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The politics of assured destruction

By Jim Creskey      

Advice for a prime minister on how to save the world while winning public support.

Joe Cirincione is an expert on nuclear disarmament and president of the U.S.-based Ploughshares Fund. The Hill Times photograph by Samantha Wright Allen
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Joe Cirincione understands the problem of nuclear weapons better than most. He has worked on nuclear weapons policy in Washington, D.C., for more than 35 years. He also understands how political power works in the United States from the inside. He spent nine years as a professional staffer on the U.S. House of Representatives committees on Armed Services and Government Operations. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former member of the International Security Advisory Board for secretaries of state John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. Today, he heads the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, and teaches at the Georgetown University Graduate School of Foreign Service.

There are reasons why his classes at Georgetown attract guest speakers like former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers. One of them might have to do with his contagious optimism despite his daily work to politically disarm a weapons system that has the potential to destroy the world.

On a visit to Ottawa, Joe Cirincione stopped by The Hill Times’ newsroom and sat down for an interview Oct. 1 with publisher Jim Creskey. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

The Obama administration promised to take action on nuclear disarmament but, through inertia or other reasons, lost the battle. What happened?

No one has yet done the autopsy on what went wrong, but clearly this is not what [former U.S. president Barack] Obama intended, what his senior staff intended.

“One of those staffers, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, is now on our board of directors at the Ploughshares Fund. He and I want to conduct such a post-mortem.

“[We already know about] the reluctance of Russia to pass a relatively modest New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty]. They began to drag their heels. It is very hard to make progress when your partner won’t co-operate with you.”

What role did Congress play during the Obama administration?

“The role the Republican opposition placed in Congress: they waged a huge fight over the New START programs, which were a modest reduction in the U.S. arsenal that was supported by the joint chiefs, supported by the military, supported by the Department of Defense. They fought it tooth and nail. And in that process, [they] forced the president to use up a lot of his political capital, a lot of his time, and a lot of his resources.

“Instead of getting this simple treaty approved at the beginning 2010 and then queuing up the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test-Ban Treaty for ratification and then moving on to another treaty with Russia for really deep cuts, everything got bogged down until the end of 2010.”

Who benefits from the weapons program?

“Here we are now with a $1.7-trillion bill. I’m convinced that money is the factor that is driving U.S. nuclear policy now. The U.S. government spends about $52-billion a year on nuclear programs, and that included the missile defence program which is about $10-billion a year and growing. It’s concentrated in a very few corporations who make most of our weapons.”

How does the money and power behind nuclear weapons reach into Congress?

“There is in the U.S. Congress something called the ICBM Caucus. This is real.

It’s made up of those Senators from states where there are ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] bases or strategic bomber bases. We’re talking about Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, and Louisiana. It turns out that totals about 12 Senators, Democrats and Republicans.”


On Canadian nuclear policy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ought to learn from his father’s example, says Joe Cirincione. Pierre Trudeau’s Canada was the first nuclear-weapons state to voluntarily give up nuclear weapons, he says. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

What kind of influence do they have?

“They, for example, told President Obama that they would not support the New START Treaty if it cut the number of ICBMs. Instead of having a treaty that went down to 1,000 strategic deployed warheads, we had one that went down to 1,550. The president needed the votes. You need 67 votes to pass a treaty. If you have 12 Senators saying no right away, that practically eliminates the possibility.”


Are there many American jobs behind this?

“There are only a handful of jobs. For example in Montana, at the ICBM bases, we’re talking about 2,000 jobs. That tells you something about what you have to do to change nuclear policy. It’s not just having an agreement with the Russians.

You have got to have an agreement with Montana! That means you’re going to have to find a way to keep the base, provide a revenue stream, but change the mission. You do that and you get the Senators’ votes.”

Doesn’t Ellsberg, author of the book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, make it clear that the ICBMs are the most dangerous part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal?

