WE NOW face a risk of a nuclear catastrophe arguably greater than at any point in the nuclear era, except perhaps during “Black Saturday,” the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Two years later, popular films such as Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove dramatized the risks of an inadvertent nuclear conflict. If we look at the past fifty years, there were two times of heightened nuclear risk when the United States and the Soviet Union successfully negotiated breakthrough measures to reduce nuclear danger. On the U.S. side, the negotiations were led in the early 1970s by Henry Kissinger, producing détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) arms control agreements at the Nixon-Brezhnev Summit of 1972, and then in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan when, at the very first summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, they agreed to create Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers (NRRCs). An examination of these two key historical moments suggests lessons for U.S.-Russian negotiations on nuclear risk reduction that arguably are as applicable today as they were then. These include specific steps to reduce the risk of unintended, accidental nuclear war; build a working relationship on nuclear issues insulated from political differences; and specific recommendations for current negotiations.
BY 1972, the nuclear risk arguably decreased significantly, and tensions eased. There had been major steps to that point—the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968—but after Kissinger negotiated détente, there was a dramatic improvement of relations with the Soviet Union that yielded SALT I, the first arms control deal between the superpowers that put a cap on numbers of strategic ballistic missile launchers. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was signed at the same time.
The risk then increased dramatically in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. Congressional refusal to ratify SALT II, and the start of President Reagan’s major military buildup and strong support for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). By 1983, tensions reached an extremely dangerous level: government communications had largely broken down, raising extreme risks of misperception and unintended escalation to nuclear conflict. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov feared a U.S. first strike and, in November 1983, U.S. and NATO officers practiced the procedures they would have to follow to authorize and conduct nuclear strikes in an unpublicized exercise called Able Archer. In the media, it has been referred to as “the war game that could have ended the world.” We also now know the story of a false alert that could possibly have resulted in catastrophe had Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet nuclear launch officer, decided to pass the reported U.S. attack to the Kremlin.
The risk then went dramatically down when Reagan and Gorbachev signed a series of agreements, beginning with their accord at their first summit in Geneva in 1985. This accord was not on arms control specifically, but rather to begin establishing NRRCs in both Washington and Moscow. The centers were meant to keep the two sides in constant communication to alert one another to actions that might be misinterpreted as acts of aggression—avoiding future incidents like those with Able Archer and Stanislav Petrov. This was a confidence-building measure that helped lay the foundation for the historical reductions in U.S.-Soviet nuclear arsenals from over sixty thousand nuclear weapons at the time to half that in a little over a decade later, and subsequently to the current level of fourteen thousand.
Now, in 2019, even though the number of nuclear weapons is four times lower than in the early 1980s, the likelihood of some form of nuclear catastrophe has arguably risen to an unprecedented level. The new risks today are manifold. First, since the events in Ukraine in 2014, many basic political and military communication channels that the United States and Russia had used for decades to avoid misperception and share information have been suspended or effectively became fora for the exchange of mutual recriminations. Arms control treaties are now collapsing at a time when we are faced with serious challenges to strategic stability from nonnuclear high-precision weapons, hypersonic weapons, advanced cyberwarfare, unmanned and robotic systems, space weapons, third countries’ nuclear arsenals, vulnerabilities in command and control, terrorist hacking and more.
Furthermore, in the United States, there has developed a growing certainty, based on statements by Russians since 1999, that Moscow has lowered the threshold for nuclear use to a dangerously low level through an “escalate to de-escalate” policy—where Russia would use nuclear weapons if faced with an imminent battlefield defeat, particularly to make up for conventional inferiority in a conflict with NATO. Though it has never been stated in official Russian doctrine, the Trump administration has pointed to the Russian position to argue for its development of “low-yield” submarine-launched nuclear missiles, asserting that the United States needs new low-yield nuclear weapons to deter Russia at lower levels of conflict. Such policies carry high risks because they rely on intentional ambiguity over escalation thresholds, creating a context for miscommunication and, many argue, an unacceptable potential for failure of deterrence and a nuclear catastrophe.
What opportunities for nuclear risk reduction exist today? President Donald Trump has threatened to “outspend and out-innovate” any competitor in an arms race. At the same time, he has suggested the possibility of deep U.S.-Russian cuts in nuclear weapons in a trilateral agreement with China, though Beijing has rebuffed the initiative. The Russian side has recently made statements suggesting possibilities for major nuclear risk-reduction steps, including statements by President Vladimir Putin that essentially reaffirm the declaration made by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that a nuclear war would be a catastrophe for humanity, and therefore it cannot be fought and won; Putin’s recent statements may amount, some argue, to “a fundamental amendment to Russia’s military doctrine,” that disavows “escalate to deescalate” and is essentially a declaration of no first use of nuclear weapons.
What can we learn about reducing the unprecedented nuclear danger today from those who backed us away from the brink in the past—Kissinger in the early 1970s and Reagan in the 1980s?
THE AUTHORS of Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level, the first book to examine Kissinger’s record as a negotiator, distill fifteen lessons on dealmaking at the highest level of international negotiations, summarizing three overarching objectives that Kissinger set for the United States in the 1970s;
Prevent the great evil of nuclear war;
Restrain Soviet expansion and manage Cold War conflicts to American advantage;
Build a more stable “structure of peace” among China, the USSR and United States.
The authors invite us to adapt Kissinger’s objectives and lessons to “wise purposes” in today’s changing circumstances. It’s a very different world in 2019, but objective one above remains paramount. Objectives two and three are largely aligned with the views of many U.S. experts today if we substitute “Russian” for “Soviet.”
A key lesson from Kissinger the Negotiator is that “ultimate negotiation success depends upon the validity of your most basic assumptions, about the world, the situation and your interests.” In the bitter debate in the United States today over Russia, actions in Ukraine, and election meddling in the United States and Europe, there is no consensus in the U.S. foreign policy community regarding American national interests and a strategy toward Russia. In this rancorous debate, it is easy to fall into Nietzsche’s “most basic form of human stupidity” and forget what we are trying to do. Whatever else we are attempting we still have one shared absolute existential interest. Kissinger’s number one objective from 1970 remains an overriding wise purpose today. He has stated that when he became national security advisor in 1969, he realized that nuclear war would be catastrophic for both sides, and would change human history. That remains true in the present day.
Kissinger has been sounding this alarm publicly for over a decade as one of the “Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse.” He has expressed his anguish at the prospect that a nuclear holocaust could occur through the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons—a deliberate launch in response to a false warning, for example—that technological advances have made riskier. He has stressed: “…the most anguishing problem one could face was what happens if the strategic plans of both sides had to be implemented, or were implemented by accident or whatever. But it was a relatively less complex issue than we face today.”
This fundamental objective certainly shaped Kissinger’s view expressed in 2016 that we cannot afford in our negotiations to prioritize the isolation or weakening of Russia, let alone push for Russian collapse. He has argued for years that U.S. policymakers must impose real limits on our definition of our national interests. He made a point after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea of separating himself from neoconservative Republicans and liberal interventionist Democrats who argued, in Kissinger’s words, that Russia must be taught a lesson after its violation of international law and “if they collapse in that process, that’s the price they have to pay and, in a way, an opportunity for world order to reestablish itself.” Kissinger warned that “a post-Tito-type Yugoslavia wracked by conflict stretching from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok—from Europe across the Middle East to Asia—is not in America’s interest.”