Today's date:
Summer 2010

Obama, Reagan and Zero Nukes

George Shultz was US secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. He recently spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels.

NPQ | You sat in the room in Reykjavik back during the 1986 summit when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev discussed for the first time the abolition of nuclear weapons. And, well before Barack Obama became president, you joined, in 2007, with Henry Kissinger, former US Defense Secretary William Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn to call for a nuclear-free world.

What prompted you in 2007 to make that statement?

George Shultz | President Reagan was a longtime advocate of abolishing nuclear weapons. He thought their use was immoral and that building a global security system based on mutually assured destruction was wrong. 

And I supported that. At Reykjavik, he actually engaged the Soviets on it seriously. It was without doubt a watershed in the Cold War.

When I returned from Reykjavik to Washington, I was virtually summoned to the British Embassy, where Margaret Thatcher hand-bagged me.

“How could you sit there and allow the president to propose a world without nuclear weapons?” she scolded. “But, Margaret,” I said, “he is the president.” “I know. But you are supposed to be the one who has his feet on the ground,” she continued. “But I agree with him!” I responded.

In general, there was a very hostile reaction to President Reagan’s proposal at the time.

At a conference at Stanford in 2006 that I organized with the nuclear physicist Sidney Drell, we looked backed on Reykjavik on the 20th anniversary of those talks. Kissinger, Perry and Nunn were there. We decided that if the time had not been right before the end of the Cold War, now that it was long over the idea might gain more traction. And it has—not only because we had a vision of a nuclear-free world, but also because we identified the steps that needed to be taken to get there.

Among other things, those steps called for substantially reducing the size of nuclear forces in all states that possess them; providing the highest possible security standards for all stock of weapons, weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium everywhere in the world; halting the production of fissile material for weapons globally; and getting control of the uranium-enrichment process—combined with a guarantee that what was needed for (civilian) nuclear reactors could be obtained at a reasonable price.

The reaction this time was altogether different. This time two-thirds of the former living secretaries of state endorsed the idea. In the presidential election campaign, both Obama and (John) McCain supported the idea. After the election, President Obama has been doing a terrific job of pushing for it. And Sen. McCain has spoken eloquently on the Senate floor in support.

NPQ | Is it a nonpartisan issue at this point?

Shultz | That is the way we are trying to keep it.

NPQ | With the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the new “Nuclear Posture” statement and the just-concluded security conference with heads of state, how do Obama’s policies stack up with your proposals?

Shultz | He is doing an excellent job. He has put the vision out there and keeps it out there. The Nuclear Posture Review shows he is being careful about American national security at every step. The conference of world leaders on securing fissile material is the right thing to do.

Who is going to disagree with that? So you get the whole world working on something and solving a problem. That is always a good step.

NPQ | Some American politicians (such as Sarah Palin) have criticized Obama’s actions for making America more vulnerable.

Shultz | I don’t see how he is making us more vulnerable. I just don’t see that at all.

But let me make a related point. One of the things in the Nuclear Posture Review that has gotten zero attention—but deserves some attention—is the common-sense notion that deterrence involves more than just nuclear weapons. There are all sorts of ways historically that you can deter an enemy. If you are an al-Qaida fighter in the hills of Pakistan, you are much more worried about a drone than a nuclear missile.

We need to broaden our concept that deterrence is not just nuclear. That is part of the thinking that must go along with steep reductions in nuclear weapons.

NPQ | At Reykjavik, the stumbling block with Gorbachev was the proposed United States missile defense. This time around, the US-proposed missile defense based in Europe is also a stumbling block. The Russians worry it might be to their disadvantage in any conflict with the West. American critics of the new treaty claim that the Russians can opt out of their commitments if we don’t come to terms on missile defense.

Shultz | That is what they say.

NPQ | What should be the approach here?

Shultz | It is a subject we should discuss with the Russians. If we are worried about a missile attack from Iran that could be detected from a radar station based in Russia, we should go and ask them, “How can we go about that?” We should work on this collaboratively.

President Reagan proposed to Gorbachev that we share missile-defense technology with the Soviets. Gorbachev, of course, didn’t believe that he would.

But the fact today is that everybody would better off if we learn how to defend ourselves, particularly against rogue states that don’t have a huge arsenal. That can be done.

NPQ | In Reykjavik, the Soviet concern was that a space-linked missile defense on the part of the US would be equivalent to a first-strike weapon since it could block their missiles while ours got through.

This missile-defense system in this case is very limited and aimed at Iran. It would seem the Russians would be more open to that and find sharing technology more believable.

Shultz | You would think so. After all, they have rebellious provinces in the northern Caucasus that was demonstrated tragically in the Moscow subway recently. Maybe Iran would slip them something, who knows? For that reason, a common missile-defense system would seem to make sense.

NPQ | What are the next steps down the disarmament path?

Shultz | President Obama is taking the next step by trying to broaden the dialogue beyond just the US and Russia. He is trying to engage the whole global community. Certainly the preponderance of weapons is still in the hands of these two states, but issues such as securing fissile material and uranium enrichment are global issues.

And, as we were just discussing, dialogue with Russia is key to prevent substantial arms reductions from being derailed for one reason or another.

We have come along way since Reykjavik. When this new START goes into effect, there will be only one-quarter the number of nuclear weapons in the world than there were at the time of the Reykjavik summit in 1986. That shows that the path toward disarmament is not utopian. It is possible.