Authors of ‘The Button’ explain how the US can avoid ‘blundering into a nuclear war’

William Perry and Tom Collina
Slava Zilber

The Canary recently interviewed William Perry, former secretary of defence, Stanford professor of international relations and co-host of the podcast At The Brink, and Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund and previously research director of the Arms Control Association, about their book The Button: The new nuclear arms race and presidential power from Truman to Trump.

You believe that US nuclear policy should be reformed. What are the main aspects needing reform?

Perry: I’d say the most fundamental point made by Tom Collina and myself in our book is that for many decades, the American nuclear policy has been based on the wrong threat. The threat that we have assumed and that we have designed our forces to respond to is a surprise attack in the Cold War from the Soviet Union and now from Russia. And because we see that as the threat, we have designed our forces – we designed our policies and our posture to respond to that threat. We strongly believe that that’s not a realistic threat. The threat, instead, is that we will blunder into a nuclear war. We will get there by an accident or by a miscalculation. And finally, to make it even worse, the fact that we have the wrong policy in responding to surprise attack actually makes it more likely that we will have a mistake, we will have a miscalculation that could lead to a war. So that’s the essence of the point in our book. Tom, would you like to add to that?

Collina: Sure. Just to add what our policy recommendations are stemming from that. In order to reduce the chance of stumbling into war we would like to extend the decision time for any president. So three major changes we would make to US nuclear policy:

One is: We would end the practice of sole authority for the president. Right now, the US president can decide on his own authority to launch US nuclear weapons without input from Congress or the Secretary of Defense or anyone else. And we think that’s unnecessary and dangerous.

Two: That the US should change its policy of first use. It’s US policy now to allow the first use of nuclear weapons – not just in retaliation to a nuclear attack. Most Americans don’t know that. They think that US policy is to retaliate. But first-use policy is dangerous because it puts both the United States and Russia on short notice that an attack could be coming at any time and that increases the chance of mistakes and blunders.

And third: The weapons that would be used first and are most in danger of being used by mistake are our land-based ballistic missiles that are currently in process of being rebuilt. So we would recommend that those land-based ballistic missiles not be rebuilt and actually be phased out, because you don’t need them for deterrence and they increase the false … the risk of launching nuclear weapons in a false alarm which could end the world as we know it.

Why have these problematic policies remained in place?

Collina: So, as we are saying, US policy is focused on the wrong threat of an intentional surprise attack from Russia. The reason that policy is still in place today is we simply haven’t rethought our policies since the Cold War. I mean that’s kind of amazing, that … I don’t think the Russians were planning – and Bill [Perry] can give his opinion on this – I don’t think the Russians were planning a surprise attack even during the Cold War. But they’re certainly not planning a surprise attack now. But we haven’t changed our policy substantially. I mean certainly the numbers have come a bit down since the Cold War, but we haven’t changed US use policy substantially since the end of the Cold War.

I would say in part because it’s hard to do. For any president – and these would be presidential decisions – for any president considering to do that, there is significant opposition: ideological opposition from the other party, usually Republican opposition to any changes that Democrats might make, but there is also huge opposition in Congress and in defence contractors and in the Pentagon. So it’s very difficult to make these changes. The system is kind of stacked against making big changes. And it takes a president who’s willing to take on the political headwinds and take the political risk to do it. Some things have been done tremendously well: For example, the United States ended nuclear testing. The United States has signed treaties to reduce nuclear forces. But I would focus, for example, on no-first-use. Presidents tried to make it a US policy not to use nuclear weapons first. President Clinton tried and Bill can talk to that. President Obama tried. And in both cases they came up against such resistance that they decided it wasn’t worth the price – unfortunately, because it is a very important policy to have.

Perry: I would add to what Mr. Collina said by saying that, surprisingly, some of the opposition came from our own allies, the ones to whom we offer extended deterrence. They feared that, if we established a no-first-use policy, that somehow it would affect our ability to provide the nuclear umbrella with them, to make good on our promise of extended deterrence. That is not correct, but that was the perception. In any event, the president – every time he has tried to do that – has had substantial opposition from some of our allies to whom we offer this extended deterrence.

What do you tell those who say it would cause an enormous loss in jobs? These industries employ tens of thousands of people, as you describe in the book. Particularly now, such losses would make any politician or any presidential candidate unpopular.

Collina: It’s a great point! And that’s part of the reason why these issues haven’t changed. There’s so many jobs invested and so much money invested in the status quo that it is very difficult to make these changes. And I think the way it has to be done is politicians need to talk about the benefits of making these changes. So, for example, if we were to phase out land-based ballistic missiles, the United States would be tremendously safer. That decision maker making that decision would make it much less likely that we would stumble into nuclear war. That’s a great benefit. And the president needs to sell it as that. And the president needs to then say what he would do with that hundred billion dollars rather than invest them in systems that make us less safe. So the president would say: ‘I’m going to take this hundred million dollars that I just saved. I’m going to invest it in coronavirus response or, you know, saving our economy from falling further into the dustbin or responding to the dangers of climate change’. Right? There are so many needs that the United States has that are being unmet that, if a president proactively said ‘I’m taking this money out of this area, which is actually dangerous and undermines our security, and I’m going to put it over here in an area that actually benefits our security,’ I think the American people would support that.

