All START: a proposal for moving beyond US-Russia arms control

Amy J. Nelson & Michael O’Hanlon
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 16, 2023

Vladimir Putin’s decision to suspend Russia’s ongoing participation in the New START nuclear arms control agreement is hardly good news. Not only does it represent one more step in the deterioration of broader U.S.-Russia relations, it also undoes the solitary remaining link between the countries in the modern network of arms control treaties that has kept some constraints on their military competition in strategic domains in recent decades. With that said, and although he certainly meant it as no favor to the United States, President Putin’s decision in February to suspend (but not annul) Russia’s participation in New START may serve a higher purpose, nonetheless.

The arms control void created by a recent pattern of treaty violations, withdrawals, and suspensions creates opportunities for creative thought about what, if anything, should replace New START when it definitively expires in 2026, including especially the particularly thorny issue of bringing China’s nuclear arsenal into an arms control regime. China has an arsenal that is currently dwarfed in size by the United States’ and Russia’s but seems likely, according to many Western projections, to grow significantly in the next decade. Numerous efforts to “include” China and its arsenal in legally binding arms control treaties have cropped up in recent years, ranging from the dramatic charade of awaiting a Chinese delegation that had not accepted an invitation to US-Russia arms control negotiations in Vienna, Austria to quieter efforts to build capacity for onsite inspections that would necessarily accompany China’s participation in any treaty.

As an alternative to bringing China into existing bilateral treaties, we propose a new strategic framework that would broaden participation in arms control and provide mechanisms to include all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the P-5), with China, Britain, and France joining the United States and Russia in a future accord. Let the brainstorming about the best name for such an accord begin, but one starting point might be to call it “All START” to underscore that it would include all states that legitimately possess nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Indeed, it could eventually even include Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, countries that have refrained from or withdrawn from the NPT, which codifies the division between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states. Additionally, even though bilateral strategic nuclear arms limitation treaties have traditionally been of finite (and relatively short) durations, this should be an accord of unlimited duration to avoid the requirement to renegotiate at regular intervals when geopolitics may not be conducive.

To achieve its inclusive purpose, All START would de-emphasize quantitative arms limits without jettisoning them entirely. Limits on nuclear warheads and delivery devices, like those obtained under New START, would remain in place for Russia and the United States. The remaining countries would submit information on their own plans for nuclear arsenal modernization and nuclear force deployments. But in the new format, the main obligations of China, the UK and France would be to accept the transparency and monitoring provisions that are at the heart of modern strategic arms control — and that remain useful even in an era when numerical limitations may now make less sense for many reasons.

An All START accord would continue to emphasize the traditional goals of arms control as first underscored by Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin in 1961 — to reduce the chances of war, to reduce the damage of war should it occur anyway, and to reduce the costs of preparing for possible war. But it would do this through transparency that lowers uncertainty about capabilities and intentions. As such, it would emphasize managing uncertainty as a central purpose of modern arms control, with less devotion to the cause of numerical decline in the size of arsenals.

The New START accord, signed by US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 — a successor to the SALT agreements under US Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter of the Cold War and the START treaties under President George H.W. Bush — has been useful since its entry into force in 2011. New START limits long-range nuclear warheads that can be mounted on land- and submarine-based missiles and heavy bombers to 1,550 for each side — still several times what would be needed to destroy Russian and American society. But those numbers are 80 percent lower than Cold War levels. Not only has New START reduced the risk of a nuclear accident simply by reducing the number of devices in which such an accident could occur, it has also meant that Russia and the United States saved a lot of money compared to what they might otherwise spend on an unconstrained nuclear arms race. Additionally, through on-site inspections and data exchanges, New START has also fostered transparency and confidence-building, easing fears that either side might be planning a surprise buildup or even nuclear first strike against the other.

But even without the latest shenanigans from Moscow, New START had become dated. Though it is a much-evolved version of earlier bilateral nuclear limitation agreements, it adheres too closely to the original formula to maintain long-term relevance in an increasingly complex strategic environment. Specifically, limitations on shorter-range or tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia has had a lead, were left for a successor agreement. Likewise, long-range precision-strike conventional weapons, where the United States generally sets the pace, were left for a future negotiation. Same for Putin’s Dr. No-like dream weapons, including silly contraptions without an obvious mission like intercontinental nuclear-armed torpedoes.

