Q&A: Fortenberry Seeks More Nuclear-Security Supporters

Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) shown in 2011. He talked with Global Security Newswire about his efforts to enlist more people to join his fight to bolster nuclear security around the world (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images).
Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) shown in 2011. He talked with Global Security Newswire about his efforts to enlist more people to join his fight to bolster nuclear security around the world (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) is trying to motivate more people on and off Capitol Hill to join his fight to prevent nuclear terrorism and global proliferation while increasing atomic security around the world.

It's no small task, the five-term congressman and former Lincoln City Council member knows. So, Fortenberry has a multipart strategy for connecting with and creating new nuclear-security advocates.

His plans include reviving the Congressional Nuclear Security Working Group, which he co-chairs with Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and holding educational events around Washington. He's also using the legislative process, promoting a pending bill that calls for studying an expansion of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program into the Middle East and North Africa.

For the past three decades, the CTR effort has provided U.S. financial and technical assistance to help Russia eliminate and secure aging nuclear warheads, chemical-warfare materials and other unconventional arms.

Expanding such a program into a region that includes nations such as Syria, Iran and Israel also would be no small task.

So Fortenberry is busy reaching out to House and Senate members on both sides of the aisle, trying to create a coalition that will support funding for expanding threat reduction -- as well as similar initiatives in the future.

"I worry … [that] there's really not a constituency for this," he told Global Security Newswire, referring to the broad topic of nuclear security. "And issues that tend to have attention paid to them have constituencies."

"That's only natural, there's nothing wrong with that," he added. "But these are such big questions, technical questions, complicated questions. And honestly getting the mind around the horror of what could happen if something goes wrong in this arena is too much for people [in Congress] to really look at. And so it doesn't lend itself naturally to some organic constituency out there."

Edited excerpts of Fortenberry's Sept. 27 interview with GSN in his Capitol Hill office are below:

GSN: Why do you feel the need to encourage other lawmakers to focus on nuclear safety?

Fortenberry: I'll tell you a story. … A few years ago I was on a [nuclear-strategy] panel with former Defense Secretary [James] Schlesinger. I was sitting next to him. Now, he was the defense secretary when I was a child. And it was a very powerful moment for me, recognizing the gravity of the responsibility, that that legacy now has been handed to me. And [I was struck by] the fact that we have to have a continuity of institutional memory in this regard -- and I'm very worried that we don't.

GSN: Where is that institutional memory lacking?

Fortenberry: Within Congress. The Senate [where senators have longer terms than House members] might be a little bit better. But you think of House members and [how] the demands of politics, elections, the constant drama and turmoil over immediate concerns like funding government, can take you away from the opportunity to do long-range planning and thinking about essential questions. It's very sad, but it's the hard reality. So those were part of the reasons that I wanted to elevate the opportunity for members of Congress to have a working group focused on the area of nuclear security.

GSN: You said there's no real constituency for nuclear security. Wouldn't you see yourself as having that, because the congressional district you represent in Nebraska includes the Defense Department's Strategic Command?

Fortenberry: That's a good point. This is my first year to represent Strategic Command [because of congressional redistricting near Omaha]. We've always been a good neighbor and done things in proximity to them or with them occasionally. But now I own the representation of Offutt Air Force Base and Strategic Command. So those concerns fit seamlessly now, for me, into a main constituency where I am.

But I'm talking about broader in the country. Because what we're talking about is the future of civilization here, existential things. But no one has the time. It's a strange irony. … [Sometimes] immediate concerns tend to take up all the time [of lawmakers]. ...

[I think] that we ought to do something that at least gives another forum [such as the Nuclear Security Working Group] to elevate and heighten the sensitivity to the need for discussion in areas of nonproliferation, modernization and creative thinking in terms of policy moving forward that keeps us safe and prevents this technology from spreading, and that possibly creates new structures internationally to keep a check on this.

GSN: Beyond members of Congress, who else do you want to encourage to do more work in the arena of nuclear security?

Fortenberry: People who are attracted to it because of the nature of the question. People who worry about it deeply and because this is so dangerous. People who are younger. …

[We should be] bringing people in who want to have serious deliberation about the whole spectrum of issues affecting nuclear security. Now you've had movements in the past, you know, the '60s peace movements and things like that. And certainly there's an aspect of that. But you don't want to be captured by a particular past sentiment. We want to try to move forward.

GSN: Or a partisan sentiment?

Fortenberry: Or a partisan sentiment that becomes entangled with other agendas that might actually distract from the deeper questions as to how do we secure nuclear weapons, bring the probability of their use down to as close to zero as you can, and make sure bad people don't get them.

