A New Age of Diplomacy

By George Shultz

The goal of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons is of transcendent importance. So far as the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their potential use is concerned, we are at a tipping point. The danger is all too real. The simple continuation of present practice with regard to nuclear weapons is leading in the wrong direction. We need to change the direction. 

Two essays in The Wall Street Journal, which I wrote with William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn*, and which have been endorsed by many others, developed the case for a world free of nuclear weapons. I will not repeat here the arguments we made in those essays, but I do want to underline a central argument made there. We set out a vision, and we examined in some detail the steps needed if we are to attain that goal. These points are interrelated. As we wrote, “Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.”

My objective here is to advance the argument by setting out some guideposts that will help us attain our objectives. I have entitled this article “The New Age of Diplomacy” because these guideposts all involve an immense effort in diplomacy, using that term in the broadest sense.

Who is the human being with the right to use a modern nuclear weapon, knowing the awesome human consequences?

The first guidepost is the need for a firm grasp of the problem and of the stakes involved. Only with this reality in the gut as well as in the head of the body politic will difficult actions be possible. The stakes are huge, and people on every continent have a major interest in the outcome.

There is more tension than ever in today’s world as destructive weapons, even nuclear weapons, appear in more hands, as the international system for limiting their spread erodes, and as loosely structured arrays of Islamic extremists, some supported by Iran, hope to use these weapons of terror. The nation-state, the historic way of organizing civilized life and governmental activity, is under attack, and all too many parts of the world are barely governed. Such places, used by terrorists for training and launching attacks, are a grave danger to the civilized world.

The number of states seeking nuclear weapons or their precursors is in the process of expanding. The prospect of increased numbers of nuclear power plants means that the problems of controlling the process of uranium enrichment and dealing with spent fuel must be addressed with urgency.

Post-Cold War Complacency

During the Cold War, nuclear weapons served the purpose of deterrence. Though deterrence worked, anyone who was closely involved is all too aware of some close calls. The more states that have nuclear weapons, the more fragile is the application of deterrence strategy as a way of preventing their use, and the less credible is Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits states with nuclear weapons to phase down their reliance on them and even finally phase them out. Of course, the terrorists who now seek nuclear weapons essentially cannot be deterred. If they get a weapon, they will use it.

Somehow, the world’s perception of the nuclear threat receded after the end of the Cold War. Often, problems are not given the attention they deserve until a tragedy occurs. We cannot wait for a nuclear Pearl Harbor or 9/11. We must get ahead of the game to prevent an even more catastrophic event than those that have been seared into our memories. If we wait – if a nuclear event occurs – the world will be changed so dramatically that we will not recognize it.

So wake up, everybody. The danger is real and the potential consequences are of catastrophic proportions.

The second guidepost for a successful effort is to reassure people that a sensible, practical process exists to deal effectively with the problem. Sometimes problems are described in such a way that people simply throw up their hands in frustration. Well, the problem is staggering, but identifiable steps can be taken that will put us on the road to success. We need to let people know that an action program is available and then get that program started.

In our second essay in particular, we reflected on papers presented at a conference in October 2007 at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in collaboration with Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), where these steps were discussed in detail. Many were identified as actions that could be taken promptly to make for a safer world.

Diplomatic-Scientific Imagination

I have said this must be the age of diplomacy. We must consider the immense diplomacy needed to take the steps that have been identified. Diplomatic leadership from the very top is essential. No doubt foreign ministries will be expected to organize the effort. Quite obviously, that effort must be taken side by side with ministries of defense.

But I would like to highlight another ingredient of the diplomacy of the future. Almost all the steps involved will require a major scientific and technical component. Foreign ministries, with all due respect to their great gifts of persuasion and intelligence, are seldom able to grapple on their own with these issues.

Take the problem of the nuclear fuel cycle of nuclear energy power plants. What is required in enrichment capacity to produce the fissile material needed for a bomb? How would we go about detecting the presence of such capability? What means are available to deter or, if detected, to eliminate that effort? An alternative is needed. Under international supervision, can there be a set of facilities where uranium is enriched, but not to weapons-grade material? Can the world be brought to agree that such facilities, which would work to provide power plant fuel at a reasonable price, would suffice? That is a diplomatic undertaking of enormous difficulty and importance that can only be accomplished by teams that include scientific capability, private as well as public.

The same can be said for the problem of dealing with spent fuel. Can an agreement be reached with complete confidence that spent fuel will be retrieved and dealt with satisfactorily? How can we keep it from being turned into the plutonium needed to produce a bomb? Or, as the number of weapons is reduced eventually to zero, how do we assure ourselves against possible cheaters? These questions highlight the importance of a combined diplomatic and scientific approach for scoping out alternative public policies.

Countries must consider ways of promoting this kind of diplomatic/scientific collaboration. I have asked myself if I could have organized the conferences held at the Hoover Institution on my own. The answer is no. Could scientists have done so by themselves? I doubt it. There is simply no substitute for interaction between diplomats and scientists. Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, as an example, has a long and productive history of putting physicists, biologists, and social scientists together to work at tough problems. Sid Drell, a top-notch physicist and my colleague in organizing these conferences, co-founded this organization 25 years ago. Scott Sagan, one of the current co-directors, is an eminent political scientist, and his co-director, Siegfried Hecker, is a materials scientist who was formerly the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

There is still another side to achieving the needed steps. Among the seemingly intractable political tensions around the world, some may lead the parties involved to turn to nuclear weapons. Examples are the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and the alltoo- many areas of conflict in Africa.