Most of all, New START leaves out China — a country that, after decades of being content to marshal nuclear forces less than a tenth the size of the US arsenal, now appears bent on owning 1,500 of its own nuclear warheads by 2035, according to the Pentagon’s latest assessments. The existing treaty also offers no sufficient incentive for Beijing to join. Now is a particularly opportune time for new ideas for bringing China into an arms control agreement. Even though China’s arsenal would likely remain no more than a third of our own arsenal’s size, in a world where Moscow and Beijing increasingly collaborate strategically, such a force level could no longer be considered negligible.

Early approaches to China’s nuclear arsenal and its challenge for arms control consisted of repeatedly asking China to join an existing or future arms treaty to, for example, cap its buildup at 1,000 to 1,500 warheads. That number would be several times the size of China’s arsenal today, but remain far below US levels, so, from the Western point of view, it seems reasonable. But unfortunately such a prospect never proved sufficiently enticing to Beijing. Additionally, Putin has called for a return to something like Cold War blocs by requesting that British/French nuclear strength of about 500 warheads be factored in alongside US strategic forces. Combined with US warheads, the British and French contributions could sustain a rough parity between the Western alliance system and the China-Russia “axis.”

There are several problems with this approach. Not only is China uninterested in this or any other kind of formal arms control at present, Beijing may also feel it may need to grow its arsenal in the near future. If, for example, the United States tries to invoke nuclear superiority in a future Taiwan crisis upon deciding it can no longer count on just conventional military forces to protect the island, China may wish to checkmate that capacity by growing its arsenal to a size that approaches nuclear parity with the United States. Second, and in fairness to Beijing, China is probably tired of getting harangued for its supposedly aggressive nuclear behavior after more than half a century of considerable restraint. If entering arms control talks would subject China to more criticism of this ilk, China may understandably have little interest.

Third comes a problem for the United States: Even if this kind of accord maintained a certain parity between “East” and “West” today, it would favor Chinese and Russian forces numerically in the long run (since Britain and France have no intentions of building up their own forces). Such an agreement could place the US at a numerical disadvantage and override potential US benefits from the treaty. Finally, such an approach risks pushing Beijing and Moscow even further together through the structure of future arms control accords, when the real US strategic goal should be the Nixonian one of eventually driving them apart.

The right approach taken for a future arms treaty must not to leave China out, yet not bring it in as part of the same bloc as Russia, either. A more creative third way is the approach needed.

Such an approach has many benefits. First, it reduces the uncertainty that drives aggressive behaviors like arms buildups. Should China, along with Britain and France, join the United States and Russia in a formal treaty that mandates verification measures, data exchanges, and consultations, it would foster transparency and reduce uncertainty. This could be a potentially more enticing and feasible negotiation agenda than imposing limits on the new participants.

This new approach would include treaty-based mechanisms to discourage big nuclear buildups — but without formal numerical constraints on China, France or Britain. The three new participants would be asked to declare, as with the Paris climate-change convention, their nuclear goals for the future. Such declarations would be non-binding, in the sense that they could be modified. But all participants would be subject to inspection and assessments of compliance. They would also be expected to explain and defend their plans for nuclear modernization or expansion. These would be the new and unequivocal requirements for being a “responsible nuclear power.”

All START would not by itself make the world a calm and safe place. No arms control treaty can do this. That is not, nor was it ever, the purpose of arms control. We know enough about the proper aspirations for any arms control regimen by this point to know full well that no technocratic arms control regimen can override or supersede the fundamental problems of international security and global order. The better part of arms-control wisdom is to keep goals in line with political reality.

So, the treaty we propose would neither attempt to curtail all nuclear competition, nor ban some degree of Chinese expansion of its arsenal, nor curb whatever plans the French and British may devise for the future of their arsenals. To attempt as much would be to run at crosscurrents with the prevailing forces and dynamics of today’s great-power relations. Arms control will still be useful under this new architecture, it will just look a little different. Or at least begin a little differently, inverting the process by seeking transparency en route to reductions, rather than transparency for the purpose of verifying reductions.

This approach is less of a departure from “traditional” arms control treaties than it may seem. Arms control is increasingly valuable for the information it provides, and treaties have grown in breadth to include multiple methods of providing information even since SALT I, which relied on national technical means (spy satellites) exclusively.

