Sen. Sam Nunn: 'We Have a Choice Between Cooperation or Catastrophe'
As a U.S. senator, Sam Nunn played a key role in conceiving the legislation—and then securing Congressional and government support—to fund the dismantling and safeguarding of nuclear weapons and materials in the possession of a disintegrating Soviet Union. This effort came to be known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, and June 17 marked 25 years since the signing of the first general framework agreement for CTR-funded projects by presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin. To learn more about this painstaking process, see our timeline of nuclear-security cooperation among the U.S., Russia and the other Newly Independent States.
As recalled by Graham Allison, outgoing director of Harvard's Belfer Center: "A leading Democratic Senator from Georgia, Sam Nunn, and a Republican Senator from Indiana, Dick Lugar, not only recognized the challenge but also created a breathtaking response. Too late in the Congressional calendar to hold hearings on the issue, they designed an imaginative and unprecedented legislative maneuver by which they attached an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill. It took money appropriated for the U.S. defense budget and allowed the Secretary of Defense to spend $400 million, helping Russia to secure and eliminate former Soviet nuclear weapons. In what has been the most significant U.S. policy initiative towards Russia in the post-Cold War period to date, it was not the chief executive, but rather, leaders in the Congress, who both put the problem on the agenda and legislated the program of action to address it."
This interview was conducted by Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow Mariana Budjeryn.
MB: The basic concept underlying the Nunn-Lugar program of demilitarization assistance involved a marked shift from the Cold War thinking to a new paradigm of cooperation with America’s former arch-adversary, the USSR and its successor states. What prepared you to take this mental leap? What helped you overcome the formidable opposition and convince your colleagues in Congress to embrace this new paradigm?
SN: The catalyst for me was not a single event but something that happened over a period of time. I first visited NATO military bases back in 1962 when we had the Cuban missile crisis and I saw first-hand how close we were to a nuclear war. After that I never stopped asking questions about the ways a nuclear war could be started and, more importantly, how it could be prevented. That was number one.
Number two was the visits I had to NATO to check out the military bases as a young senator in 1974-1975. I saw there the effects of our loss in Vietnam and the demoralization of our military. Some officers there told me in confidence about the loss of morale among the troops guarding our tactical nuclear weapons, about the drug and alcohol problems and many other problems. Years later, I felt that the loss of empire for the Soviet Union was 10, maybe a hundred times worse than our loss in Vietnam, and that the military in the Soviet Union, in Russia and the former Soviet states, would be going through a huge amount of the same problems. The difference was that the Soviet Union was sitting on storehouses filled with the largest amount of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials in the history of mankind.
The third influence was my trip to Moscow right after Gorbachev was released after the attempted coup in August 1991. During that trip, I met with the Russian leaders and with Gorbachev and came out with the understanding that we faced a great challenge to the security of the United States and the whole of mankind. All of these things pulled together and contributed to my thinking and that’s how the concept of the Nunn-Lugar program emerged.
I asked [Gorbachev] whether he had full control of the nuclear arsenal during his captivity and, for the first time in my various meetings with him, he did not answer the question.
MB: Your trips to Budapest and Moscow shortly after the coup in August 1991 firmed up your resolve to create a sustainable policy approach to providing demilitarization assistance to the former Soviet Union. Could you describe in a few details what happened on those trips? What were some of the things you saw and arguments you heard that convinced you that immediate U.S. action was needed?
SN: I had a friend that I met during the inter-parliamentary dialogues we had had in previous years. His name was Andrei Kokoshin and in August 1991 we were attending a conference in Budapest, Hungary, sponsored, if I recall, by the Carnegie Corporation. We had Soviet experts there, as well as experts from America and Europe. The conference was just beginning when we heard the news that Gorbachev was taken captive. Kokoshin got on the plane and flew right back to Moscow. A couple of days later we were still in Budapest at the conference when Gorbachev was released and the coup failed.
I was about to leave Budapest and go back to the U.S., when Andrei called me on the phone and said: “Sam, you’ve got to come to Moscow; big things are happening here in Russia.” I noted that he used the term “Russia” and of course that indicated where they were heading. I told him that I didn’t have a visa and he replied that he’d have the Russian ambassador—and again he used “Russian”—come to my hotel within 45 minutes and deliver me a visa. “Andrei,” I said, “that would be a miracle if your bureaucracy could work that fast.” To which he said: “Watch us!” Thirty minutes later the Russian, or Soviet, ambassador showed up and I was on my way.