One way to classify problems is to put them in two piles: problems you can solve and problems that seem insoluble. In the construction business, for example, if someone asks you to build a bridge from A to nearby B, you can solve the problem. By contrast, if someone asks you to create a construction site free of accidents, you can put up guardrails and other safety devices, but the minute you think the problem is solved, you’ve lost. The issue is all about attitudes. You have to realize that the problem is not soluble but needs constant attention and work. Only then do you have a way to minimize or maybe even eliminate accidents.

Two Kinds of Problems

Some of the most intractable international issues are like the second class of problems. Palestinians and Israelis claim the same land and so play a zerosum game. Anyone can write down a solution on paper, but the answer goes deeper. You have to work at the problem all the time and be willing to take on possibilities, not just probabilities. Constant attention can keep the situation from deteriorating and, eventually, an accommodation might emerge, as in Northern Ireland. When considering our work on any problem, especially those presented by nuclear weapons, we should ask: Are these rules being applied and, if not, why not? To paraphrase President Teddy Roosevelt, even if you have a big stick, speak softly, firmly, and in a manner that will be sustained by the evolving facts. And remember that surprises always lie down the road, especially for those who are complacent.

The third guidepost is developing support in key and powerful constituencies in country after country. Obviously, in the end, heads of government are the essential leaders in this effort. In the Hoover Institution-Nuclear Threat Initiative approach, we have endeavored to cast the issue as non-partisan rather than bipartisan. We realize there are plenty of issues to argue about, but we urge that they be discussed on their merits without getting mired in partisan divides. I am glad to say, for example, that three-fourths of the former Secretaries of State, Secretaries of Defense, and National Security Advisers alive today, Democrats and Republicans, support our efforts as outlined in The Wall Street Journal essays. I am glad to add that even those who have not signed on to the ultimate goal of a nuclear-weaponsfree world agree that many of the steps are desirable. I am heartened by the positions taken recently by the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and I note that the current Defense Minister and the Foreign Minister in the predecessor government made similar comments. In a speech given in New Delhi on Jan. 21, 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared: 

And let me say today: Britain is prepared to use our expertise to help determine the requirements for the verifiable elimination of nuclear warheads. And I pledge that in the run-up to the Non- Proliferation Treaty review conference in 2010 we will be at the forefront of the international campaign to accelerate disarmament amongst possessor states, to prevent proliferation to new states, and to ultimately achieve a world that is freer from nuclear weapons. 

Practical steps toward the goal of a world without nuclear weapons have been identified. Attainment of the goal is a real possibility.

I also attach great importance to a speech before the Plenary Session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on February 12, 2008, by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Referring to our essays, he said that we “argued in a convincing manner in favor of the need to continue nuclear disarmament,” and he noted that these ideas are “in line with Russia’s initiatives, though there are, of course, aspects that call for further discussion in seeking agreement on specific ways of resolving these not-that-simple tasks.”

And now on his newly established White House web site, President Obama has posted this statement: 

Obama and Biden will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it. Obama and Biden will always maintain a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist. But they will take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons. They will stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global. 

Finally, there’s the problem of timing. How do you know when the moment has arrived to make a push? Once a process is started and gains support, I believe, momentum will be built. That is already happening. I believe also that success in such an undertaking will have highly desirable side consequences. People throughout the world will heave a sigh of relief. They will be able to say to themselves, “There are leaders in this world with the capacity to deal with difficult problems.” Maybe other problems, such as climate change, can fall in line. Free of nuclear weapons, the world will be safer and saner in every respect.

I have tried to identify the great variety of important diplomatic tasks that lie ahead. Here are five undertakings that every country should embrace:

1. The issues involved are of transcendent importance, so the heads of government must be the chief diplomats. This is their issue. A key task is to help them exercise their awesome responsibilities.

2. Foreign ministers should expect to be at the center of organizing this effort, working in tandem with ministers of defense and others. Broad training is essential, particularly in the ability to work with technological issues and scientific people. Ways must be devised to retain seasoned officers and to engage senior people with political backgrounds. Young people should be encouraged to take careers in the foreign service.

3. The principal diplomatic task is to ensure that key constituencies in each country, groups that have an impact on the body politic, are brought on board, kept informed, and made a part of this process.

4. Scientists and diplomats must learn to work together on issues. When they do so successfully, they will experience the thrill of learning important things about areas with which they normally have little contact.

5. Finally, work must be undertaken, right from the outset, on a global scale. When I was in office and dealing with members of Congress, I learned that one of the rules of the road is: If you want me with you on the landing, be sure I’m with you on the take-off.

The world is trending toward an increase in danger from nuclear weapons. That trend must and can be turned around. Support is building. Doable steps toward the goal of a world without nuclear weapons have been identified. Attainment of the goal is a real possibility.

Finally, from a personal perspective, I will do everything I can to turn possibility into reality. I have been touched by this issue almost from the day the first atomic bomb was exploded. I remember vividly the pictures of a devastated Hiroshima. I served alongside President Reagan as we were responsible for national security. Who is the human being with the right to use a modern nuclear weapon, knowing the awesome human consequences? Ronald Reagan believed that nuclear weapons are immoral, and so he sought their complete elimination, and I agreed – and still do with deep conviction. In the end, this is a matter of profound morality. 

George P. Shultz is the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He served as U.S. Secretary of State from 1982-89. He was also Secretary of the Treasury from 1972-74, and Secretary of Labor from 1969-70. This article draws heavily on “Diplomacy for the Future,” a paper by George Shultz and Henry S. Rowen that was presented at the “Reykjavik Revisited” Conference at the Hoover Institution in 2007, and on a keynote address by Shultz at a conference on “Achieving the Vision of a World Free of Nuclear Weapons” convened by the Government of Norway in Oslo in 2008.

* Shultz was secretary of state from 1982-89. Perry was secretary of defense from 1994-97. Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973-77. Nunn is former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.