Free To Choose Network | Turmoil & Triumph: The George Shultz Years
Turmoil & Triumph: The George Shultz Years
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Our Nuclear Future: A Vision
Since leaving the office of Secretary of State in 1988, George Shultz has been a busy man. He has worked on issues of terrorism, the drug war, entitlement reform, and offered the world a series of critical memoirs on the Reagan years. But perhaps no subject has preoccupied Shultz more than the issue of nuclear proliferation.

Nuclear weapons have been with us for more than sixty-five years. That is why most of us let the dangers of annihilation simply fade into the background. Not George Shultz. He knows that the calculation of mutually assured destruction has evolved. While there are fewer weapons now than in 1986, there are more countries with nuclear weapons than ever before. Many of the regimes that possess them – or seek to possess them – are unstable. That changes the calculation. That makes matters more nebulous. Nuclear weapons are as dangerous now as they have ever been, perhaps more.

The following excerpt by Sec. Shultz comes from a speech given at Stanford Memorial Church on May 11, 2009, as part of the Rathbun Visiting Fellow Program.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Mutually Assured Destruction

Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a theory of nuclear deterrence, which holds that neither side in a conflict will attack the other if both expect to be totally destroyed.

The theory was developed during the Cold War as an outgrowth of game theory. The US and the Soviet Union held nuclear weapons of such number and strength that they were capable of annihilating each other completely -- and threatened to do so if attacked.

Many believed that the fear of MAD was the surest way to ensure peace, because the costs of gaining an advantage would be too great, even for the “winner”.

The first point I want to make is that these statements show that the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons—our ought—has extraordinary staying power. Why? We know all too well that these weapons are unique in their immense and inhumane destructive power, that the consequences of their use are devastating, and that access to nuclear materials is proliferating.

Second, not only does this idea have staying power, but I think we’re entitled to hope and maybe even believe that it’s an idea whose time has come—thus the joint statement in London on April 1 by Presidents Medvedev and Obama. On April 5 in Prague, President Obama followed up powerfully with an ambitious agenda for the United States to lead in taking critical, concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons, beginning this year. (On June 3, in a powerful address on the floor of the Senate of the United States, Senator John McCain added his voice of support, lending a spirit of nonpartisanship to the effort.)

Now we must consider ourselves charged with the task of helping to bring the vision to reality. The ought needs help, so what does it take to get from here to there? It will take a lot of hard work on many fronts. Of course, major reductions in nuclear arms by Russia and the United States need to lead the way, but more vigorous attention to proliferation threats from North Korea and Iran must also be on the front burner. The Russian and U.S. presidents instructed their negotiators to get busy immediately to negotiate a follow-on agreement to the START treaty, which was negotiated fifteen years ago and is due to expire in December 2009. That treaty contains the most detailed verification measures that exist, so preventing its expiration preserves the essence of the treaty’s verification measures and the knowledge that has been acquired by administering them. Note that the U.S. stockpile is about one-fourth of its size at the height of the Cold War in 1986—the year of the Reykjavik meeting. Russian numbers have also come down sharply.

Nuclear weapons test and characteristic "fireball" in the Nevada desert

We have to beware of making too many empty threats, saying something is unacceptable and then doing nothing after it happens.

Third, based on the evidence of the past, dramatic progress is possible. This is no illusion. I believe we must go carefully, remembering that we are talking about the national security of each country and all of us collectively. To turn once again to the Obama White House website, the statement of the goal is followed by a pledge that the president “will always maintain a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist.” That is necessary for each country and for the non-nuclear states that depend on the deterrent capability of others. But being careful does not mean that time is irrelevant. Time is not on our side. The key phrase must be “careful urgency.”

The agenda is reasonably well known, and it is daunting. Yes, there are steps for the United States and Russia to take because of their exceptionally large arsenals, and I’m glad to see that this process is getting under way. But there are numerous other necessary actions that involve many other countries—maybe all countries—so it is very important, I think, that this commence not as a U.S. initiative or even a U.S.-Russia initiative, but rather as a global enterprise on which we all pitch in. President Obama, in his stirring address in Prague, identified several of these steps: “A new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years, and building on our efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade.”

Then there is the nuclear fuel cycle. As more nuclear power plants are built, we must get control of the fuel cycle. If uranium can be enriched to the necessary level for fuel for a nuclear power plant, it can be enriched for a weapon, and the spent fuel can be reprocessed into plutonium.

Growth and subsequent decline in US and USSR/Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles, 1945–2005

We know that verifying agreements is essential. A way should be found, for example, to make generally available what is learned from the verification procedures under the START treaty. Then there are issues of enforcement— what to do if some country or group steps out of line. As President Obama put it in his Prague speech, “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” In recent years, words have not meant much. Security Council statements and declarations by government leaders have been routinely ignored, most recently by North Korea’s test of a ballistic missile capability. If the threat of proliferation is to be handled successfully, violations must be punished.

I remember vividly when I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in World War II. You don’t become a Marine; you become a boot, and you get kicked around for ten weeks in boot camp. I remember when my drill sergeant handed me my rifle. He said, “Take good care of this rifle. It’s your best friend. And remember one thing: never point this rifle at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger.” No empty threats. We have to beware of making too many empty threats, saying something is unacceptable and then doing nothing after it happens. When we say something, we should know what we’re going to do and see that we carry through.

In our published articles, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and I have identified many critical steps that must be taken to establish an agenda and create a commitment to implement it globally. Achieving a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons will require a willingness to be idealistic and realistic at the same time. By combining realism with idealism, we can use practical steps to find a way from what is, a world with an increasing risk of global disaster, to what ought to be: a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.

Editor’s Note: Since George Shultz gave this speech, there have been major updates to the START treaty, which include further reductions in nuclear weapons.