I spent about three days in Moscow. During that time I attended the parliamentary debate with Gorbachev, Yeltsin and other Soviet republic leaders as they were debating the break-up of the Soviet Union. I sat there and listened for several hours. We also called on most of the new Russian leaders, including [General Pavel] Grachev, who was in command of the paratrooper units that had protected Yeltsin during the coup. In my meetings with the leaders who were forming the new Russia, they let it be known that they wanted to have Russia independent from the Soviet Union. Then I met with Gorbachev, whom I’d known and met with before, and had a 30-minute conversation with him. I was surprised that in that period he was willing to give me the time, but he did. I asked him whether he had full control of the nuclear arsenal during his captivity and, for the first time in my various meetings with him, he did not answer the question.
So putting all of that together with my experience of what had happened to America after Vietnam in terms of demoralization of troops, drugs, alcohol and so forth, and looking at the huge arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear materials and weapons that existed in the Soviet Union, spread over 11 time zones—putting all that together and realizing how dangerous the situation was, that’s what gave rise to my coming back to Washington, working actually on the plane with my staff, and coming up with what was later known as the Nunn-Lugar bill.
The bill initially came up against the argument that the Soviet Union, that Russia was essentially an enemy, and the question was: Why would we take American taxpayers’ money and support the enemy? That was said in many different ways, but that’s what it amounted to. The argument that Sen. Lugar and I made, timely and successfully, in the final analysis, although not at first, was that it was American security we were talking about and world security. It was not a benevolent gift; it was not a charitable act; it was an expenditure to protect our own security. And that argument prevailed.
There were a lot of dedicated, patriotic Russians who could have stolen a lot of those weapons and materials but chose to remain loyal to their own country and to a sense of responsibility to the world.
MB: The Nunn-Lugar program has been praised as one of the most prominent examples of Congressional leadership in U.S. foreign and security policy. What were the key factors, both in the U.S. and Russia, that enabled the program not only to be adopted but to continue running and to achieve great success over more than two decades?
SN: There were a lot of dedicated men and women in the U.S. military and the Department of Defense, both military and civilians, as well as in nuclear laboratories, who are due a great deal of credit. That would apply to the U.S. as well as to Russia and to other republics, but Russia led the way. There were a lot of dedicated, patriotic Russians who could have stolen a lot of those weapons and materials but chose to remain loyal to their own country and to a sense of responsibility to the world. So, a lot of people deserve praise for the implementation of CTR.
The George H.W. Bush administration, which did not originally savor the proposition, eventually came around and understood the importance of it. Yet CTR really started gaining a lot of momentum only after Bill Clinton was elected president and Bill Perry took such a personal interest in it as the secretary of defense. Of course, Les Aspin was secretary of defense first and Les was a big part of the legislative effort, so he was in favor of it. All of that came together over a couple of years. There are an awful lot of people out there who worked awful hard both in Russia and the United States, as well as in countries like Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine.
MB: How do you assess the role of Nunn-Lugar assistance in denuclearizing the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine? Was the availability of such assistance a significant part of the republics’ calculus in considering their nuclear options?
SN: I think the CTR program played a very significant role in the nuclear disarmament of these countries. At the time, they were desperate economically and were struggling to feed their people and cater to their basic needs of survival. Expending resources on disarmament and protecting nuclear weapons and materials would not have been a priority for them. The leaders in these countries well understood the dangers, and the availability of CTR funding played a huge role, psychologically as well as economically.
The [CTR] program should have shifted toward more of a reciprocal partnership. We have continued the model of the U.S. being the dominant partner for longer than we should have.
MB: Today, 26 years later, with the benefit of hindsight, how would you evaluate the greatest achievements of the Nunn-Lugar program? Were there missed opportunities? What are the most important lessons from the successful implementation of the program for America’s relations with Russia, and for global non-proliferation efforts?
SN: The main lesson that came out of the CTR program was that in today’s world, when nations no longer have the monopoly on weapons of mass destruction and disruption, we have a choice between cooperation or catastrophe. And that’s an ongoing choice. That was the major lesson learned by many people, but not nearly enough. Right now, we seem to be forgetting that lesson, both in the U.S. and in Russia.
Even if we have profound disagreements like we do now over Ukraine and the Middle East, as well as the political interference of Russia in our elections, even with all of that, we have existential mutual interests to work on, including the threat of cyber. By that I mean not only cyber threats to election systems, but possible interference with warning systems and nuclear command and control that could have catastrophic effects. The lessons of CTR should be remembered not only for our relations with Russia but also for future nonproliferation efforts. If we ever do get North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons and nuclear material, I think there is much learning to be taken from the CTR work in the former Soviet Union that would apply to North Korea.
Regarding missed opportunities, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program should have shifted toward more of a reciprocal partnership. We have continued the model of the U.S. being the dominant partner for longer than we should have. It was necessary to begin with, but as the years went on Russia became more and more sensitive to being the supplicant and wanted more “respect.” I think we should have sensed that earlier. But nevertheless, this program has been a tremendous success. We will never know how many catastrophes were avoided, but I am certain some were.
Official White House photo by Sonya N. Hebert.