The treaty we propose could clearly state that by 2030, the onus would be on any country considering a nuclear buildup to justify to the other parties and the world why such an expansion is necessary. Such moral suasion is admittedly not always an adequate tool for limiting the assertive behaviors of nations. But if it did not suffice to limit nuclear arms racing, the other parties would retain the right to withdraw from the treaty framework. Moreover, any willingness by Moscow and Washington to agree, in this or a future accord, to further nuclear cuts would naturally depend in large part on the nuclear expansion efforts of China. That understanding would create at least some implicit leverage to employ with Beijing as well as Moscow.

Furthermore, rather than a numerical limitation treaty of limited duration, this agreement ought to be one of unlimited duration, with provisions for flexibility and adaptation, including a consultative body and a mechanism for including additional members. The flexibility should afford consideration of novel technologies of relevance in the future, as needed. Since these technologies would not necessarily have to be limited or banned, the new treaty framework could aim for the more realistic and still desirable goal of ensuring transparency, such that new technologies do not generate fears of disarming first strikes or other paths toward greater crisis instability in the relations among the world’s nuclear powers. The hope is that, at a more conducive time, reductions and possibly even a missile defense-related declarations could follow.

This arms control framework would be a long-term means of managing uncertainty and enhancing transparency in the nuclear competition, while also keeping at least some lid on the cost of any multi-party nuclear arms race. We know information about nuclear arsenals has high value. The proposed approach simply leverages what had become self-evident.

Given the state of great-power relations today, this kind of accord may well not prove negotiable for some time. However, in light of the current eroded state of the international arms control architecture, we are already overdue for a conceptual debate about how to think about the future of arms control once that is again possible. Perhaps Putin has just reminded us to get on with it.

Amy J. Nelson is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program and with the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Brookings Institution.

Michael E. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in U.S. defense strategy, the use of military force, and American national security policy. Their article is reprinted from PeaceMeal, Spring 2023.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

United States extends nuclear weapons treaty with Russia

The United States formally extended a critical nuclear weapons accord with Russia on February 3 for five years, opting to prolong limits on the arsenals of both nations two days before the treaty’s expiration date and bringing a measure of stability to U.S.-Russia relations on nuclear matters. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the extension of the New START accord ensures verifiable limits will remain on Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers until 2026, and keeps in place a mutual verification regime that gives the United States greater insight into Russia’s nuclear posture.

“Especially during times of tension, verifiable limits on Russia’s intercontinental-range nuclear weapons are vitally important,” Blinken said. “Extending the New START Treaty makes the United States, U.S. allies and partners, and the world safer. An unconstrained nuclear competition would endanger us all.”

The extension by Washington comes five days after the Krem-lin announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed a bill prolonging the pact with the United States. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement: “Considering the special responsibilities that Russia and the U.S. carry as the world’s largest nuclear nations, the decision taken is important as it guarantees a necessary level of predictability and transparency in this area, while strictly maintaining a balance of interests.”

Brokered by President Barack Obama and Russia’s then- president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, New START came into effect the following year. It limits each nation to deploying 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers with nuclear weapons. It also limits both nations to deploying 1,550 nuclear warheads on those platforms.

That agreement included a five-year extension clause that allowed both nations to extend the pact with approval from both presidents. Had the United States and Russia not extended the pact, the world would have returned to an era without substantive, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear powers for the first time in decades.

In his statement, Blinken said the United States had assessed Russia to be in compliance with its New START obligations every year since the treaty entered into force in 2011. He said the United States will now set about pursuing an arms-control agreement with the Kremlin that regulates all of Russia’s nuclear weapons. Russia retains a significant arsenal of “battlefield” nuclear weapons, smaller arms that fall outside the confines of New START.

“We will also pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal,” Blinken said. “The United States is committed to effective arms control that enhances stability, transparency and predictability while reducing the risks of costly, dangerous arms races.”

Despite engagement with Russia on nuclear matters and other issues of mutual interest, Blinken said the Biden administration remained “clear eyed” on the challenges Russia poses to the United States and the world. “Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, so too will we work to hold Russia to account for adversarial actions as well as its human rights abuses, in close coordination with our allies and partners,” Blinken said.

