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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 55, March 2001

Moving Away from Doomsday: Speech by Sam Nunn

Moving away from Doomsday and other dangers,' speech by former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, National Press Club, Washington, March 29, 2001.

"... Two months ago, a new President took office. One of the first rites of initiation for any new President is to receive a briefing on the nuclear war plan. If you will permit me a moment of poetic license, I would like to suggest what a military briefer could have said in such a briefing to the President:

  • Our primary mission, Mr. President, is to deter a nuclear attack against the US and our allies. This mission has remained essentially unchanged for the last 50 years.
  • Our deterrence strategy depends on the unquestioned ability of our nuclear weapons to survive a massive Russian nuclear strike, and still to be able to retaliate with enough force to destroy Russia, literally and absolutely.
  • To support this strategy, the United States maintains more than 2,000 nuclear weapons on high alert, ready to launch within minutes. So does Russia.
  • Once launched, we have no capacity to divert missiles or destroy them in flight. Neither does Russia.
  • Mr. President, Russia can no longer afford to keep most of its submarines at sea or its land-based missiles mobile and invulnerable.
  • This reduces Russia's confidence that its nuclear weapons can survive a first strike and makes it more likely Russia will launch its weapons not after an attack, but after the mere warning of an attack.
  • Russia's early warning system has eroded dangerously, and this increases the chance that a warning could be false.
  • We worry that Russia's command and control of its nuclear weapons will also erode.

... As President Reagan's former Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle has recently observed, a man from Mars comparing the US nuclear posture today with that at the height of the Cold War would find them essentially indistinguishable. ...

Not only are the threats today different; the means to meet them are different. We addressed the Cold War's threats by confrontation with Moscow, and over the long term, we cannot rule out a possible return to this confrontation. But most of today's greatest threats we can address only in cooperation with Russia. This is the overarching present day reality of our relationship. ...

I am puzzled by recent rumours which indicate that budgets for these essential threat reduction programs may be seriously reduced. If true, this would be heading backward. No one knows how long the present window of opportunity will remain open. ... I welcome the President's review of these programs, and I believe that they can be better coordinated and made more effective. I am optimistic about this review, because President Bush expressed support for threat reduction during the campaign, and showed that he knows that new thinking is required. ... I agree, and I trust that the President's final budget and policies will reflect his words of wisdom.

The Bush administration also is undertaking reviews of the US nuclear posture, missile defenses, and conventional forces. As they take on this challenge, I urge them to be willing to think anew without any undue homage to inherited presumptions. ... In terms of direction, I believe we should seek a world:

  • Where nations rely on nuclear weapons less, not more. Unfortunately, Russia today is moving in the opposite direction. So are India, Pakistan and perhaps China.

We should seek a world:

  • Where the United States and Russia move beyond a Doomsday posture and no longer threaten each other with nuclear annihilation or nation-ending damage. Until we do this, the US and Russia cannot have what anyone would call a normal relationship.

We should seek a world:

  • Where our strategic posture, both offensive and defensive, does not undermine our ability to cooperate with major powers like Russia and China, and with allies like NATO and Japan, to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

We should seek a world:

  • Where we evaluate our policies, strategies, and programs by their ability to move toward zero the risk that nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction will ever be used anywhere, by anyone, whether by design or accident. ...
Let me be clear, I am not talking about the total elimination of all nuclear weapons, a goal that generates much skepticism and disagreement. I am talking about risk management and risk reduction, an objective on which there can and should be broad common ground. To move in this direction, however, we have to face some difficult but fundamental questions that have been deferred far too long. ..."

Source: website of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, co-chaired by Sam Nunn and Ted Turner, http://www.ntiscope.org.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.