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The Big Four Support Nuclear Security

Kissinger, Nunn, Perry, and Shultz weigh in.

5:41 PM, Jan 21, 2010 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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When two former Secretaries of State, a former Secretary of Defense, and one of the leading Senate experts on defense issues during the latter half of the 20th century join their voices to speak as one on an issue, one’s instinct is to pay attention.  When two of them happen to be Democrats and two Republicans, the credibility of what they have to say is only enhanced.

More than three years ago, the first of what has become a series of Wall Street Journal op-eds by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz appeared.  Bearing the improbable, but uplifting, title “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” it laid out an ambitious agenda for moving the international community toward the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons forever.

It sounds far-fetched—and it is, but perhaps not quite so much as it sounds.  A nuclear free world was after all the explicit goal of that notorious professional peacenik pacifist protestor Ronald Reagan.  So perhaps it should not be such a surprise when President Reagan’s own Secretary of State shares the goal and believes it can be achieved.

If you detect any sarcasm in the above, either you are not reading me correctly or I have not written with the care intended.  I respect all four of these men and do not believe for a moment that any of them are motivated by partisanship, venality, or any other base desire.  I think they sincerely believe in what they are saying and are confident that they can make a real contribution toward making it happen—if not in any of their own lifetimes.  They must be aware that, to some extent, they have put their own prestige on the line by advocating something that seems at best wholly unrealistic.  That takes a certain courage.


The devil is of course in the details, and in this case there are so many of them that hell would have to contain many more than nine circles to hold them all.  For the most part, the four statesmen have recommended what amounts to a rather conventional program of arms control ideas, but proposed with greater scope and pushed with (probably unrealistic) urgency.  The idea is to get there gradually, incrementally, following essentially the path we are already on (or aspire to be on) but setting the goal much higher than any of our formal agreements have ever contemplated.  The problem with their vision is one that they have addressed only glancingly: What to do about countries that simply want to possess nuclear weapons?  How can you talk them out of it?  No one has a good answer to this, and neither do the Big Four.  It remains the largest hole in their vision.

Since that first piece appeared on January 4, 2007, the four have periodically renewed their call in the pages of the Journal, been feted by President Obama, and credited with inspiring the latter’s own call for a nuclear free world in his Prague speech last April.  Each new op-ed from these senior statesmen is therefore an Event—and yesterday we were treated with another.  Only this one was a little different.

Thus far, these four men have focused almost solely on steps to reduce arsenals and tighten the nonproliferation regime.  Yesterday, however, they stepped into the troubled waters of stockpile reliability.  That is, they advocated steps to ensure the U.S. nuclear arsenal is really capable of doing what it is designed to do.

This is not something that President Obama, his lieutenants drafting the Nuclear Poster Review, or most on the left want to hear.  They believe that pretty much any step the United States takes to ensure the reliability of its own stockpile sets a bad international example and makes further progress on arms control more difficult.

It is certainly true that, if you ask an American diplomat or expert who has participated in an arms control treaty or resolution negotiation, he will tell you that our side always gets an earful about every conceivable thing we do that might be considered “hypocritical,” which includes essentially any step that is not a cut in arsenal levels.

A lot of this talk must be taken with a shaker of salt.  Many of those doing the talking have an interest in seeing our arsenal shrink and its reliability decline.  Why wouldn’t they try to guilt-trip us into doing things that help their interests at the expense of ours?  It makes sense for them, even if it might not make sense for us to go along.

But many on the left take it at face value.  This is one reason why efforts to upgrade the U.S. stockpile runs into to so much domestic opposition.

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