The Possibility of Global Zero: An Interview with Ambassador Richard Burt

Also published here.

Back in January, I found myself smiling over the title of an article: “Arms Control: It’s Back and Hot!” I was amused, because in my mind, nuclear arms control never went away. It’s just that the general public has lost interest over the years.

However, thanks to the efforts of various non-governmental organizations and think tanks, there has been a gradual but steady revival of interest in the fact that the world is still a dangerous place, and many nations still have nuclear weapons. The Global Zero group, in particular, has focused on the total elimination of nuclear weapons; as Max Bergman points out over at the Think Progress Wonk Room, the Global Zero signatories include a number of Reagan administration officials, such as former National Security Adviser Robert MacFarlane, Secretary of State George Schultz and Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci.

Significantly, one of the leaders of the Global Zero group was a key player in Cold War arms control issues. This is former Ambassador Richard Burt; his biographical sketch at the Global Zero website outlines his career:

Ambassador Richard Burt is an accomplished American diplomat with special expertise in the area of nuclear weapons. He successfully concluded a nuclear arms treaty as the U.S. Chief Negotiator in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks with the Former Soviet Union. Previously, he was U.S. Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany.

From 1977 to 1980, Ambassador Burt worked in Washington as a national security correspondent for The New York Times. He gained his Bachelors’ Degree in government from Cornell University in 1969, and his Master’s Degree in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1971.

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Ambassador Burt. My questions are in boldface, and his replies follow. I’ve inserted links/references wherever appropriate.

Introduction: The Role of Nuclear Weapons Then And Now

During your career, you’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of big changes, both during the Cold War and immediately afterwards.

So now you’re the commissioner, the head of the Global Zero group. How did this come to be? How and when did you get interested in the “road to zero”, so to speak?

Well, I think, like with a number of our supporters, the key point, as you mentioned, is the Cold War. I think there’s a growing recognition on the part of people who were participants in that long period, and this includes not just diplomats but policy makers and senior military people.

In the new, post-Cold War period, the role of nuclear weapons has really fundamentally changed. You can make the case — and a lot of people believe — that during the Cold War, that nuclear weapons were essentially stabilizing, that the threat of massive retaliation, what people refer to as nuclear deterrence… reinforced in a bipolar world (a world dominated by the US and the Soviet Union) that nuclear weapons maintained stability and made war unthinkable.

I would argue that in the new era we’re in, we’re not in a bipolar world anymore, we’re in a world where there are a lot of forces of disintegration at work, not just the spread of nuclear weapons but the growing number of failing and failed states, of international terrorism, that nuclear weapons are no longer stabilizing. They’re destabilizing, and thus the risks that weapons will be used is far higher than it was before.

That, then, leads to, I think, the logical conclusion that you are not going to persuade potential new nuclear powers, you’re not going to be able to persuade them not to acquire nuclear weapons unless existing nuclear powers are really serious about reducing and eliminating their own capabilities. In fact, as you probably know, those existing nuclear powers, including the United States, have already signed up in Article 6 of the 1968 [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty, to the concept that countries would stay non-nuclear if the existing nuclear powers sought real disarmament. That pledge, if you will, has been largely ignored. It was ignored at the time because I think people saw nuclear weapons as continuing to play a useful role. I think increasingly people are turning against that idea and recognizing that there is a direct linkage between reducing and eliminating existing nuclear stockpiles, with the goal of non-proliferation.

So, what’s happened is, I think, a kind of disarmament, kind of pie-in-the-sky concept during the Cold War has gradually become mainstream. And so you get serious people across the political spectrum thinking and talking about Global Zero for the first time.

On Senate Ratification of the New START Treaty: Obstacles and Predictions

Even though “Zero” is a lofty goal, the reality of that is the Global Zero summit basically took place against the backdrop of a year where there are going to be a lot of important nuclear weapons decisions and meetings. For example, right now, if you believe the media, the US and Russia are actually close to signing a new START treaty.

