Senator Nunn on Nuclear Security, Russia, and US Politics

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a CFR luncheon on nuclear security featuring former senator Sam Nunn.  With his impressive record on defense issues, and particularly nuclear issues, both during and after his career in Congress, Nunn’s perspective is always worth listening to.  I was not disappointed and walked away with a lot of notes.  Here are the key points/insights I feel are worth sharing:

  • Nunn firmly believes that cooperation between the United States and Russia on nuclear issues is imperative, regardless of the state of overall relations between the two countries.  Nuclear security – from terrorism to deterrence stability – are simply too important to be affected by other concerns.
  • One of the most interesting points came when Nunn dismissed the argument that Russia would have never seized Crimea if Ukraine had kept the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. He takes this stance, he said, because Russia was never going to allow Ukraine to keep the weapons; members of the Russian military told him at the time that if Ukraine refused to give up the weapons, they were planning to invade and take them by force.
  • In a detailed discussion about the post-Cold War expansion of NATO, Nunn said he had been against it at the time because he felt that it disrespected Russia and that if the same situation had occurred to the United States, we would have viewed it as a threat too.  Ultimately, he said that Russia must have a future in the Euro-Atlantic security and economic system.  Russia is too important and powerful to be outside the tent pissing in – it’s better to have it inside the tent pissing out.  Figuring out a way to offer this alternative path to Moscow should be a top priority for American policymakers.  Failure to do so would doom our grandchildren to repeat the same security problems we face today.  Nunn truly believes a Russia inside the Euro-Atlantic system is the only viable path to a sustainable peace.
  • On a related note, Nunn argued that it’s not in our fundamental security interests to isolate Russia and have it turn into an economic basket case.  You can’t change geography, so Russia will always exercise significant influence within Europe.  Moreover, geography limits both our interests and our capabilities relative to Russia’s.  As a result, we’re better off having an integrated and prosperous Russia with a stake in the system than an isolated and paranoid Russia.
  • Nunn is adamant that no country has the sovereign right to start a nuclear war given the global implications the use of hundreds of weapons would entail.  While he didn’t elaborate on this position, it’s clear Nunn’s stance here would have significant trickle down effects on strategic and operational policy, such as first-use policy, launch readiness status, and the development of highly precise, low-yield nuclear weapons.
  • Nunn was asked by a member of the audience what he thought of the domestic political situation.  He said he was surprised at how bad it has gotten and would never have predicted the rise of Trump.  He said he thought Kasich was the only qualified GOP candidate left and that if he lost, and Republican voters could not be convinced to vote for Hillary, that he would suggest a write-in movement for Hulk Hogan.  Hulkamania is back, baby!
  • Finally, in discussing how and why he was able to achieve such significant bipartisan accomplishments, such as the Nunn-Lugar program and the Goldwater-Nichols Act, Nunn stated that it all came down to trust.  You have to be able to trust the guy across the aisle, even if you disagree with him on many policy issues.  Domestic US politics is a series of iterative games.  Constantly choosing to defect, as if it were a single-run Prisoner’s Dilemma, leads only to obstructionism, gridlock, and political decay.

All in all it was a great conversation that made me nostalgic for the statesmen of Nunn’s era.

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