– edited from The Washington Post, February 3, 2021
PeaceMeal, March/April 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.N. nuclear weapons ban begins, Nobel winner asks Biden to abandon them

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force January 22, a date set by the October 24 ratification of the pact by Honduras. The treaty terms call for it to take effect 90 days after the 50th nation deposits its ratification or accession with the United Nations.

For the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons development, production, possession, use and threat of use, and the stationing of another country’s nuclear weapons on a state-party’s national territory are all expressly prohibited in a global treaty. Negotiations on the TPNW were concluded in July 2017 after a negotiating conference involving more than 120 states. The initiative emerged after a series of three international conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons held in 2013–14.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), said in a statement that “the 50 countries that ratify this treaty are showing true leadership in setting a new international norm that nuclear weapons are not just immoral but illegal.” She called upon President Joe Biden to break with policies pursued by former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama and join the ban. “If Joe Biden wants to secure his place in history and secure the United States’ place in the future, he needs to reverse course not just of Trump, but also of Obama, and stop developing new nuclear weapons at a cost of $1.7 trillion,” Fihn said.

Fihn accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 on behalf of ICAN, which played a crucial role in the U.N. adopting the TPNW that same year. Also in 2017, Trump came into office with an avowed affinity for the very weapons that ICAN sought to ban.

Trump went on not only to expand and modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons program, but also to pull the country out of milestone treaties with Russia. That left the top two world nuclear powers with only one remaining non-proliferation agreement: the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Despite Moscow’s offers to immediately extend the deal, the Trump administration sought added conditions that brought the two to a stalemate that threatened the pact’s collapse when it expires on February 5. On his first full day in office, Biden announced he would seek an unconditional five-year extension of New START and did so on his first phone call to Russian president Vladimir Putin, a move welcomed by the Kremlin and anti-nuclear weapons activists.

Biden has drawn acclaim from a number of arms control advocates for his historic efforts to limit the development of nuclear weapons. The Council for a Livable World, which says on its website that it is an “advocacy organization dedicated to eliminating the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons,” was the first national organization to endorse Biden when he first ran for Senate in 1972. In 2020, this leading disarmament think tank broke with its tradition of not endorsing presidential candidates by supporting his run for president. Biden’s official policy sheet says he seeks to limit the role of nuclear weapons.

On January 22, Biden appointed Alexandra Bell, the Obama-era senior advisor to the State Department Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, as deputy assistant secretary to the office. Last May, Bell acknowledged the lasting significance of the TPNW in a tweet, writing: “TPNW is here to stay. Time to find common ground.”

But Fihn said she wants the Biden administration to go further and sign the TPNW. “A plan to limit nuclear weapons is not enough,” she said. “It’s time for a commitment to complete abolition rooted in international law with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. That is the leadership needed from the U.S.”

Crediting the hibakusha, the survivors of the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that introduced the world to such weapons of mass destruction, Fihn touted the TPNW as historic. “This treaty is the first to achieve entry-into-force that bans the most destructive weapons in human history; outlaws nuclear testing; prohibits all efforts to develop nuclear weapons or in any way support them,” Fihn said. “It does not just ban the weapons, but outlaws the entire nuclear weapons structure, drastically changing the state of play on nuclear weapons abolition.”

She said nuclear weapons are “tremendously unpopular,” and offered new data to support her argument. A poll just published on January 22 by the YouGov research firm showed that support for banning nuclear weapons among the populations of six members of the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance — Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain — ranged between 77% and 89%. Additionally, majorities living in countries hosting nuclear weapons wanted them out, according to the survey. This included 74% of Italians and 83% of Germans. With these figures in mind, Fihn argued that “opposition to this treaty is politically untenable.”

“Change is coming,” Fihn said, “and it is coming faster than most expect, as the treaty forces research universities, financial institutions and weapons producers to support our mission or find themselves outside international law and facing legal, financial and political risk.”

– edited from Arms Control Today, November 2020, and Newsweek, January 22, 2021PeaceMeal, January/February 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

How a U.S. defense secretary came to support the abolition of nuclear weapons

William J. Perry
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December 7, 2020

Many people have asked me how a former secretary of defense could support the abolition of nuclear weapons. This paper is a partial answer to that question, in the form of a personal history of how my thinking on nuclear weapons has evolved from Hiroshima to the present time.