So, looking beyond that, we have to deal with US Senate ratification. What obstacles do you think the treaty will face during the discussion in the Senate?

Well, the most basic obstacle is the obstacle of ignorance, because it’s important to remember that the US Senate hasn’t really thought about or worked on arms reductions since 1991 and 1992. So, you’ve got a group of probably 70 or so new members of the Senate who haven’t had any experience in actually looking at an arms control agreement, and weighing the pros and cons, so there is a very steep learning curve here, which needs to be taken into account, and that the administration and others will have to move, I think, very effectively, to bring the Senate up to speed so it can take a educated decision about this treaty.

Now, I haven’t seen the details of the treaty, I haven’t read the treaty, since it’s not available, but I have a general sense of what’s in it. Assuming that there’s not some surprise buried in the treaty, I think its ratification should be basically a no-brainer.

First of all, the relationship with the United States and Russia has fundamentally shifted. We are, of course, not complete partners at this point; it’s still competitive in some respects, but we’re not mortal enemies any longer, so that’s the first important thing to understand.

But secondly, despite the fact that both sides have significantly reduced their nuclear forces since the early 1990s, [between the countries] we still possess over 95% of the world’s nuclear stockpile. So it’s really difficult to make the case that we need to retain our existing forces at their current levels.

In fact, and I think this is a key point that is often overlooked, one reason we built up our nuclear forces in the beginning, in the 1950s through the sixties and seventies and into the eighties, was the perception that we were inferior to the Russians in terms of conventional [i.e. non-nuclear] forces. So, somehow, nuclear forces somehow compensated for our weakness in conventional capabilities.

Well, the United States is clearly superior to the Russian conventional forces, or any other conventional forces of any other country. So we don’t need to rely on nuclear weapons, to the same degree we may have done in the past.

Those are basic facts the Senate needs to understand before they turn their attention to the details. I suspect that in the end what the Senate is mainly going to be focused on is this sort of politically easy question to kind of grapple with, which is, “gee, can they cheat?” So there will be a lot of time spent on whether or not this treaty can be verified, and that’s a fair issue. It should be examined carefully.

But I am fairly certain that at the end of the day that the administration will be able to make a case that the treaty is verifiable, and that they can monitor and detect any cheating.

So, then it boils down to politics. Will the Democratic majority in the Senate be able to break the Republican ranks and bring key Senators like Richard Lugar, who’s the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, John McCain, in the Armed Services Committee, can they bring them on-board to support the treaty?

I suspect that they will be able to get a sufficient number of Republican votes to get the treaty ratified.

Beyond START: Bringing in Smaller Nuclear Powers, Including Israel

Let’s say we ratify the new START treaty. What’s the next thing that you think should be addressed?

Well, in terms of the work that our commission did… I think there’s another step that’s necessary, that has to be taken by the US and Russian side, and that would be to follow up this treaty with a second treaty, which would further reduce both sides’ nuclear forces down to about 1,000 nuclear warheads [each] for both sides.

This is an important point here. That 1,000 number would need to include, for the first time, both deployed weapons, which the current treaty counts, as well as non-deployed weapons. Those are weapons that the two sides store. And secondly, it should include the shorter-range so called “tactical” nuclear weapons.

So, if they can follow up the current negotiations with a follow-on treaty that got both sides down to roughly 1,000 or so weapons, then you take a very critical step, really critical for purposes of non-proliferation, and then [warhead numbers] would be low enough that you could, in a credible way, bring in other nuclear powers into a multilateral negotiation for the first time. That means you would want to bring the small European forces, the British and the French forces, the Chinese, which is really critical, and if you could get the Chinese at the table, you’d then have a very good shot at getting both India and Pakistan to the table.

That would be a big, big step, because then you’d have, as I said, for the first time, you’d be getting all the key nuclear players around the same table, and then you could begin a process designed to make proportionate reductions that were verifiable, down to very low levels, and then take the final step to zero.

