William J. Perry on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism

By William J. Perry | December 8, 2015

On June 26, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, beginning an ugly war that resulted in more than a million casualties, and demonstrated to even the most optimistic that a Cold War was seriously underway. That was just two weeks after I got my master’s degree from Stanford, so it is no exaggeration to say that I am a child of the Cold War.

Indeed, throughout my career I always perceived a dark nuclear cloud hanging over my head, threatening no less than the extinction of civilization.

During the Cold War we had a half dozen nuclear crises, of which the Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous, and I was close enough to these crises that they made a deep personal impression on me. I believed then, and I believe to this day, that we got through these crises and avoided a nuclear catastrophe as much by good luck as by good management.

Thirty years later, when the Cold War ended, I breathed a huge sigh of relief—we had dodged the nuclear bullet that would have ended our civilization. Surely we would never be so foolish as to allow that existential threat to reemerge.

But for the last two years I have come to believe that I was too optimistic; indeed, that we are facing nuclear dangers today that are in fact more likely to erupt into a nuclear conflict than during the Cold War.

So tonight I am going to explore the trouble spots that could lead to a nuclear conflict. Specifically, I will look at nuclear dangers with Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, and ISIS.

Russia. I believe that today US-Russian relations are as bad as in the dark days of the Cold War. How could this have happened?

During the 1990s:

·      The Soviet Union dissolved.

·       The US tried to bring Russia into the western security circle.

·       We jointly dismantled 8,000 nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union and in the United States.

·       We jointly agreed to honor Ukraine’s boundaries.

·       Russia was invited to and attended NATO meetings and participated in NATO peacekeeping exercises.

·       And most significantly, Russia embedded a brigade into an American division in the Bosnian peace-keeping operation.

That was then. But what about now?

Today the picture is very different:

·       Russia violated the agreement on Ukraine.

·       Russia has threatened its neighbors and the US with nuclear weapons, with a statement made by a commentator on government-controlled television who said: “Russia is the only country capable of turning the US into radioactive ash.”

·       Russia has rejected its former policy of “no first use,” in favor of an aggressive policy that proclaims that, if threatened, nuclear weapons will be their weapon of choice.

·       To back up that threat, Russia has embarked on a major buildup of their nuclear arsenal, with a whole new generation of carriers—intercontinental ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear submarines. We know less about what they are doing on the bombs themselves, but it seems likely that they are developing new bombs with new characteristics.

·       Their nuclear weapons designers believe they need a new round of nuclear tests for these new weapons, but we do not know what Putin’s views are on this.

·       Even though the technical arguments are strong, he has to consider the political arguments for not testing, and he has stated privately to a few interlocutors that he felt the political reasons for not testing were compelling. But in fact we cannot be sure, and he could decide to test, perhaps as early as next year, with the excuse that since the US never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Russia is relieved of its responsibility to continue honoring it.

·       Putin has spoken menacingly about their nuclear weapons—especially menacing is the Russian emphasis on so-called tactical nuclear weapons, i.e., nuclear weapons intended not for deterrence but for war fighting.

I am painting a grim picture, but I think it is not overstated. It is certainly worth asking how we got into this mess, and how can we get out of it. Certainly part of the problem is of Putin’s own making, as a part of his move to consolidate and sustain his power in Russia.

But part of the problem we brought on ourselves:

·       By a premature expansion of NATO in the late 1990s, when Russia still saw NATO as a potential threat.

·       By then threatening to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.

·       By a European deployment of a ballistic missile defense system that Russia saw as threatening its deterrent force.

·       And by supporting color revolutions in Russia’s neighborhood; most important, Putin seems to believe that we have been actively seeking to stimulate a color revolution that would overthrow his regime.

In response to these perceived threats, Putin began playing a very aggressive game. But except for his nuclear weapons, he is playing it from a weak hand.

·       Russia is facing a serious demographic problem, with its population actually decreasing.

