Michael KreponNunn-Lugar, R.I.P.

The most important post-Cold War initiative to reduce nuclear dangers undertaken by the United States has come to a quiet, unceremonious end. Cooperative threat reduction programs to secure loose nukes and reduce surplus force structure in the remnants of the former Soviet Union were the crowning achievements of the distinguished legislative careers of Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. These programs became necessary and possible only when Moscow was a supplicant and when Washington was generous to a battered rival. Think of a Marshall Plan narrowly tailored to weapons of mass destruction and disruption, and think of recovery in terms of preventing proliferation and nuclear terrorism – and you have the essence of the Nunn-Lugar initiatives.

A quarter-century after the Cold War ended, bilateral relations have again reverted to hard times. These programs are now deemed unnecessary and inappropriate by Russian President Vladimir Putin and by majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. Russia is no longer a supplicant, and the U.S. Congress is no longer feeling generous.

The good works of Nunn-Lugar are usually summarized by numbers – missiles, bombers and submarine hulls cut up, warheads dismantled, fissile material safeguarded, and security upgrades at sensitive sites. The extraordinary nature of these accomplishments seemed oddly diminished by the photo-ops that prompted the occasional news story of work in progress. These pictures and stories of distinguished U.S. visitors observing the dismantlement of the detritus of the Cold War didn’t begin to convey the breadth and unprecedented nature of this work.

A second major story line of the Nunn-Lugar initiatives is that of cooperation among nuclear weapons labs. Individuals who once competed in squeezing maximal explosive yields out of confined warhead spaces turned to innovative, pragmatic ways to prevent the international trafficking of huge stockpiles of poorly secured warheads and fissile material. A control system based on Big Brother, guns and guards had to be reconstituted when the powers of the Soviet state melted way. New systems of material accountancy needed to be created. All of this was accomplished on the fly by lab-to-lab cooperation and by government collaboration. Very few of the individuals involved in this extraordinary work have received public recognition.

The Soviet Union dissolved with an excess of 27,000 nuclear weapons, enough plutonium and highly enriched uranium to triple this number, and 40,000 metric tons of deadly chemical weapons. That none of these numbers turned into proliferation nightmares is an accomplishment of world-historic proportions — at least equal, in my view, to the those of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in ending the Cold War nuclear arms competition, of George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin in consolidating steep nuclear arms reductions, and of Bill Clinton in protecting the Non-proliferation Treaty by securing the accession of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus as non-nuclear-weapon states.

The Nunn-Lugar initiatives were also notable for their parentage on Capitol Hill. During the Cold War, the U.S. Congress served as a prod to the Executive Branch to take many useful diplomatic initiatives; none were more important than Nunn-Lugar. Nowadays, Congress serves as a brake on nuclear diplomacy.

The heroic efforts of the Nunn-Lugar initiatives maintained and strengthened the nuclear order under conditions of unparalleled stress, when international and major power relations were in severe flux. This paramount accomplishment joins others at the top tier of the Nuclear Age: the absence of mushroom clouds on battlefields since 1945; unnatural accords between superpower adversaries limiting and reducing their nuclear arsenals; the end of nuclear testing by major powers, and accords buttressed by international monitoring arrangements limiting the scope of proliferation. Few could imagine any of these rarefied achievements when these hard climbs were first undertaken.

National leaders do not now harbor plans to operationalize ambitions of this magnitude. President Obama’s repeated endorsement of a world without nuclear weapons doesn’t qualify, because it isn’t a priority and lacks workable plans and conditions for its realization. In contrast, the Nunn-Lugar initiatives were absurdly ambitious, patently necessary, and achievable with the right mix of political leadership and technical ingenuity. In a world where superpower competition abruptly shifted to cooperation, the unacceptable became possible, and the truly difficult took a bit longer.

The times we live in are neither so dismal nor so rich with opportunity as to invite heroic efforts on this scale. And the requirement of bipartisanship in the United States – a necessary condition for success at this level of magnitude – is now sorely lacking. The order of the day is to maintain as much security cooperation as possible with Russia while contesting its actions in Ukraine, developing patterns of security cooperation with China, and reaching a constraining nuclear accord with Iran.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)

    “…developing patterns of security cooperation with China…”

    My question is: how do you convince China that it’s nuclear arsenal is making it weaker, not stronger?

    I thought that was the big question at the bottom of all the little ones.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The easier part is convincing China that nuclear arms control or other security measures would be in its national self interest. The aim of arms control is to cooperate to improve stability and to reduce risk of nuclear war by reducing its probability and/or its severity if nuclear war would occur. This goal is manifestly in the interest of all nations, including China.

      The harder part is convincing China to prioritize arms control relative to other problems and issues. Aside from national survival and survival of its people, other possible motives include diplomatic prestige, reassurance that China’s rise will be peaceful, maintenance of a cooperative atmosphere that is good for trade, and the practical pursuit of virtue.

