REVIEW: Article

A Race Between Cooperation and Catastrophe

I have spent a large portion of my life attempting to communicate in clear and understandable words, so I have developed a keen appreciation for those who can capture a complicated subject with a succinct phrase. One of my favorites:  When asked to give a definition of foreign policy, Dean Acheson replied, “It’s one damn thing after another.” Today, in the national security arena, we not only have one damn thing after another, we have one damn change after another—some of them big and sweeping. 

The greatest dangers we faced during the Cold War were addressed primarily by confrontation with Moscow.  The greatest threats we face today—catastrophic terrorism, a rise in the number of nuclear weapons states, increasing danger of mistaken, accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch—we can successfully address only in cooperation with Moscow and many other capitals. 

These changes have come in the last 15 years, and have left us with serious security gaps—not because the new threats cannot be countered, but because they have changed quickly, and our responses are changing slowly.

The Greatest Danger 

In my view, the threat of terrorism with nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction presents the gravest danger to our nation and the world.

  • We know that al-Qaeda is seeking nuclear weapons. We don’t know how many other groups may also have similar ambitions.
  • We know that nuclear material al-Qaeda desires is housed in many poorly secured sites around the globe.
  • We believe that if they get that material, they can build a nuclear weapon.
  • We believe that if they build a nuclear weapon, they will use it.

I am not sure we fully grasp the devastating, world-changing impact of a nuclear attack. If a ten-kiloton nuclear device goes off in mid-town Manhattan on a typical work day, it could kill more than half a million people. Ten kilotons, a plausible yield for a crude terrorist bomb, has the power of 10,000 tons of TNT. To haul that volume of explosives, you would need a cargo train one hundred cars long. But if it were a nuclear bomb, it could fit into the back of a truck. Beyond the immediate deaths and the lives that would be shortened by radioactive fallout, the casualty list also would include an erosion of civil liberties, privacy and the world economy. 

So American citizens have every reason to ask, “Are we doing all we can to prevent a nuclear attack?” The simple answer is “no, we are not.”

Our slowness in adapting has not prevented us from taking several important steps.  In particular, the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program has been working since 1991 to secure and destroy weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union. In addition to helping Russia remove thousands of warheads, this funding helped Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus implement a critically important decision to give up all their nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia, working together, have completed approximately 50 percent of the job of securing nuclear weapons and materials in Russia. 

However, according to a February 2007 report by Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier of Harvard University, the Bush administration’s proposed Fiscal Year 2008 budget for cooperative threat reduction “would reduce the overall funds available and launch few initiatives or approaches to address the urgent threats posed by inadequately controlled nuclear weapons, materials and expertise.” According to the report, “overall, if Congress adopted the administration’s proposal in its entirety, the cumulative resources available to programs focused on improving controls over nuclear weapons, materials and expertise would decline to $996 million, 11 percent below the FY 2006 level (the most recent year for which easy comparisons are available, because of Congressional delays in passing appropriations bills to fund most federal programs for FY 2007).”

While sustained, focused leadership from President Bush, President Putin and other world leaders is the key ingredient for removing obstacles and ensuring serious progress, I am puzzled that budgets for these essential threat reduction programs may be seriously reduced. I believe this would be a step in the wrong direction, but I also believe that support in the Congress is growing and that changes can be made.

The Race Between Cooperation and Catastrophe

Increasingly, we are being warned that an act of nuclear terrorism is inevitable.  I am not willing to concede that point. But I do believe that unless we greatly elevate our efforts and the speed of our response, we could face disaster.

We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the threat is outrunning our response.

In his last year in office, when President Reagan was asked what he believed was the most important need in international relations, he talked of the need to cooperate against a common threat.  He said:  “What if all of us discovered that we were threatened by a power from outer space—from another planet. Wouldn’t we come together to fight that particular threat?”