When we reached the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima, I was inspired to think back to that fateful day and to my own reaction when I heard the news. Back then, I was relieved that the terrible war would finally end, and I was intensely curious about how this new bomb worked. But I was not thinking about what the long-term consequences of such a bomb might be. That would come later.

A few months after Hiroshima, I turned 18, joined the Army’s Corps of Engineers, and in time became a part of the Army of Occupation of Japan. I saw first-hand the once-great city of Tokyo reduced to rubble by our firebombs. Then I was sent to Okinawa, the scene of the last great battle of World War II, a battle so fierce that only 10 percent of the 100,000 Japanese solders defending the island survived; the rest either were killed in battle or committed suicide. There was hardly a building left standing in the capital city of Naha. The Japanese and Okinawans that I worked with were still numb with the horror and shock of what they had experienced.

What I saw in Tokyo and Okinawa totally removed any view that I had of the glory of war and convinced me that humanity could not continue its practice of engulfing the world in war every generation. The devastation I witnessed in Tokyo had been done with thousands of airplanes and tens of thousands of bombs over a period of years; equivalent devastation could have been inflicted on Tokyo with one plane, one nuclear bomb, in one instant. Similarly, the deaths and destruction in the Battle of Okinawa had taken place over several months and required an American landing force equivalent to what was employed on D-Day in Europe, and the Okinawa fighting cost tens of thousands of American casualties. The Japanese forces in Okinawa could have been defeated with one nuclear bomb, in one instant.

Einstein said that, with the advent of the nuclear bomb, everything has changed, save our way of thinking. But what I witnessed in Tokyo and Okinawa began to change my way of thinking. It led me to believe that we would have to completely reconsider the role of war, which had been with us since the beginning of history. As deadly as World War II was even without nuclear bombs, a war where Hiroshima-type bombs were widely used would be a far greater catastrophe. I concluded that the only reasonable goal of our nuclear weapons should be to deter the use of nuclear weapons.

Then in 1952, the U.S. tested a thermonuclear bomb that unleashed a destructive force 1,000 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb. A few years later, the Soviet Union tested one even more powerful. Subsequently, both the United States and the Soviet Union began deploying hydrogen bombs in their nuclear arsenals, most of them with a destructive power of 10 to 100 times the Hiroshima bomb. Each of our countries soon had the capability not only to destroy the other, but to actually create an extinction event, comparable to when a large asteroid struck the earth 66 million years ago, leading to the extinction of most animal species then living, including all dinosaurs. That extinction event was caused by a natural phenomenon. Now mankind has the power to cause its own extinction. This led me to conclude that the deterrence policies of the United States and the Soviet Union had to be completely foolproof. But even as I reached this conclusion, I feared that it might not be possible to achieve that result.

In October of 1962, my fears were confirmed. At the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was managing an electronics laboratory in California and was called back to Washington to lead a small technical team whose job was to provide President Kennedy with a daily assessment of the operational readiness of the nuclear missiles the Soviet Union had deployed to Cuba. Kennedy’s military advisors were urging him to authorize military action against those missiles. Instead, he wanted to try to resolve the crisis through diplomacy, since he feared that any military action could easily escalate into a nuclear war. Still, he was prepared to take military action before the Soviet missiles became operational, so he was using our input to determine how many more days he had for diplomacy. With the intimate picture I was getting as the crisis unfolded, I believed that every day that I went into our analysis center was going to be my last day on Earth.

Against all odds, Kennedy and Khrushchev were able to reach an agreement before the missiles became operational, but it was a very close call. Kennedy later estimated the chances of the Cuban Missile Crisis ending in a nuclear catastrophe were one in three. But when he said that, he did not know that the Soviets had deployed in Cuba not only the medium-range nuclear missiles that were the cause of the crisis, but short-range nuclear missiles that were already operational. If our troops had invaded Cuba, they would have been decimated on the beachhead with nuclear weapons, and a general nuclear war would surely have followed.

