Addressing Nuclear Proliferation Needs International Leadership, Cooperation, Stanford’s George Shultz Says

In his latest project, Governance in an Emerging New World, statesman and scholar George P. Shultz examines how global demographics and new technologies are changing nuclear weapons proliferation and their use. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

As the world deals with rapid technological and societal changes, other issues – such as nuclear weapons proliferation – have also become more complicated to address, said former U.S. Secretary of State and Hoover Fellow George Shultz.

According to Shultz, the security problem is only getting worse, not better. New technology has made weaponry not just easier and cheaper to manufacture but also more precise. This poses a massive risk worldwide, Shultz said in an interview with Stanford News Service.

Shultz – who was instrumental in bringing the Cold War to a close – shares his thoughts on how to address nuclear proliferation today.

Nuclear proliferation is also the topic of an upcoming event Shultz is convening as part of his latest project, Governance in an Emerging New World. The event, which will be held at Stanford on November 5th and is open to the public, will look at how global demographics and new technologies are changing nuclear weapons proliferation and their use.

Speakers include former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn. Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior advisor at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, will also speak on the panel.

Shultz is the Jack Steele Parker Professor of International Economics, Emeritus, at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served in the Nixon administration as labor secretary from 1969 to 1970 and as Treasury secretary from 1972 to 1974. He was Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989 during the Reagan administration, where he played a key role in implementing a foreign policy that led to the successful conclusion of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

How have you seen nuclear proliferation evolve over the past century?

For a while we seemed to be making progress on reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons, trust building exercises and so forth, but all of that is changing.

[Technology] is presenting new kinds of weapons that we are gradually becoming aware of. For example, you can produce very lethal, very inexpensive weaponry and you can put it on drones that are getting more and more capable. In September, a major oil facility in Saudi Arabia was blown up by Iranian drones and cruise missiles that probably were fired from Yemen. The drones traveled quite a distance and low to the ground. They were undetected and they hit with exquisite precision.

I’m increasingly impressed by the potential chaos created by such low-cost weaponry, and how that changes the larger strategic environment in which nuclear weapons are placed. It’s a mammoth development. Just talking about nuclear weapons on their own doesn’t begin to describe it.

How do we address nuclear proliferation today?

A lot of these problems demand international governance. Unfortunately, you look around the world today, I don’t care where you look, and that sort of leadership is in short supply.

We desperately need to have a discussion with Russia about this. About 70 percent of all nuclear weapons are owned by us and them. So, we have to start with them. You’ve got to have decisions at the top for this to happen. Putin is on public record saying he favors a world free of nuclear weapons. But then there’s a big “but” – and we have the same in our U.S. Nuclear Posture Review – and that is each side sees the other as obstinate. We have to deal with the “buts” and get ourselves onto a new track.

There is too much loose talk about not just having nuclear weapons but using them. People have forgotten their power. In my day, I remember nuclear weapons. We knew what they could do. It was very vividly wrong.

What needs to happen to raise awareness again?

When my friend, Sid [Sidney Drell, the Stanford physicist and deputy director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; co-founder of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford], died, we organized a conference in his honor. Friends and colleagues came from all over to discuss the same sort of science and policy issues he cared about, including arms control. The Governance Project we have been working on at Hoover in the two years since is the result. We’ve learned about how these changes affect our allies and adversaries around the world, and us too.

It’s important that people understand the magnitude of what is happening in order to set a governance agenda to address them. And rather than arguing for some point in the abstract, I find it’s often better to start on something concrete where you can show progress today. That tends to get people on board.

On the weapons issue, for example, Sam Nunn and I are advocating for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to form a new bipartisan liaison group of legislators and committee chairmen to renew dialogue with Russia. This depoliticizes the issue and is the same congressional model we used in the Byrd-Dole arms control observer group in the 1980s.

But there is a broader element. I’ve been saying that the world is on a hinge of history. We really have to look back to that period after the Second World War to find a time when our country was faced with this many complex changes. After the war, leaders like Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and George Marshall stood up and worked with other countries to address those challenges – and that turned out to be a great opportunity.

So we need to do that again – benefit from opportunities while reducing their negative impacts.

You played an instrumental role in bringing the Cold War to an end. What led to successful diplomacy?

I think it’s fair to say that when the Cold War came to an end, there was a security and economic commons in the world that was built, with a large amount of leadership from the United States, where everybody benefited. In those days we thought, “If I benefited, you also benefited, and that’s good.” Nowadays, you have to lose if I’m going to feel good about what I do. Win-lose. In our day, it was a win-win. Everybody wins – that’s the way to do it. That commons are coming apart.

– Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service

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