The Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse: In Conversation

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In 2007, four elder U.S. statesmen wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” Former secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, one-time Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) had, at various times in their careers, been deeply immersed in the nuclear weapons establishment, yet they united in a call to abolish the very weapons they once saw as projections of their nation’s power. This weekend, the “four horsemen,” as they are sometimes known, are in London holding a conference to discuss alternatives to nuclear deterrence.

The grim bargain behind nuclear deterrence is roughly this: The price we pay for peace is the possibility of annihilation. That, the statesmen say, is no longer acceptable.

I sat down with Shultz, Perry and Nunn (Kissinger had not yet arrived in London) to ask them how they came to that conclusion. The following transcript has been condensed from the original.

TIME: Your Op-Ed surprised a lot of people–and raised hopes that nuclear disarmament might be a real possibility. Unfortunately, those military and political leaders who still have nuclear weapons at their disposal are less willing to forsake them. And it feels again that disarmament is once again a road to nowhere. Are you discouraged? How would you view your progress on this issue?

Shultz: I think the reaction has been close to unbelievable. There has been a huge response all over the world. Both presidential candidates in their election campaigns endorsed what we are doing. After the election, President Obama has taken the issue up very well. And Senator McCain has made a strong speech on the floor of the Senate supporting it—so it’s remained non-partisan. There has been a meeting of the UN Security Council with a unanimous vote [calling for disarmament]. If you read the statements of [Chinese Premier] Wen Jiabao and [Russian President] Dmitry Medvedev, they weren’t just ‘yes folks,’ Their statements had some content that showed they had thought of it. Several of the heads referred to our initiative in their statement. Then you had the statements by Medvedev and Obama calling for a world free of nuclear weapons and then they signed the new START agreement. Then you had a meeting of 47 heads of nations [in Washington last year] focusing on fissile material and getting hold of fissile material. That’s one of the most important steps [to disarmament].  It gives us great encouragement that if you keep at something, you can get somewhere.

Nunn: I would add that NATO has adopted [a call for disarmament]. Of course there is a lot of difficulties in moving to that direction, and that’s why we tied our vision to steps and didn’t set an arbitrary time frame. You need to control nuclear materials all over the globe so that rogue nations or terrorists can’t build weapons. [You need] a comprehensive test ban treaty [to be] ratified. Stopping the proliferation of fissile material [is necessary], which has not yet been done. You have to make sure you have verification [of disarmament]. We built up these weapons for 50 years in a Cold War that lasted 40-odd years that was based on nuclear deterrence. And finding new ways to keep a stable, peaceful world, and not have wars is what this conference is all about.

TIME: So are you essentially saying that nuclear deterrence is a faulty theory? That it should be abandoned as a defense policy?

Nunn: Yes, but only after certain steps have been taken.

Perry: The belief that nuclear weapons adds to your security or gives you deterrence is not backed up by the history since the Second World War. If you look at every war the U.S. has been involved in—Vietnam, the Korean War, and so on—nuclear weapons were useless. They did not deter the Vietnamese, the Koreans.  Nuclear weapons did one big, important thing: They kept the U.S. and Soviet Union from going to war with each other. But all the other things they did not do.

Nunn:  They did not prevent the collapse of the Soviet Empire either. It was the most heavily armed country in the history of the world—nuclear, chemical as well as biological.

Shultz: Sometimes when you ask yourself ‘can you really get anywhere?’, it’s worth reflecting a little bit. Shortly after President Reagan took office, he asked the Joint Chiefs to tell him what the impact would be on the U.S. of an all-out Soviet nuclear attack. They came back with an answer that initial casualties would have been on the order of 150 million and since the infrastructure had been destroyed the total casualties would eventually be immense. Someone asked would we retaliate? Yes, we would retaliate and you’d do the same sort of thing to them. So Reagan kept saying ‘what’s so good about keeping the peace by the ability to wipe each other out’?

: 150 million dead is a pretty good deterrent. But what else could we use to deter aggression? I think of the European model, perhaps, where former enemies integrated their economies so completely that an attack on each other became inconceivable. That’s a form of deterrence, right?

Nunn: There are all sorts of ways to deter—military as well as diplomatic and economic. But you have to reduce regional confrontation. The world without nuclear weapons will not be today’s world minus nuclear weapons. It’s not that easy. You have to change the attitude. Right now we are working hard with Russia to get agreement on missile defense–that would be a game changer [to U.S. and Russian relations]. There are going to have to be game changers in each regions, like South Asia and The Middle East.  India and Pakistan could exchange around 100 nuclear weapons. That would kill a couple hundred million people in the region. But supercomputer modeling predicts over a billion people starving to death around the globe because of the debris blocking out the sun [leading to global cooling and crop failure]. The whole world has a stake in what happens in South Asia.

Perry: I think it’s clear, and I argue with my friends in India and Pakistan, that their nuclear weapons are more of a danger to their security than an asset. The tension between India and Pakistan today has to be dealt with whether or not there are nuclear weapons.

Shultz: They have taken public positions, however. Rajiv Ghandi made an impassioned speech to the UN about the importance of getting rid of nuclear weapons. Pakistan has issued a statement saying that if other parties got rid of nuclear weapons they would–whether they mean or not, I don’t know, but stating a goal is important. The words are out there.

TIME: Twenty years past the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russian nuclear forces are still on hair-trigger alert. Surely it’s time to “de-alert” our weapons, I mean as a very basic first step. Why hasn’t that happened?

Nunn:  I don’t think we ought to use the term de-alerting.   De-alerting is a word that goes against the grain of every military person—they spend their career trying to be alert and then you come along and tell them they need to be de-alert. It’s the wrong word. What we need is a framework for increasing warning and decision time for nuclear weapons.  I want to get our leaders at NATO thinking about this. While Russia is worried about our forward based air [capability], the Baltic states are worried about where the Russians place their forces, and are worried that something could happen quickly, as happened [when Russia invaded Georgia] in 2005. This is something we need to address. If you have 30 days warning [of an invasion and attack], you have time to bring troops over. If you have 5 days warning, you basically can only use nuclear weapons [to deter]. That’s part of the challenge. We aren’t saying get rid of deterrence, we are saying get rid of the form of deterrence—nuclear—that risks the entire world.

TIME: Did any of you have any experiences in government—outside of the Cuban Missile Crisis—in which you felt the world was close to nuclear annihilation?

Perry: When i was Undersecretary of Defense in the late 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, everybody believed that nuclear exchange was possible. I was woken up by a phone call at 2 a.m. from the North American Air Defense Command telling me that their computers were indicating that 200 soviet missiles were on the way to the U.S.. That was one of three false alarms in the U.S., and I know of at least one that occurred in the Soviet Union although I think there was probably more. So the danger that we could have blown up the entire world by miscalculation—by computer error—was very real. I’ll never forget that call.