We avoided that tragedy as much by good luck as by good management. But our governments learned the wrong lesson from the Cuban missile crisis. The United States concluded that it “won” because it had more nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union, so we worked to sustain and increase that lead. The Soviets concluded that they “lost” because they did not have enough nuclear weapons, so they began a major nuclear buildup. Both the United States and the Soviet Union apparently thought that more nuclear weapons would put them in a better position to “win” the next crisis. Before the resulting nuclear arms race had run its course, our planet had 70,000 nuclear weapons, and fissile material to build tens of thousands more—enough to obliterate each other and the rest of the planet 10 times over.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union were so focused on building nuclear bombs that neither considered the reality that, although neither Kennedy or Khrushchev wanted a nuclear war, we had almost blundered into one. Neither side focused on the unprecedented level of tragedy that such a war would have caused. But I saw that near-tragedy up close, and I learned a different lesson. I learned that even though our two leaders were doing everything they could to avoid a nuclear war, we came very close to having one — and our deterrence policy would not have stopped it.

In 1977, I became the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, serving in the Carter administration. During my term in office I learned another lesson about the limitations of deterrence. I was awakened at 3 a.m. by a phone call from the watch officer at our missile warning center. He told me that his computers were showing 200 missiles on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States! Happily, he quickly added that he had determined that his computers were in error, and he was calling me to help him determine what was wrong with his computers. But before he had recognized that this was a false alarm, he had called the White House to alert them. We came within a few minutes of the president having to decide whether to launch our missiles in response to this presumed attack. If the president had ordered a launch, he would have started a nuclear war by accident!

I learned one clear lesson from my experiences with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the false alarm: The United States’ deterrence policy was not sufficient to prevent a civilization-ending nuclear war. The danger of a nuclear war was not that one leader would suddenly launch a surprise disarming attack — which was what both the United States and Russia were preparing for — but that we would blunder into a nuclear war. The blunder could result from a political miscalculation, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, or an accident, as in the false alarm. Either of them could have resulted in the end of civilization.

Those experiences taught me that our nuclear policies should be directed toward avoiding such a blunder. Yet in the years since then, we have evolved a deterrence policy that actually increases the probability of blundering into a nuclear war. We have continued to focus our nuclear posture and policies on preparing for a surprise, disarming attack, and those policies actually increase the likelihood of an accidental nuclear war. The response of both American and Soviet leaders to the Cuban Missile Crisis was to double down on their dangerous policies, greatly increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals and maintaining the same policies that almost caused the Cuban Missile Crisis to become an extinction event.

In 1994, I became the secretary of defense and as such had an opportunity to do something about my concerns about blundering into a nuclear war. I made lowering nuclear dangers my highest priority. This was facilitated by the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which had been passed before I took office. It would be hard to overstate just how many obstacles there were to implementing that vital program. But Sen. Sam Nunn was at that time the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, and he gave me his full support in implementing the legislation that he and Sen. Richard Lugar had pioneered. As a result, we were able to dismantle 8,000 nuclear weapons during the three years that I was secretary, half in the United States and half in Russia. But reducing nuclear weapons was only part of my goal; the more important part was establishing a friendly, cooperative relationship with Russia. I worked very hard at that.

I met with all key Russian government officials four or five times and with the Russian minister of defense more than a dozen times. We met in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Whiteman Air Force Base, Fort Riley, Saratov Air Base, Kiev and Pervomaysk. We organized a joint U.S.-Russia rescue training mission; we negotiated an agreement whereby Russia would blend down highly enriched uranium (HEU) taken from former Soviet warheads so that it could be used as fuel for American power reactors; we negotiated an agreement whereby Russia would deploy a brigade in an American division for the peace enforcement operation in Bosnia; we had a hot line on our desks that allowed us to discuss urgent issues as they came up. I had the Russian defense minister as my guest at NATO defense ministers’ meetings; I introduced him to President Clinton and his cabinet officers.

In sum, I was in very close communications with the Russian defense minister, and I used that closeness to facilitate specific joint programs, such as the dismantlement of nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. But I also used that closeness as a mechanism for bringing our two countries closer together generally, as partners if not as allies. When I left office in 1997, I believed that we were well on our way to dismantling the deadly nuclear legacy of the Cold War, and that the hostility that existed during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, with all of its dangers, was now behind us.

But that was not to be. A series of U.S. policy decisions in the next decades led to increasingly bitter reactions from Russia. Those included: the expansion of NATO eastward toward Russia; the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM); and the war in Iraq.

As a result, by the second term of the George W. Bush administration, U.S.-Russia relations had become increasingly unfriendly and nuclear dangers were again a concern. That led four former American statesmen to take a dramatic action: former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, Nunn, and I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which we cited the new nuclear dangers and argued that the world should, rather than living with this danger, abolish nuclear weapons.