·       It has a serious problem of alcoholism, contributing to a remarkably low life expectancy for Russian men.

·       Russia is in a precarious economic posture—it is basically a petro state that failed to diversify during the boom oil years, and now it is probably too late. A large part of the Russian government’s budget comes from oil revenues. When oil drops below $80 a barrel, they are in trouble; at $50 a barrel, they are in BIG trouble. They have been eating into cash reserves for more than a year; another year or two of $50 a barrel, and their reserves will be seriously depleted.

These problems, paradoxically, make Russia more dangerous, not less dangerous. Putin’s primary legitimacy is based on Russia’s economic wellbeing. Thus a weak economy threatens his regime. If Putin is unable to fix his economic problems, as seems likely, he can divert attention by playing the nationalistic card. Judging from the popularity of his ultra-nationalistic moves, this is all too successful.

But the danger is that he might overplay his hand and blunder into a shooting war, a shooting war that Russia would surely lose unless they used their nuclear weapons—that is, unless they do just what they say they will do! And that is my nightmare scenario.

It is easy to describe this nightmare, but much harder to describe what we can do to keep it from becoming real. High on the list is reopening a serious dialogue with Russia. Even during the Cold War, we had more dialogue with the Soviet Union than we now have with Russia, especially with Russian and American scientists.

In the absence of official dialogue, those of us in the civilian sector should try to open unofficial, or Track 2, dialogues. One purpose of such dialogues is to bring to light the fact that we are on the brink of a new nuclear arms race, with the public blissfully unaware of what is happening.

We should force a public debate in the United States on the hugely expensive program to rebuild our nuclear arsenal, a program that we are simply drifting into. And we should stimulate a serious public debate on the dangers to the United States if nuclear testing were to resume.

In short, we have to begin taking concrete steps to stop this drift into a new nuclear arms race and a resumption of nuclear testing. We might fail in spite of our best efforts, but we should never let it be said that we failed because we didn’t make an effort.

China. For more than three decades, China has enjoyed economic growth of more than 10 percent annually. That’s remarkable, but there is trouble ahead—growth is slowing. It appears to be under 7 percent this year—which is not bad, but not enough for Chinese needs. Several hundred million Chinese have been left behind so far, and they see the good life enjoyed by others on TV. This is already causing social and political problems, with hundreds of demonstrations each year. And it could get much worse.

On top of its economic problems, China has serious pollution, which could lead to political problems. The government needs a safety valve, leading to ultra-nationalism, anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiments. China has already engaged in military adventures, especially in the South China Sea. This could lead to more aggressive adventures.

In the last decade China sustained major growth in military expenditures, with a special emphasis on a blue water navy and anti-ship missiles designed to deny US Navy access to the South China Sea, through which a major part of world trade passes, and which the US Navy is positioned to protect.

This is a recipe for military confrontation. To add to the danger, China has underway a major buildup in their nuclear forces. We don’t know the full extent of that buildup, but it does seem to be going beyond the minimal deterrence force that they have had for decades.

So a military conflict with China would be dangerous in and of itself, but it also has the potential of turning nuclear. And while I think that is very unlikely, it stands as my second nuclear nightmare.

North Korea. During 1990s I worked very hard for a non-nuclear North Korea. I failed, and those who followed me also failed. North Korea is now building a nuclear arsenal and has threatened to use this arsenal, engaging in outrageous and provocative rhetoric.

North Korea now has an arsenal of medium-range ballistic missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan. They could develop ICBMs, which would threaten the US. My Stanford colleague Sig Hecker has proposed a “3 no's” policy (no more nuclear weapons, no better weapons, and no transfer of nuclear material). This represents a potential way forward, but has not been adopted by either President Bush or Obama.

I expect more “acting out” within a few months, with long-range missile tests, probably followed by more nuclear tests to prove out the nuclear warheads for these missiles.

We are not on a path to solution—our relations with North Korea continue to be a festering sore. If this dangerous situation erupts, it will very likely entail use of nuclear weapons. That is my third nuclear nightmare.