And I just might add here, as a footnote: our commission recognizes very clearly, in our plan, that once you multilateralized the process, and you brought these other players to the table, that you would have to find a creative, diplomatic approach that would also involve reductions for Israel’s nuclear forces.

In many of the pieces I’ve posted, people have brought up the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons. Although it’s a potentially contentious topic, I agree that it needs to be discussed.

Well, they’re an unacknowledged nuclear power, so they’re not going to formally — in my view at any rate, I don’t think they’re going to formally say, “Okay, we’ve got nuclear weapons, and we’ll formally enter these negotiations.” But I think there are ways that you could design so that Israel would participate in this process.

And I really think that’s important, because you’ve got to have the nuclear forces of Israel included, in one form or another, in order to stem some of the proliferation pressures that are building up in other parts of the Middle East, including Iran, for example.

[Israel's nuclear weapons program] can’t be ignored. It clearly has to be part of the solution.

On Raising Awareness: From College Students to the General Public

This is back to a sort of “meta” question, so to speak — you and I remember the Cold War. There are a lot of us who remember it, and are still concerned about nuclear weapons. But I always run into college students who think they’re only a textbook issue or something in a video game.

Part of the goal of the Global Zero group is obviously to raise awareness about nuclear weapons. In general, how would you assess its effectiveness so far?

Well, you know, I think, to tell you the truth, I think we’ve had more success in getting this into the policy debate, like I was mentioning earlier, with the sort of foreign policy and defense policy community, both in the US and abroad, than we’ve had in terms of getting college students, public-minded citizens involved. I think we recognize that public outreach needs to be given greater attention, and we are taking steps to do something about that.

I don’t know if in your discussions, in anything you’ve read, or in your conversation with Queen Noor, you’ve heard about this, but at the summit in Paris, we had thirty young leaders from all the existing nuclear weapons states. We had Russians, Pakistanis, Chinese, and others, and they were very, very motivated, very intelligent kids. The idea is they’re going to go back to their countries, and they’re going to begin establishing interest groups that are going to take an interest in the subject.

So I can’t predict that we’ll succeed, but at least we’re finally rolling out a public outreach program, which will be based, as you might imagine, around college campuses.

You may have also heard that in Paris we screened this really hard-hitting movie called Countdown To Zero. It is a very, very striking movie. We of course hope that it can have the kind of policy relevance, and political relevance in this area, that An Inconvenient Truth had for the climate change issue.

I think climate change is obviously a very serious problem, but so too is the problem of nuclear weapons, and their spread, especially in an era of terrorism. So we don’t think we’re in competition [with the climate change issue] but we do think that there’s an opportunity here for much more public outreach, which we and other groups — we’re, of course, not the only people that are interested in this problem — but we, and other groups, should tackle.

The Possibility of Global Zero

Last year, just to briefly quote Sam Nunn, he said that “the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the top of a very high mountain. It is tempting and easy to say: ‘We can’t get there from here.’ It is true that today in our troubled world we can’t see the top of the mountain.”

So, in your opinion, how likely do you think it is that we’ll actually be able to eliminate nuclear weapons in twenty years or so? Is Global Zero possible?

I do believe it’s possible. The reason I believe it’s possible is because of the work that our commission did over the last twelve months.

We put together what we think is a politically realistic and technically feasible process, through a series of phased, proportionate and verifiable reductions that would enable us to get to Zero in twenty years or so. I’m not going to give you an exact date; that’s of course impossible. But I think this is doable, and if there’s a difference between what you just quoted from Sam Nunn’s remarks last year, and my remarks this year, I think that based on the work our commission has done, we can see the top of the mountain.

In my view, if you’re going to climb a [that] mountain, it’s important to be able to see the top, and I think we’ve been able to show people what that mountaintop looks like.

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