GSN: At a Sept. 17 Congressional Nuclear Security Working Group event on Capitol Hill you asked a panel of experts how they define deterrence. That question took up a significant amount of the hour-long event. How do you define deterrence?

Fortenberry: Tom Karako, [a Kenyon College assistant political science professor and former House Armed Services Committee fellow], had a very, very astute observation. [He said] psychology, communications, force structure. I thought that was very well stated.

I've always had the disposition that you cannot build trust and relationships unless you're talking to people. So there at times has been pressure around here [on Capitol Hill] to cut people off, no conversation. They're bad. They've chosen another way. Sometimes your reaction needs to be strong and forceful in that regard. But to absolutely cut off the opportunity for any kind of communication, even if it has to be through back channels or third-party channels, to me is imprudent. So that to me is also an important part of deterrence.

But obviously our nuclear weapons themselves are deterrence policy. And that has been the basic way in which we've built deterrence. But I think that interesting and a bit mysterious question of psychology, as well, is a good component to add to this triad of deterrence. Look, we don't want to go this direction. We want to be your friend. But don't try to hurt us.

GSN:  On a more specific matter, you added language to the House's fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill requiring a report to Congress on how the Pentagon can expand the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program into the Middle East and North Africa. Similar language is in the Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the bill, which the full Senate is expected to debate before the end of the year. So it looks like final defense authorization act -- if President Obama signs it into law -- will include the CTR language. If so, what will the next step be in the effort to expand the program?

Fortenberry: We want to heighten the intensity of discussion today and create a thinking around nuclear security. The Nunn-Lugar [program is] extraordinarily successful. [Former Senator] Sam Nunn's not here [in Congress] anymore. Neither is Dick Lugar, neither is Jon Kyl [both of whom also are retired senators]. The legacy -- who's going to carry the legacy, and also represent the legacy in a way that meets modern needs?

GSN: If the legislative language you wrote becomes law, the Obama administration will submit a report to Congress analyzing how to expand CTR into the Middle East and North Africa. This sounds like implementation would still be many years out.

Fortenberry: Unless somebody owns it. That's the question. A lot of times reports like this tend to gather dust on the shelf for academics. That's again one of the things that we want to try to prevent. And I think the Nuclear Security Working Group, my interest, [Representative Schiff's] interest, hopefully others' [will help, and] this serves as a platform, a template for creative thinking.

GSN: Are you concerned about that fact that nuclear-savvy lawmakers -- including former Senators Kyl, Lugar and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) -- recently left Congress, and thus it may be more difficult than in the recent past to secure actual funding in the Senate for initiatives like an expansion of CTR into the  Middle East?

Fortenberry: That's a good question. We've started to go around and figure out, "OK, who [in the Senate] can own this." … From what I read, Senator [Bob] Corker [R-Tenn., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] seems eager to take a broader role in foreign relation, and I would hope that that relationship could be strengthened.

GSN: You've kept a close eye on varied nations' weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. For example, in May you and then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who now is a senator, encouraged President Obama to help stop South Korea from taking steps to develop nuclear weapons. Why is this a priority of yours?

Fortenberry: In terms of the broader picture -- I think you can look at Syria as microcosm of what is happening -- there is a realignment of the post-World War II framework for international stability going on. Now, the United States was cast into that role. It was cast upon us. And we have sacrificed greatly for international security and stability, and given untold numbers of persons. [We've provided other nations] real opportunity for new structures of governance, opportunity economically, stability even in their culture -- not always perfectly, but that's what we've done. …

[Going forward] the international community cannot hide behind U.S. military might. Now, the collateral damage and the destabilization that could occur from us lobbing a few bombs [in Syria, where a civil war is raging] is significant and may make it worse for the innocent people who have already been so harmed by the savagery of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. And then the other thing it does is it makes us complicit with [members of] this rebel movement who are equally as barbaric, and then this moderate element. Do they really have the capacity to come in and set up a governing structure? So when all this goes wrong, you -- the international community -- will turn around and blame it on us.

Now, we're not doing this anymore. The United States has gone to extraordinary lengths, in many ways doing most of the heavy lifting for the international community, for decades now. ...

GSN: What types of new structures do you hope to see emerge?

Fortenberry: It's an academic question. … Think about this. You've got a U.N. Security Council, and it's stuck. It can't do anything. You've got an Arab League that says, "Well, we kind of want you to do something, but we're not going to say so publicly." We've got an African Union that has some mild structure to it. But they couldn't help in Libya. There's a Gulf Cooperation Council. Are there opportunities out there to rethink the way in which multilateral institutions can be outfitted or have the capacity to respond so that the United States is not doing this heavy lifting by ourselves?