  2. Ian Turnbull (History)

    Thank you for this decidedly upbeat review of the ambitious and cooperative management, by both the American and Russian authorities, of the “mountain” of enriched uranium that had accumulated in the USSR prior to Gorbachev and Reagan’s era.
    In my mind’s eye, I like to imagine that same instinct for international cooperation finding the time and space to wonder more about the metaphysics of the atom, now that the physics is essentially sorted. This is the angle I have been looking at for some years. It is not as wacky as not looking at this aspect of our nuclear work: if you can make sense of that sentence.
    This erudite article celebrates the absence of mushroom clouds on battlefields since 1945. I’ve come to see the “mushroom cloud” as an absolute eye-opener with regard to the metaphysics of the atom. We have to stop fretting – if only for a while – about the destructive power of the weapons, in order to see with fresh eyes the social processes and spiritual behaviour of the energy that fission releases out of matter. In other words, see the universal nature of nuclear fission. This same process goes on in our human societies ! Once we glimpse this scenario, then the whole nuclear subject becomes accessible for a much softer and sweeter and ultimately creative interpretation.
    I’ve prepared a website, nucleargodeeper dot com, wherein I have sought to show the value of the subjective and experiential information coming out of our nuclear work: which usually gets discounted in our heady rush to gather and analyse the more familiar objective data. I hope you’ll persevere with my approach. It’s bound to be imperfect with the details. But I think the larger view is good. And has an ancient lineage to boot.
    Good wishes. Ian Turnbull. Findhorn, Scotland.

  3. Jon Davis (History)

    “The order of the day is to maintain as much security cooperation as possible with Russia while contesting its actions in Ukraine, developing patterns of security cooperation with China, and reaching a constraining nuclear accord with Iran.”

    Perhaps I am pessimistic, but I don’t have much confidence in these issues having much success. Russia will probably cheat on any treaties, China could build a clandestine arsenal, and Iran will probably not agree to any restraints and will eventually build the bomb. I think if situations in the world were different economically, we might have hope. But there seems to be too much volatility, too much instability, and too much confrontation. I hope I am proven wrong.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      China “could” build a large nuclear arsenal, but not necessarily “will”. Actually, this has been true for decades, but it has not happened yet.

      Something else China “could” do, but not necessarily “will”, is enter into and take nuclear arms negotiations more seriously. China currently sits at the node of two intersecting nuclear triangles: U.S.-Russia-China and China-India-Pakistan. If China took a serious and sustained interest in nuclear negotiations, it could shake the world out of its nuclear arms control doldrums.

    • Jon Davis (History)

      As far as China is concerned, what concerns me is they are building new strategic delivery vehicles which don’t fit into the parameters of their declared arsenal. They are no longer relying on a liquid fueled rocket with one multi megaton range warhead. They are adopting the triad like Russia and the US and making their systems capable of launching mirvs. This does not support keeping their arsenal at current levels. This supports an increase in their arsenal. We also have the issue of their tunnels. Everything suggests the capability to breakout and catch the US and Russia.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Yes, breakout to catch up with U.S./Russia is a possible future for China. Right now, China is moving only slowly on this. Moreover, it is widely believed that China has only enough fissile material for a few hundred warheads. Fielding a thousand or more warheads would require resuming production or importing more fissile material. Without more fissile material, modernization of delivery vehicles can only increase the number of warheads deliverable onto U.S. targets, not the total number in its arsenal.

    • Jon Davis (History)

      “China. China may have a stockpile of about 16 ± 4 tons of HEU; an additional 4 tons of
      HEU may have been consumed in nuclear-weapon tests and in research reactor fuel.34
      China produced its HEU at the Lanzhou gaseous diffusion enrichment plant from 1964
      to 1980, and at the Heping plant from 1975 to 1987.
      The large uncertainty in the HEU estimate is due to a lack of accurate public information
      about the capacity and operating history of China’s enrichment plants. China
      does not release any information on its HEU stockpiles and has not declared any of its
      HEU as civilian.” – Global Fissile Material Report 2013

    • Jon Davis (History)

      “China. China is estimated to have an inventory of 1.8 ± 0.5 tons of weapon-grade plutonium.
      It produced 2 ± 0.5 tons of plutonium for weapons, of which about 0.2 tons
      was consumed in its nuclear tests.”

      “The Chinese government does not provide information about the size or composition
      of its nuclear stockpile.”

      “The Chinese strategic arsenal is believed to be increasing, but how much and how fast
      is the subject of much speculation and uncertainty.”

      So the truth is… we just don’t know.

  4. Carol Kessler (History)

    Beautifully said and so important to be said. Here’s to all of our colleagues that made Nunn-Lugar a reality!

  5. Fred Miller (History)

    One measure of a modern battle is how much wrecked war materiel is left on the battlefield afterwards. By this standard, Cooperative Threat Reduction is, by far, the biggest battle in all of history.

    Another measure of the significance of a battle is it’s impact on history. No Russian mafia has tried nuclear blackmail, no violent subnational group has eliminated or irradiated a major city, no tinpot dictator has used or tied to market Soviet plutonium. Nunn-Lugar is as significant as Midway, Kursk, Gettysburg or Waterloo.

    A third way to measure the magnitude of battles is by the bodycount. Again, Nunn-Lugar is extraordinary: not one fatality. Not one funeral.

    Nunn-Lugar should be counted among America’s great victories.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)


    Huang Xuhua, China’s chief submarine designer, has told Shenzhen Satellite Television that China’s Type 091 Han-Class nuclear-powered submarine was designed and developed based on two toys from the United States…

    China decided to complete the three steps in one because it did not have enough time according to Huang. Eventually, they brought two US-made toy submarines back to China from Hong Kong and the United States. With those two toy submarines in different sizes, the Chinese researchers were able to learn the design of American water-drop shaped submarine through disassembling them. Huang said this is the reason why China was able to design its first water-drop shaped submarine.