Senior Statesmen on Campaign to Abolish Nukes

Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry argue the only way to stop nuclear weapons from falling into terrorist hands is to get rid of all of them. This week the former statesmen and their supporters convened in Oslo, Norway, for a conference.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A conference has been going on this week in Oslo, Norway, with an extremely ambitious agenda - abolishing nuclear weapons. And convening the meeting, an impressive array of Washington's most senior former Cold Warriors.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports from Oslo.

ROB GIFFORD: It's Albert Einstein who's supposed to have said that politics is tougher than physics. And the radical goal set by four American statesmen this week at a largely unnoticed conference in Oslo might well prove that point. The idea was first floated in an op-ed last year in the Wall Street Journal. And the unlikely band of anti-bomb protestors includes Henry Kissinger, and first to speak at the conference Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, George Schultz.

Secretary GEORGE SCHULTZ (Secretary of State, Ronald Reagan Administration): We cannot wait for a nuclear Pearl Harbor or a 9/11. We must get ahead of the game to prevent an even more catastrophic event. So wake up, everybody. The danger is real.

GIFFORD: The solution Schultz laid out includes, firstly, a series of measures to strengthen security around nuclear materials everywhere and to take steps to ease tensions between nuclear states. But ultimately, the aim of the plan is to scrap nuclear weapons altogether.

The two other senior statesmen involved are former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn, who says this is the new Realpolitik, because in nuclear proliferation terms, a perfect storm is brewing.

Senator SAM NUNN (Former Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee): Nuclear material is spread all over the world. Knowledge is out there now which we thought could only be possessed by the state 30 years ago. Now, individuals have the knowledge to be able to put together a crude weapon. You've got terrorist groups who would do exactly that if they had the opportunity. And you've now got a resurgence of nuclear power, which can be a good thing and a blessing for mankind, but it also means a lot of countries are talking about enriching.

GIFFORD: But if the threat is growing, the statesmen say that an important window of opportunity is also opening. A new U.S. administration whether Democrat or Republican is expected to be more open to diplomacy, and there is general agreement that the current approach to nuclear issues is out of date. Deterrence simply doesn't work against terrorists.

But, of course, the plans face many obstacles, as Alexei Arbatov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow made clear.

Mr. ALEXEI ARBATOV (Carnegie Center, Moscow): As an ideal, Russian government position is in favor. The big problem is to prove to Russians that this is not designed to disarm them of their only reliable guarantee of security.

GIFFORD: U.S. allies will want those assurances, too, never mind Iran and North Korea.

And there is, of course, plenty of other opposition from those who say it's impossible to verify whether weapons have been scrapped and from military top brass who want to retain a nuclear trump card.

The few journalists covering this week's conference found themselves wandering the corridors asking each other and themselves is this for real, then the next moment bumping into eminent scientists and politicians who completely buy into it.

Bates Gill, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says the goal is very difficult, though not impossible. He says Washington's role will be key.

Mr. BATES GILL (Director, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute): I think the world is looking to persons like George Schultz, Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger, William Perry to try and really gauge their sincerity and their willingness to leverage their political connections to move this process within the Washington context. If there's no progress there the rest of the world will remain complacent on the question.

GIFFORD: Asked if their plan is realistic, the four U.S. statesmen and their supporters respond with another question: is it realistic to live in a world where it's increasingly likely that terrorists could get hold of a nuclear bomb?

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Oslo.

MONTAGNE: It took less than 20 years from the first atomic blast in Japan for five countries to acquire nuclear weapons. You can see how nuclear proliferation progressed to what it is today by viewing our interactive graphic at npr.org.

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Concerns Continue over Nuclear Proliferation

Berlin meeting on Iran's nuclear program i i

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (from left), German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were among those who met in January in Berlin to discuss Iran's nuclear program. Sean Gallup/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Berlin meeting on Iran's nuclear program

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (from left), German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were among those who met in January in Berlin to discuss Iran's nuclear program.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Representatives to the six-nation talks in Sept. 2007 i i

Russia's Alexander Losyukov (from left), South Korea's Chun Yung-woo, North Korea's Kim Gye Gwan, China's Wu Dawei, the United States' Christopher Hill, and Japan's Kenichiro Sasae attended the six-nation talks in September 2007 in Beijing aimed at bringing about the disarmament of nuclear weapons in North Korea. Andy Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Andy Wong/Getty Images
Representatives to the six-nation talks in Sept. 2007

Russia's Alexander Losyukov (from left), South Korea's Chun Yung-woo, North Korea's Kim Gye Gwan, China's Wu Dawei, the United States' Christopher Hill, and Japan's Kenichiro Sasae attended the six-nation talks in September 2007 in Beijing aimed at bringing about the disarmament of nuclear weapons in North Korea.

Andy Wong/Getty Images

The world first learned of nuclear weapons in 1945 when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in an effort to bring about the swift end of World War II.

Then came the shock of the Soviet Union's first nuclear test, in 1949, far more quickly than experts in the United States had predicted.

The nuclear arms race was born.

The Quick Acquisition of Weapons

Britain began to acquire a small nuclear arsenal in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, France and China followed with nuclear tests.

It took less than 20 years from the first atomic blasts for five nations to acquire nuclear weapons. And by the mid-1960s, America's leaders feared that in another 20 years, the number of states with nuclear weapons could grow to 20 or more.

By that time, too, the combined nuclear arsenals of just the United States and the Soviet Union had grown to more than 20,000. In 1962, the two superpowers nearly launched the world's first nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

So President John F. Kennedy — and then President Lyndon B. Johnson after him — decided that the world needed some mechanism to slow the rush to global nuclear armageddon.

Creation of the NPT

In 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was created with the hope that all nations of the world would sign it and abide by its essential bargain — that the five nations with nuclear weapons would give them up, if the rest of the world's nations pledged not to acquire them in the first place.

Now, 189 nations have signed the NPT. It has become the international standard by which nations are judged on their commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. Its categories still stand — the five "official" nuclear weapons states and the rest, which all pledged to remain non-nuclear weapons states.

Abiding by the Treaty

But the NPT has not had a perfect record. Three states — India, Pakistan and Israel — have never signed the treaty and have acquired nuclear weapons. Another, North Korea, signed the treaty but cheated and developed a nuclear weapons program in secret. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the treaty. The country exploded a nuclear weapon in 2006.

Others have joined the treaty but also cheated — Iraq, Iran and Libya among them. Iraq was forced to give up its nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, and Libya in 2004. Iran's possible pursuit of nuclear weapons is one of the flashpoints in international relations today.

A few states acquired nuclear weapons but willingly gave them up. South Africa dismantled its small nuclear stockpile in 1993 and then joined the treaty. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan found themselves with nuclear weapons on their territory after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. They all chose to become non-nuclear weapons states and returned the weapons to Russia.

Successful Disarmament?

Over the years, some states began research in nuclear technology that could lead to weapons, but ended those programs. Many more nations possess non-military nuclear technology — such as civilian nuclear energy programs — that give them the potential to develop nuclear weapons.

The five nuclear weapons states recognized under the NPT have not yet fulfilled their end of the bargain. They have not given up their nuclear weapons, although the United States and Russia have been engaged for nearly 20 years in reducing their nuclear weapons stockpiles. Each still possesses several thousand nuclear weapons that could be ready to launch in very little time.

The prediction nearly a half-century ago that the world would soon see 20 or more states with nuclear weapons has not come to pass. That fear, though, still remains.

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