Pakistan. Pakistan has had three recent wars with India. Both countries have nuclear weapons (about 100) and missiles, and there are still powerful terror groups in Pakistan.

During the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India showed restraint by not countering with an attack. If there is ever a second Mumbai-type attack, I fear that India would not show restraint again: India could respond with a military incursion, prompting Pakistan to respond with tactical nuclear weapons. This is turn would provoke India to respond in kind, and a regional nuclear war would be underway. God only knows how such a catastrophe might spread to other nations, either through their direct involvement, or indirectly, through fallout or nuclear winter. That is my fourth nuclear nightmare.

ISIS. Finally, today we are witnessing ISIS undertaking terror on a grand scale, not only in the Mideast but in Europe. No one should doubt that ISIS would expand their terrorism with nuclear attacks if they had access to these weapons. Given the huge store of fissile material in the world, some of it still not well secured, making an improvised nuclear bomb could be within their reach. So a nuclear terror attack is my fifth nuclear nightmare.

These five nuclear nightmares add up to a danger to our people that is greater in some ways than the nuclear dangers we faced during the Cold War. But most Americans—especially our youth—are blissfully unaware of those dangers.

As a consequence, our policies do not adequately reflect those dangers. That concern stimulated me to write a book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, just released by Stanford University Press. This book is a selective memoir of my experiences with nuclear weapons and nuclear crises, and its purpose is to alert the public to the real and growing dangers of a nuclear catastrophe.

I hope you will read this book and learn from it. But I realize that this book, even if effective, will reach only a small audience. In particular, it will reach very few of our young people. The problems I have described are going to be with us for decades, so our young people must play a key role in dealing with them.

Therefore I have undertaken to put these concepts into a form more widely accessible and available to young people. I am doing this through the William J. Perry Project, whose goal is mass education on nuclear dangers. We’re working on an online version of the book, hoping to reach a larger audience. Additionally, we’ll be working to get these ideas across in courses. For some years I have taught a course at Stanford about nuclear dangers, and I am now developing that course into an online course that has the potential to reach not just hundreds of students, but hundreds of thousands.

The broader series of educational materials under development is called “Nuclear Weapons: 20th-Century History, 21st-Century Decisions,” or 20-21 for short. We not only want people to understand the history, but to engage in current-day issues facing the United States, such as the impending nuclear arms race and the danger of a resumption of nuclear testing.

In the mid-1990s, Professor Francis Fukuyama wrote a brilliant book called The End of History. In it he observed that with the ending of the Cold War, we were entering a period where wars would be unlikely, thus the end of history.

Unfortunately, the tendency of nations to make war is still with us, only now with the prospects of using weapons with an unprecedented power to kill on a scale that few if any of the world leaders really understand. I have said that these weapons have the power to end civilization—and I do not believe that this is hyperbole.

In some small way I am trying to address this educational problem with my book, a set of online courses, and the 20-21 project, which not only looks at the history of nuclear weapons, but also the ongoing nuclear decisions we are making today. I hope to encourage young people to take the baton I am trying to pass to them. My generation created this existential problem—their generation must find a way to solve it.

The Bulletin famously uses the Doomsday Clock to dramatize the danger of a nuclear catastrophe. That Doomsday is thought of as absolute—namely the end of civilization that would result from a large-scale nuclear exchange.

For a large-scale attack, I would put the minute hand at 5 minutes before midnight, somewhat more optimistically than the Bulletin has been.

Nuclear terrorism, while not as catastrophic as a large-scale attack, is much more likely to happen, and its consequences would resound in unimaginable ways. For that version of Doomsday, I would put the hand at 1 minute before midnight.

I have given you a grim report, but it is not a call to despair. It is a call to recognize the dangers we face and respond with a robust and effective program of education to explain nuclear dangers, and a program of activism to reduce the probability that those dangers will be realized.

Together, we make the world safer.

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