans back here a few of my own suggestions.  Let me cite a few.

First, we need to begin with how we talk to, and about, each other. 

Prominent leaders must realize that reckless rhetoric creates an atmosphere that could lead to dangerous misunderstandings and miscalculations, including throughout the military chain of command.  As Henry Kissinger reminded us recently, “the fate of U.S. and Russia remain tightly intertwined.”   Every day – 24/7 – our two nations have an existential stake in command and control and warning systems, in both our nations, that work properly with competent human leadership.

Second, we must revive and strengthen channels of communication.  We can no longer afford to treat dialogue as a bargaining chip.  You upset us and we will punish you by not talking is not a sound strategy for two countries that control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons and materials.

Continuous dialogue is essential between our military leaders and our intelligence communities. The NATO-Russia Council should be utilized effectively or we should come up with something new that can be.  And as a former member of the U.S. Senate, I strongly recommend beginning a dialogue between our parliamentary leaders as we had even during the Cold War – strongly supported by our friend, David Hamburg.

As part of this continuous dialogue, the United States, NATO and Russia should expand mechanisms that reduce the chances of military misunderstandings between us.  Last year’s events in Turkey related to the unfortunate shoot-down of the Russian jet serve as a powerful wake-up call that we need to reduce the chances of accidental encounters between NATO aircraft and Russian aircraft as well as ships at sea.

The United States and Russia should also agree on confidence-building measures to reinforce strategic stability and further reduce the chances of miscalculation, including bolstering military-to-military communication.  We should also utilize more robustly the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers that former Senator John Warner and I instituted decades ago – another initiative that David Hamburg helped inspire.

Third, effective trust on reducing nuclear risks is not likely when the U.S. and Russia remain postured for mutually assured destruction in a few brief minutes. 

If leaders fail to see and act on this continued danger, Washington and Moscow will remain trapped in a costly and risky nuclear posture -- and other nations may follow, making probable that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not the last cities to suffer a nuclear attack.

Washington and Moscow must find a way to work together to lower prompt-launch threats, reducing first strike capabilities, improving the survivability of forces and increasing warning and decision time for leaders.  In spite of recent tensions, we should determine if there is a basis for restarting serious discussions with Moscow under this framework.  Reducing the number of weapons is important, but only one factor, in overall stability.

Fourth, President Obama will host a final Nuclear Security Summit next week.  This is an important opportunity and obligation to build on the progress made at the first three summits to secure weapons-usable materials.  Leaders must find a way to sustain this effort after President Obama leaves office.

The world must develop a global nuclear security system that covers all weapons-usable nuclear materials, including those held for military purposes.  We must minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism posed by these materials through actions to reduce and consolidate material, and, where possible, eliminate them.

Fifth, the President and the Congress are facing serious questions about the size and capabilities of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.  Leaders must identify tradeoffs between paying to maintain and modernize our current nuclear deterrent at an estimated 30 year cost of $1 trillion against investing in other essential defense requirements.  Ignoring these tradeoffs, or resorting to budgetary slights of hand, threatens our non-nuclear defense capabilities over time. 

The question “how much nuclear is enough” with respect to the strategic triad as well as tactical nuclear weapons must be asked and answered and linked to our overall defense needs, including conventional capabilities.  Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry has called for a national discussion and debate on this subject, including whether we should phase out our land-based missiles. I believe that these important questions Bill raises must be addressed by both the Administration and Congress.

Sixth and most immediately, the United States and Russia must work together in the fight against ISIS and violent extremism.  The threat posed by ISIS directly affects the core national interests of both our countries.  In particular, Russia and the United States must work together to ensure that ISIS or any other violent extremist group never acquires nuclear or radiological weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction.

Our two countries have the technical expertise and unique knowledge to lead this effort.  We have been doing such work in our own countries, and together, for two decades under the Nunn-Lugar program.  This mission seems to me to fit well under the legal framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 as well as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.  Most importantly, a joint working group must be formed and must lead by developing a prioritized list of actions that we can take together to prevent catastrophic terrorism. This is urgent and must be a front burner issue with others joining the effort.  Large amounts of radiological materials are in areas of central and southwest Asia. 

Finally, when we do work together, as we did recently with the Iran agreement, we must both learn to express our appreciation publicly so that political leaders, the media, as well as ordinary citizens of both of our countries recognize not just disagreements and confrontations – the case today, but also points of mutual interest and areas of success. 

As former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov recently said, “We must identify areas where our interests converge such as combatting international terrorism, preventing political extremism, managing migration flows, and solving the refugee problem, strengthening cyber and food security, tackling environmental issues and coordinating on climate change.”  I would add that to begin to rebuild badly damaged trust, the U.S., Russia and Europe must make every effort to end the Ukraine conflict in accordance with the Minsk Agreement.

In our original Wall Street Journal essay, we stated our goal carefully: “to reverse reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into dangerous hands and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.” We made it very clear that unless we work together on the actions the vision cannot be achieved.

We and other nuclear powers must also understand that without the ultimate goal or vision, many nations – including our friends – are not likely to support the actions needed to prevent proliferation and catastrophic terrorism.  This may be the most difficult but important security mission in history.  Actions and vision are essential. 

I consider the goal of ultimately getting rid of nuclear weapons like climbing to the top of a very tall mountain.  We can’t see the top, but we can see we are now heading down.  We must turn around – and others must join us as we move together to higher ground.

In our world of turmoil, terrorism and distrust there are many who believe the mountain is too high and the fog too thick.  Many who are complacent argue that we’ve avoided nuclear catastrophe for more than a half-century, so we might as well just keep doing what we’ve been doing.

It is human nature to resist change.  The status quo often feels safer than change.  But the nuclear status quo is a mirage.  And the nuclear danger is either going to increase or be reduced—depending on what we do.

After the first atomic explosion, Einstein commented that this has changed everything except the thinking of mankind.

We explain the decline of other species as “too slow to adapt to a changing environment.”  Mankind must avoid this epitaph.

I recharge my batteries frequently by asking myself two questions: If a nuclear disaster occurs—what would we wish we had done to prevent it?  Why don’t we do it now?

Thank you, David Hamburg.  

March 21, 2016

On March 21 2016, The Foreign Policy Association (FPA) hosted the Andrew Carnegie Distinguished Lecture on Conflict Prevention in honor of David Hamburg by Former Senator Sam Nunn, Co-chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Senator Nunn spoke about Dr. Hamburg’s tremendous leadership over many years to prevent deadly conflict. He also discussed what he considers potentially the most threatening conflict to the future of humankind – nuclear conflict.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI