MacArthur President Robert Gallucci Addresses Chicago Council on Global Affairs: "Responding to the Global Nuclear Threat"
September 29, 2010 | Speech

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Good evening and thank you for being here. It is a privilege for me to address you — and to continue MacArthur’s long relationship with the Council, one of America’s most thoughtful forums.

The issue
I’ve been asked to speak to you about “responding to the global nuclear threat.”

That assignment begs the question: What is the threat? Note, please, that no nuclear weapon has been detonated in anger anywhere on the planet for 65 years. That is an extraordinary fact. But it was not inevitable.

After Hiroshima, a new, more destructive age of warfare seemed likely. The Soviet Union soon acquired nuclear weapons too. Eventually, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would have 65,000 such weapons between them. Over 60 years, seven other nations followed suit. But these nuclear weapons have not been used. Instead, the world has found ways to manage them and limit their spread, through treaties, diplomacy — and threats, where necessary.

But a domesticated dragon is still a dragon.

The world is now very different from the world that hammered out the strategic compromises of the Cold War. But nuclear weapons are no less destructive. So we must deal with the real threat that, in this new environment, they could be used.

Simply having a nuclear weapon profoundly changes the status of a nation and how it relates both to its region and the international community. In the future, more countries, for different reasons, will be eager to obtain them. And for a determined few, there may not be a non-violent way of stopping them.

The current situation: three contexts
So, how should we characterize today’s world-- the situation we now face-- and how should we respond? Let me suggest three contexts:

This past spring, the President said that the greatest threat to our nation’s security is the prospect of a terrorist detonating a nuclear weapon in an American city. President Bush said almost exactly the same thing. They were right — such attacks are plausible, and a genuine danger.

North Korea became a nuclear power in 1996. Its leadership is unstable, provocative, and hard to gauge. Iran may well join the nuclear club soon.

That may spur a nuclear arms race in a region of chronic conflict — and one vital to American interests.

America and Russia have just signed a new arms control treaty that would reduce the size of both countries’ arsenals. “New START” allows each party a maximum of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Russia now has 2,600 and the U.S. 2,252. The new limit would take us down to levels not seen since the 1950s.

Those are three different contexts for nuclear weapons: the bilateral Russian-American relationship, which is unique; proliferation — more countries acquiring nuclear weapons — and terrorism.

Let’s look more closely at each of these contexts. They have their own dynamics and set of risks.

First, the bilateral U.S. — Soviet rivalry was based on the dynamic of mutual deterrence.

What did that mean? Neither side could stop the other from striking first. There was (and is) no effective defense against ballistic missiles. The next best option was to make an attack extremely risky, even fatal, for the aggressor. Each side developed large arsenals of weapons, far more than needed, that could reach the other’s territory and were “survivable” — that is, they could retaliate even after a major attack. Some called this “a stable balance of terror” or “mutually assured destruction.”

But there was the constant worry that, given enough firepower, one side might try to launch a first strike, disarming and crushing the other. This led to the constant escalation of nuclear capability so that neither side would ever develop a significant advantage.

Deterrence is, in essence, a psychological strategy. For it to work, both sides must be “rational,” that is: share the assumption that devastation is undesirable. The U.S. and Soviet Union engaged diplomatically, developed an understanding, and made treaties to ensure that the balance of power would remain stable — pursued “arms control,” in other words.

But while deterrence is effective and powerful, it does not eliminate risk. There is always the possibility of political miscalculation, or of an accidental or unauthorized missile launch. For forty years, this was a dark cloud over world affairs.

Only the collapse of the Soviet Union changed the dynamic. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia and America have reduced their nuclear arsenals to a fraction of what they were.

This process of disarmament cannot compromise the principle of deterrence. Neither side can be allowed to see an advantage in striking first, or lose its capacity to retaliate. I think the new treaty takes us carefully and intelligently down this path, though not to absolute zero.

Deterrence was a way of lengthening the odds: reducing the likelihood of disaster in a dangerous situation that could not be solved absolutely. That concept and approach is at the core of an intelligent response to the nuclear threat. How does it relate to our other contexts?

Nations want the power conferred by nuclear weapons; by 1964, Britain, France, and China had acquired them.

The prospect of rapid proliferation was simply too dangerous. We and the Soviets took the position that, while we needed to build our arsenals, nuclear weapons in the hands of other countries posed unacceptable risks to international security.

We offered a deal: if those nations gave up the prospect of having nuclear weapons, we would both work to eliminate our nuclear stockpiles and help them develop the technology needed for peaceful nuclear energy. Almost the entire world — about 189 countries — agreed, and have become members of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Nonproliferation was made much easier by the dominance of two superpowers who could persuade, and promise to defend, blocs of nations. Even so, Israel, India, and Pakistan, went on to acquire nuclear capability.

Look at those nations. Israel faced the prospect of annihilation. India wanted to be a first-tier power. Pakistan is locked in post-colonial conflict with India. My point is that we can expect some countries that are threatened, that have global aspirations, or are engaged in regional rivalries to seek nuclear weapons. North Korea did so to preserve an embattled regime. Iran seeks regional dominance, and is getting closer to acquisition.

How do we deal with these hard cases? Some argue that, as Russia and the U.S. honor their commitment to reducing their arsenals, fewer nations will seek nuclear weapons. I do not entirely agree. Arsenals should be reduced — doing so reduces risk and sustains the international norm against proliferation.

But nations that are determined to acquire nuclear weapons have strong individual motivations. International norms are not likely to influence them. They may even see that Russian and American disarmament would make their own nuclear stockpile more significant.

Once again, the best option is to increase the odds against catastrophe. The U.S., and other nations, need to develop policies tailored for each case and pursue them aggressively.

Let me say a little about each of them.

Israel will only contemplate nuclear disarmament if her security is assured. And that will only be the case in the context of a durable and comprehensive peace. This we have been pursuing for decades -- always, it seems, asymptotically. Just as we near a solution, it recedes indefinitely into the future. Right now, efforts towards this goal seem to be heating up… again.

Pakistan and India have a fundamentally unstable strategic relationship. Each has a relatively small and vulnerable nuclear arsenal. They are neighbors, and missiles would have short “flight times.” So, in a crisis, either side might see advantage in a surprise attack. This is the worst, least stable, position for nuclear security.

Consequently, the important thing is to avoid sparking a conflict, whether it be over Kashmir or some incidence of terrorism. Both countries need to be persuaded to cap, secure, and reduce their arsenals. And then they should engage in serious talks to reduce the risk of a conventional conflict that could too easily escalate into a nuclear exchange.

We must persuade North Korea that its economic and political future, indeed its survival, lies in normal relations with the international community. To achieve this, we have to work with our allies, Japan and South Korea, and with China and Russia, to convince North Korea’s leadership — which may soon change — that confrontation is not a productive strategy. Of course, drastic political reform is needed as well as abandonment of nuclear weapons.

Finally, Iran. It is imperative that the leadership structure in Tehran understand that any move to produce nuclear weapons, or even to produce highly enriched uranium, could well trigger a military response aimed at slowing, if not stopping, its clandestine program. The world appears almost willing to accept a uranium enrichment program in Iran, so long as bomb-grade material is not produced.

All this is in the decades-long diplomatic — and sometimes military — tradition of preventing where possible, and managing where necessary, the slow spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries. In retrospect, we have been remarkable successful.

The third context, terrorism, is another phenomenon still, and has its own dynamic.

It has one similarity with the U.S. Russia bilateral context: There is no effective way to defend national territory against terrorism. This is not because terrorists also have ballistic missiles, but because the terrorists will deliver a nuclear weapon by unconventional means — boat, truck, or civilian aircraft. And the chances of terrorists breaching border security are simply too high.

Moreover, deterrence — our fall-back in the bilateral context — is not an option with a nuclear terrorist. Not so long as he values your death more than his life.

Nor are terrorists good targets for diplomacy. They are committed to extremist ideologies, have rejected peaceful means, and often work in loose alliances that are hard to pin down.

The way to lengthen the odds, in this instance, is by making sure that terrorists cannot get their hands on a nuclear weapon, or the means to make one.

Can this be done? I am pretty sure the answer is “maybe.”

How might a terrorist obtain a nuclear weapon? It is not likely that terrorists could acquire one already fabricated. The nations that own nuclear weapons put considerable effort into ensuring none are lost or stolen.

No country wants to be caught transferring a nuclear weapon to terrorists. The chances of being caught doing so are high, the consequences bad.

That leads many analysts, including me, to worry most about an improvised nuclear device (or IND).

What do you need to make an IND? Fissile materials, either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Both can be used to produce nuclear energy, but neither is required to produce nuclear energy. Either could make a terrorist bomb.

Highly enriched uranium could fairly easily be used in what is called a “gun-type device.” A similar device was used to bomb Hiroshima. It is so simple that we did not even bother to test it before dropping it.

Making a plutonium bomb, like that dropped on Nagasaki — and tested first at Alamogordo, New Mexico — is far harder. But it would be a mistake to assume that terrorists would be unable to deploy one.

The consequences of either bomb would be catastrophic. A bomb on the scale of Hiroshima could kill a quarter of a million people in a major city. A smaller device could kill tens of thousands over several weeks. The nature of governments would change, wars would follow.

So control of fissile material is absolutely essential. The Nuclear Security Summit held by the Obama Administration this spring focused the leaders of 47 nations almost exclusively on controlling highly enriched uranium.

But control of plutonium is equally important. Even an amount the size of a baseball is dangerous. And there are 1,600 metric tonnes of highly enriched uranium, and 500 tonnes of plutonium in existence. Not all of it is well secured.

And while we are making good progress in ending the production of HEU, the world is far from ready to give up the “energy value” in plutonium.

The problem is that, in seeking carbon-free sources of energy, we may be encouraging the separation of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for reuse. There is a debate over whether this is a prudent way to manage radioactive waste and conserve uranium — or irrational from both an economic and technical point of view.

What should we do to keep fissile material out of terrorist hands? My own view in this: first, there is quite enough fissile material already for civilian needs, no more should be produced. Second, we should secure all existing fissile material to the "gold standard" needed to prevent theft. Third, we should make sure plutonium is not used in the nuclear fuel cycle. Last, we should eliminate fissile material by "blending down" highly enriched uranium and disposing of plutonium.

We at the MacArthur Foundation pay close attention to all three contexts for nuclear weapons. We support research that aims to inform policy makers in the U.S. and abroad and improve the quality of their decisions.

The global nuclear threat is not going away. But it can be reduced, if we act wisely. We were able to avoid nuclear conflict in the Cold War, we persuaded most nations to renounce nuclear weapons. I trust we can minimize the threat of nuclear terrorism. We must be thoughtful, careful, and doggedly persistent — there is no alternative.

Thank you for your attention.

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