Perry: I would like to add to what Tom Collina has just said. There’s an analogous situation in the danger of climate change, in the danger of some climate catastrophe. And dealing with that problem, mitigating that problem has involved shutting down coal-fired generators. It’s involved basically destroying the coal industry in the United States and affecting many, many thousands of jobs of the coal miners and the various coal processors.

That was a problem and still is a problem. The answer to that was like the answer that is suggested by Tom Collina, which is generating the electricity instead by non-fossil fuels, solar power, for example, wind power, has involved new jobs both in the research and development to improve those techniques and in installing those systems. So there is in a sense of trade-off there. But in the other sense, it doesn’t involve the same people: The people who are digging the coal out of the ground are not necessarily the ones who are going to be designing solar arrays. So it is a problem and it will continue to be a problem and we have to deal with it the ways Tom suggested.

Collina: If I could just add, I mean I think Mr. Perry is exactly right and we have to find economic conversions, solutions that help the people that lose their jobs because people will lose their jobs in these sectors and we have to find a way to retrain them and find new things for them to do. And that’s part of the solution.

You mentioned the interests of US allies and the nuclear umbrella. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. Had Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons, that could have prevented the Russian incursion. What is your response?

Perry: I believe that Ukraine is better off today having given up its nuclear weapons. That doesn’t … with the nuclear weapons or without the nuclear weapons, it doesn’t guarantee they’re going to have a positive relationship with Russia. It doesn’t guarantee that Russia is not going to be concerned about and making claims, for example, in the Crimea.

But think about it for a moment. Suppose Ukraine had nuclear weapons and suppose Russia makes incursions into the Crimea. Is Ukraine going to respond to that by sending nuclear weapons to Moscow? I don’t think so.

Nuclear weapons …are the most powerful weapon ever developed, but to a great extent they’re unusable. They do provide and have provided through the decades deterrence for the United States and in turn deterrence for Russia against a major cataclysmic event. But think about it: in the United States it hasn’t in any way saved us from the minor wars we’ve gone into … relatively minor wars since the ending of the World War II. We still had the Korean War and the Vietnam War, we had the Iraq War. We had all of these things. The nuclear weapons didn’t play a role, either positive or negative.

So, it is a great mistake to imagine that because a nation has nuclear weapons it’s going to have a sounder security. They’re only good really for one thing which is preventing a nuclear attack on your own country. That’s demonstrated by the history of the United States.

The New START Treaty is set to expire in February 2021. What practical advice would you give to people who want to change US nuclear policy and prevent or stop a possible nuclear arms race?

Collina: Well, the first thing we have to do is extend the New START Treaty which, unfortunately, the Trump administration seems to have no interest in. So there would be some time, very little time. If the next president is Joe Biden, he would have about two weeks after being inaugurated to extend the New START Treaty. So that would be step one.

Step two would be then to open up negotiations on a treaty beyond that because New START even under the Obama administration was always meant to be an interim agreement. They always expected to go further. And so a new US administration would need to open up diplomacy with Russia to make that happen.

And third, we need to reduce the rebuild of the nuclear arsenal that we are currently considering. The United States is planning to spend about two trillion dollars to rebuild the arsenal over the next few decades and that is forcing Russia to take similar moves.

And so the combination of the Trump administration tearing down arms control and excessively rebuilding the arsenal is leading to a new arms race with Russia and we need to put a stop to that as soon as we can.

Perry: I would just make one further comment on that. I don’t think our moves have forced Russia into the arms race. In fact, they’d already started their arms race before, during the Obama administration.

But it is true that, if we stop our nuclear arms race, we have a basis for going to Russia and going together, negotiating bilateral agreements to stop the arms race. So… Russia and the United States have different interests in this, but they both have an interest in stopping nuclear proliferation. They both have an interest in not having nuclear war. So there is a basis for the negotiations between US and Russia. And we ought to proceed on that basis and I hope the new administration will do that.

Perry: […] even if Mr. Biden is elected as president, even if he has a receptive view to many of the things we are promoting, it is going to be a tough go. It’s a tough political job. It’s impossible when you are trying to do it in opposition to the president. But even doing it with a president who wants to do these things – he has a tough job and our job is try to help him succeed in doing that.

President Obama, for example, set off with major aspirations including eventually eliminating our nuclear weapons. He got as far as the New START Treaty. And that was it. He was not able to proceed beyond that in the field of nuclear disarmament, because the opposition was so powerful, that he felt he was wasting too much political capital trying to get these things done.

So this will be a problem with the new president. And part of the job is to get some popular support for these things so that his job will be a lot easier in trying to get it through. If the public is not behind it, if the public does not understand how important these goals are, the president will not be able to succeed in the face of predictable public and political opposition.

Featured image of William Perry via © 2011 Light at 11B – Joseph Garappolo and Christian Pease and featured image of Tom Collina via Lu A. Collina

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