We no longer need the ICBMs for several reasons. One is the increased accuracy of our submarine-launched force and the invulnerability of that force.

“A submarine-launched missile can do everything a land-based one can do. What keeps this vulnerable, redundant force around? It’s one that’s a target for the enemy. It threatens the people whose states the bases are in.

“The Air Force sees the ICBMs as a ‘nuclear sponge.’ Their main justification is that it complicates the enemy attack plan. I wonder how the people of North Dakota and Montana would feel if you put up a billboard that said, ‘Welcome to Montana and North Dakota: America’s Nuclear Sponge!’”

What are the chances that the midterm election will make for change in these policies?

“If the Democrats take control of the House in November, you will see rise to the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee of Representative Adam Smith from Washington state. He has serious doubts about the necessity of keeping our ICBM force.”

Where does the Trump administration fit into this?

“Nuclear threats are back big time. Donald Trump has taken every nuclear challenge we have and made it worse.”


Which challenges?

“Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. It was a deal that was working, that almost all of our allies, particularly the Europeans, wanted us to keep as well as the Russians and the Chinese. This had slashed Iran’s nuclear program to a fraction of what it was before the deal and froze it in place for at least 15 years. It put it under a microscope so that we could observe everything that was going on with a certainty and a precision that we never had before. He threw it out under the illusion that we could get a new deal. There is no new deal.

“Instead of using that engagement to address the other serious problems we have with Iran, we have adopted a policy of regime change. Every week there are elements of the Trump administration that are making the risk of war in the Middle East more likely.”

What is Canada to do in the face of these problems?

“Never underestimate the power of example and of moral leadership. We saw a previous Prime Minister Trudeau mobilize world public opinion around nuclear policy in the ‘80s.

“Pierre Trudeau’s Canada was the first nuclear-weapons state to voluntarily give up nuclear weapons. Canada had effective control of about 450 U.S.-supplied nuclear weapons. Deciding that it wasn’t in Canada’s interest to have these weapons—that it wasn’t in the world’s interest to have these weapons—he gave them up. He led the way.”

And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

“His son could learn from that example, particularly at a time when you have a president of the United States who doesn’t see himself as the leader of the Western world, who sees his closest allies as economic rivals.

“We are coming to a time when European leaders and maybe Canadian leaders can no longer rely on the United States nor wait for U.S. leadership.

“You hear Angela Merkel and [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron speaking directly to this issue. They see the rise of white nationalist movements in Europe and America along with a powerful Russia that has disruptive tools. They don’t see their chief ally standing up to combat those threats.

“If you think the allied leadership can’t affect this president what it can do is pave the way for the next.”

Where do you see Canada in the UN treaty for the prohibition of nuclear weapons?

“This is a long game. It’s not going to be decided this year. It’s very difficult for Canada to sign on to it but one of the positions that Canada could take would be to express its support for the treaty and look forward to the day when NATO nations can sign the treaty. There are things you can do between yes and no. Diplomats are excellent at finding those ways.”


Do you think that the American and Canadian public cares about these things?

“I think that most people care strongly about economic domestic issues: their jobs, health care, race relations.

“But more people are talking about nuclear weapons since President Trump assumed office. More people than we have seen since the worst days of the Cold War in the 1980s. Those fears pop up in all public opinion polls. In fact, it even popped up among Trump voters. But these threat issues come in waves. We know the Iran crisis is going to get worse. North Korea will jump up in the news.”


Do you think Prime Minister Trudeau has anything to gain politically by taking a strong stand on nuclear weapons?

“The kind of popular support that Mr. Trudeau might experience if he were to become more assertive on his nuclear policy goals, long-standing Canadian policies, that he can more forcefully articulate is worth considering.”

Is there any doubt in your mind that the Canadian public would support those policies? That it would welcome those policies and that Trudeau would be praised for these policies?

“I think this is a winning political issue for most politicians in most countries around the world.”

Jim Creskey is a publisher of The Hill Times.

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