I submit that when weapons of mass destruction are at the fingertips of individuals and groups who are eager to use them to inflict massive damage to mankind, President Reagan’s question “wouldn’t we come together to fight that threat?” should be front and center for the United States, for Russia, and for the world.

Nuclear Tipping Point

We’re clearly at a tipping point with regard to both the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the production of weapons-usable nuclear material. Terrorists are seeking nuclear materials and weapons as the list of potential suppliers expands.

Mindful of the rising threat of nuclear weapons, and troubled by the poor results of current policy in reducing the threat, George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger and I published an article this past February in the Wall Street Journal about how to pull back from this tipping point.

Titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” the op-ed called for the United States to “lead the world to a solid consensus for reversing the reliance on nuclear weapons globally.” This leadership and this consensus, we wrote, would be “a vital contribution to preventing the proliferation [of nuclear weapons] into potentially dangerous hands and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.”

We made the point that the old form of Cold War deterrence is obsolete. Today, “non-state terrorists groups are conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy”—and even among states—“unless urgent new actions are taken,” the United States will find itself in a nuclear era “more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence.” 

At the same time, we’re conscious that the quest for a non-nuclear world is fraught with practical challenges. As The Economist magazine has said: “By simply demanding [the goal of a world without nuclear weapons] without a readiness to tackle the practical problems raised by it ensures that it will never happen.”   

The four of us, plus many other former security and foreign policy officials, have taken aim at the “practical problems” by laying out a series of steps that we believe constitute the “urgent new actions” that will lay the groundwork for building a world free of the nuclear threat.  These steps would include:

  • Changing the Cold War posture of deployed nuclear weapons to increase warning time and thereby reduce the danger of an accidental or unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon.
  • Continuing to reduce substantially the size of nuclear forces in all states that possess them.
  • Eliminating short-range nuclear weapons designed to be forward-deployed.
  • Initiating a bipartisan process with the Senate, including understandings to increase confidence and provide for periodic review, to achieve ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, taking advantage of recent technical advances, and working to secure ratification by other key states.
  • Providing the highest possible standards of security for all stocks of weapons, weapons-usable plutonium, and highly enriched uranium everywhere in the world.
  • Getting control of the uranium enrichment process, combined with the guarantee that uranium for nuclear power reactors could be obtained at a reasonable price, first from the Nuclear Suppliers Group and then from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or other controlled international reserves. It also will be necessary to deal with proliferation issues presented by spent fuel from reactors producing electricity.
  • Halting the production of fissile material for weapons globally; phasing out the use of highly enriched uranium in civil commerce and removing weapons-usable uranium from research facilities around the world and rendering the materials safe.
  • Redoubling our efforts to resolve regional confrontations and conflicts that give rise to new nuclear powers.

Certainly, each of the steps we outlined would enhance the security of the United States. But each of the steps must be taken in cooperation with other nations. None of them can be taken alone.  

Cooperating Against Common Threats

I believe that preventing the spread and use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction should be the central organizing security principle for the 21st century.  

What would this mean?  We have a clear lesson from the 20th century. Addressing the threat of communism in the 1952 State of the Union message, President Truman said:  “The United States and the whole free world are passing through a period of grave danger.  Every action you take here in Congress, and every action that I take as President, must be measured against the test of whether it helps to meet that danger.”

In our efforts to fight against the spread of communism, protect the free world and deter World War III, this was the standard that governed our nation during the Truman administration and the Republican and Democratic administrations that followed.  Every diplomatic mission, every international alliance, and every national security initiative was guided with that goal in mind.  

We have seen what it looks like when world leaders unite, when they listen to each other, when they cooperate against common threats. It is my hope that we will soon employ this model of international teamwork in reducing nuclear dangers around the world.

The United States and its partners must be as focused on fighting the nuclear threat in this century as we were in fighting the communist threat in the last century. We must do it now.

Issue Date


Co-Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative;
United States Senator from Georgia, 1972-1996