For a few years the response to our op-eds was very positive, in the United States and worldwide. I was beginning to let myself hope that we might succeed. Just a month after President Obama took office he made a remarkable speech in Prague, where he said: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Later that year, Obama negotiated the New START with Russia. It entailed modest reductions in the nuclear forces of both countries but was to be followed by New START II, which would entail much more significant reductions. We were on our way, or so I thought.

But Obama ran into a buzz saw when he tried to get New START ratified. He finally negotiated an agreement with the opposition in which Senate Republicans gave their approval of New START after Obama agreed to an extensive nuclear modernization program. That price was too high in my judgment; it now has the United States on the path of spending more than $1 trillion over 30 years to modernize weapons whose numbers we should instead be seeking to reduce. At that point, Obama stopped pursuing his “Prague agenda,” and the four statesmen who had been pursuing nuclear abolition halted their joint efforts, too.

I was profoundly disappointed at the failure of Obama’s initiative, but I decided that the problem was too grave for me to simply give up. If we could not abolish nuclear weapons at this time, at least we could take actions to lower their dangers. To encourage those actions, I formed the William J. Perry Project to educate the public on nuclear dangers and to advocate to reduce those dangers.

I worked to promote those ideas through op-eds, classes, talks, conferences, online courses and two books: My Journey at the Nuclear Brink in 2015, and then, in 2020, Tom Collina and I wrote The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump. It recommends actions the United States can take, like removing the president’s sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, phasing out the country’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, and, until they are eliminated, prohibiting them from being launched on warning of an attack. We see those actions as steps that can keep us alive until we can get to a mindset that allows us to agree to the total abolition of nuclear weapons. The Perry Project is now producing a podcast, At the Brink, that tells the same story, but in a medium more likely to reach younger people. It is hosted by my granddaughter, Lisa Perry, who is an avid consumer of podcasts, like so many others of her generation.

Through all of these actions, I have collaborated with the institutions that have labored for years to promote the same message: the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Ploughshares Fund, and, of course, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Our goal is the same: to mitigate, and in time to eliminate, the danger of a nuclear catastrophe.

At times I get quite frustrated being a “prophet of doom.” And I get discouraged because my warnings of the existential dangers, and the modest recommendations of how to lower those dangers, are not being seriously debated. Even the Doomsday Clock warning, one that seems so easy to understand, has not generated significant political action. But we cannot give up. The stakes are too high.

It is not hyperbole to warn that a large-scale nuclear war could lead to an extinction event comparable to the one that caused the dinosaurs to die out. While many dinosaurs were killed by the direct effects of the energy released by the asteroid impact, the decisive effect was the nuclear winter caused by the massive burning of the planet’s forests. This nuclear winter lasted for many years and caused the destruction of nearly all vegetation, thereby killing nearly all vegetable-eating animals, which in turn deprived carnivorous animals of food.

In September, we who live in California experienced a small- scale preview of what nuclear winter could look like, caused by smothering smoke from extensive wildfires. In my town of Palo Alto, we actually experienced a “Darkness at Noon”; the smoke sitting on top of the coastal clouds prevented sunlight from getting through, making noon seem like midnight. We experienced this serious blockage only for a day, but it was easy to imagine the widespread crop failure that would result, if it lasted a few years, or even a few months.

In a large-scale nuclear war, hundreds of millions of people would be killed by the direct effects of the blasts, but those blasts would ignite extensive fires as hundreds of cities and surrounding forests burned. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, our limited experience of “Darkness at Noon” in California would be experienced over a wide area of the planet for several years. The least harmful result of a large-scale nuclear war would be the destruction of our civilization. The worst possible result would be the extinction of the human species.

Over many decades in and around U.S. and Russian defense establishments, my thinking has evolved, and I have come to strongly believe that it is time to start moving toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, and, until complete abolition can be achieved, to take the smaller but critically important steps spelled out in The Button to lower the risk of blundering into a nuclear war.

As 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden will face many daunting problems: the ongoing pandemic, the battered economy, and a deeply divided nation. All of these will demand his immediate attention, but he must also direct his attention to the entrenched nuclear policies that threaten to end our civilization. As he does so, this paper could be a guide to his thinking.

– PeaceMeal, January/February 2021

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