The interesting thing is, almost every ambassador who comes in here says, "You're the lone superpower in the world and you have the moral obligation to do something." And I'm always pushing back on that [and saying]: "No, no, no, no, no. You've benefited greatly. And you're doing pretty well. And you have to burden-share in all of this, as well."

So if you think about a situation like when the Berlin Wall fell. The countries in Eastern Europe had ready-made institutions with which they could align themselves, basically NATO and EU. And so it created some pathways for them. We don’t have that as readily in other places. And this might really only apply … to the Middle East and Africa.

Asia's a little different, because you might not be able to achieve some sort of harmonious understanding between the Japanese and the South Koreans and the Taiwanese as a sort of united front and counter-leverage to Chinese intentions.

But, nonetheless, it does beg the question of, "Are there new institutional frameworks that could emerge that help burden-share for the sake of civility?"

GSN: What other recent work have you done in Congress related to nuclear security?

Fortenberry: Well, this is the first year I'm on the [House] Appropriations Committee, [which helps write the federal budget], so I've tried to keep a watch on [funding for] nonproliferation initiatives, which is important to me. In the previous cycle we were able to elevate [funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative] more [to prevent a proposed budget cut]. … So obviously, as the government spends so the government does. As so as we go on I think that will be one of our primary tasks -- the appropriations process.

We'll [also] continue to look at maybe creative initiatives -- like expanding Cooperative Threat Reduction -- as a template for [taking] what has worked in the past, taking the lessons learned and applying them to new circumstances. … 

[I also want] to seize opportunities to help continue to march down a path toward stability in this regard. Look, the Japanese can make this [nuclear arms] stuff overnight. So could the [South] Koreans, in effect. Maybe the Taiwanese.

So, then, of course if Iran goes nuclear, the Saudis, what's their choice? Buy the stuff or somehow procure it pretty fast. The Egyptians could probably develop it quickly. And the Turks. So you have a nuclear-armed Middle East, effectively overnight. Do we really want to go that direction? … It's the proliferation problem.

GSN: What is your stance on the concept of creating a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone in the Middle East? Have you inserted yourself into that discussion at all?

Fortenberry: Not much. Obviously it's very delicate with Israel. It's just delicate.

Some of these issues you have to approach more tangentially. So, if you're able to restart a peace process -- and [if] the longer goal is some sort of combination of Palestinian and Israeli states side by side -- [then we could address] those types of questions, [instead of] trying to get to that [Mideast WMD-free zone] question first.

GSN: You're also a co-chair of the Congressional Study Group on Europe, a role you've held since April. What nuclear-security-related matters is it addressing?

Fortenberry: In our discussions, particularly with the Eastern Europeans, we've raised the issue of NATO allotments. ...

GSN: That was a concern of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in 2011 during one of his final addresses criticized NATO member countries for not spending more on their defense budgets. Is enough attention being paid to that issue now?

Fortenberry: No. …

Now there might be unfolding opportunities -- such as the transatlantic-trade agreement -- to raise these levels, [and] to raise these issues as well. [We need] collective military frameworks that aren't just sitting out here as military frameworks, but are tied to a whole host of issues as to how do we strengthen ties between peoples, and set up standards so that 1 billion people in the world are saying, these are our standards for labor, and the environment, and good governance. …

There are a lot of problems with globalization. This can be used for great good or great harm. Great harm being the technologies that are potentially shared and the knowledge about them. Great good, though, in the sense that other people are recognizing the core values of our system that begins with respect for an inherent dignity and right of persons as a basis for governing structures. That idea is spreading very rapidly. And that’s positive.

So you use trade agreements perhaps to, again, elevate these concepts and people being free to choose which form of governance and society they really want to have. And when you have those kinds of linkages, it tends to diminish the prospect of belligerent behavior, and you would hope would diminish the prospect for development of weapons and weapon systems that are going to create further instability in the world. …

GSN: Did anything at the recent U.N. General Assembly in New York stand out to you or surprise you?

Fortenberry: How aggressive the Iranian president's been to present a new face.

GSN: Are you optimistic about improving relations with Iran and potentially dispelling fears about its nuclear ambitions?

Fortenberry: I think it's important to be optimistic. You've got to be cautious. But it's important to be optimistic. It's certainly different than where we were, isn't it?

October 7, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) is trying to motivate more people on and off Capitol Hill to join his fight to prevent nuclear terrorism and global proliferation while increasing atomic security around the world.