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Nonproliferation expert warns leaders aren't focused on nuclear weapons threat

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, Michael Morell speaks with Lynn Rusten, vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and leader of the Global Nuclear Policy Program, about the state of nuclear proliferation in the world. Rusten warns that experts aren't focused on the existential threat of nuclear weapons, weighs in on current nuclear treaties and argues that beginning to repair alliances would be a good place to start. 

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  • Leaders aren't focused on nuclear weapons threat: "We are closer to the potential use of a nuclear weapon than we've been since the Cold War. Part of that is because the relations between the nuclear powers, between us and Russia, us and China, are declining and the risk of conflict is growing. At the same time, there's an unprecedented complacency about this. People just aren't focused, including leaders, sufficiently on the risks of these weapons and the risk of miscalculation."
  • Nuclear treaty benefits outweigh disadvantages: "It's very common for critics of arms control deals, including the new START, to criticize what it doesn't do. But they never look at the real-world choice of the agreement we have versus not having it. They compare the agreement we got with the mythical agreement people would want that did everything we wanted and gave no concessions to the other party. That's not how you reach agreements or have sustainable agreements."
  • Arms control and alliances: "We've really got to have more cohesion between the executive branch and the Congress on national security and foreign policy. We need to repair our alliances in Europe and in Asia as a foundation. We need to do that. As we pursue security policies and arms control with countries like Russia and China, you need to do it in coordination with and in consultation with allies whose security is directly at stake."

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Photo provided by Lynn Rusten

"Intelligence Matters" transcript: Lynn Rusten

Producer: Paulina Smolinski

MICHAEL MORELL: Let's start with a background on you and on the Nuclear Threat Initiative. How did you get interested in nuclear nonproliferation and how did you end up spending a good bit of your life devoted to it?

LYNN RUSTEN: It started in college, I went to Oberlin College and came under the tutelage of a man named George Allen who taught Soviet foreign policy. I got really interested in Soviet politics and foreign policy and went to graduate school in that in the early 80s. When it was time to look for a job, the jobs were basically either in the intelligence community, in the defense community, or in a specialized field of arms control. I fell into that out of a combination of both interest and luck.

MICHAEL MORELL: What drew you to it?

LYNN RUSTEN: It was partly that I was interested in the idea. I remember this was in the early 80s when the nuclear freeze movement was active. There was a lot of concern that there could be nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. So doing something about that appealed to me.

I was hired at a Common Cause, a public interest group, which in those days also was interested in advocacy around nuclear issues. I helped write a primer on nuclear arms control, which was interesting for me since I didn't know that much about it, I had to research various chapters and then figure out how to explain it to people who were at the same starting point where I was. Then I went on to the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, where I researched and wrote on these issues for Congress.


Did you did you ever work with George Tenet who did arms control for the Senate Intelligence Committee for years? 


I did not. I did work for Mark Lowenthal. I worked with him at the at the Library of Congress before he then went onto the House Intelligence Committee.

MICHAEL MORELL: For the listeners who don't know. Mark is a is a longtime expert in intelligence analysis. He's probably a listener on our show.

LYNN RUSTEN: And a Jeopardy winner.

MICHAEL MORELL: That's right. Then the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Tell us about the organization. 

LYNN RUSTEN: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to reducing the risks of nuclear and other catastrophic weapons of mass destruction. And disruption, we like to say, which also refers to cyber. It was started around the year 2000 or 2001 by former Senator Sam Nunn and Ted Turner, who are its founding co-chairs. Senator Nunn was the CEO.  Now former Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz is the CEO and co-chair, along with Senator Nunn and Ted Turner.

MICHAEL MORELL: What are the kind of things that you guys do to try to meet your mission?

LYNN RUSTEN: We try to achieve systemic change to address these risks through research, analysis, convening, collaborating with international partners as well as domestic partners in government and outside of government to reduce the risk of nuclear use, to reduce the threat of proliferation. Other parts of the organization deal with the risks of radiological material. We have a very large global health security program, which is very focused on preventing pandemics, as the one we are in right now. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you get you get all your money from private sources or does some of it come from public sources as well?

LYNN RUSTEN: NTI does not accept any money from the US government to preserve our independence. We do get a lot of funding from private sources, some of the large foundations and some individual donors. We do take money for specific projects from some foreign government.

For instance, the government of Norway is funding a particular nonproliferation project that I'm involved in right now.

MICHAEL MORELL: From the 50,000-foot level, how would you characterize the threat that the world faces today from nuclear weapons?

In 2019 that The Economist had a cover story about this, A Complacent World is Playing with Armageddon. How do you think about where the threat is and how it's evolved?

LYNN RUSTEN: Exactly. Senator Nunn and Secretary Moniz co-authored an article with a similar theme that was in Foreign Affairs last August as well basically saying that we are closer to the potential use of a nuclear weapon than we've been since the Cold War. Part of that is because the relations between the nuclear powers, between us and Russia, us and China, are declining and the risk of conflict is growing. At the same time, there's an unprecedented complacency about this. People just aren't focused, including leaders, sufficiently on the risks of these weapons and the risk of miscalculation, the risk that new technologies like cyber can introduce that could lead to blundering into the use of a nuclear weapon in a war that no one would want.

MICHAEL MORELL: Why do you think people are complacent about it?

LYNN RUSTEN: We spoke earlier about the Cold War, when people were really worried about the use of war between the United States and the Soviet Union. It wasn't that long ago when people were still doing these duck and cover drills under their desks. No one thinks this is going to happen now. Just like no one thought, we'd all be working from home for a year, wearing masks because of a pandemic. It's really dangerous to not see the growing risks and address them. So we're not wondering why we didn't do something earlier.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me ask you about some specific countries here. Your thinking on them, your concerns about them, and what we need to do as a government. Let's start with Russia, a country that can destroy us with nuclear weapons in a matter of minutes, in a country where we've had a long history of arms control agreements. Where are we now and how do we get to a better place?

LYNN RUSTEN: The trends that I've been talking about in terms of the deterioration of relations between nuclear powers and the rising risks, they've been happening for a long time.

I have to say that the policies during the Trump administration have been an accelerant to these bad trends. Between the United States and Russia, we have still over 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. There's between thirteen thousand and fourteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. Most of them are owned by the United States and Russia. We have a unique responsibility to manage those weapons, to lead the world in terms of nonproliferation and to make sure that they're not used.

What's happened is all of the architecture of arms control that's really existed since the Cold War to regulate and reduce these weapons has become dismantled, both because of actions that Russia has undertaken, but also because of actions and decisions the current administration has taken.

We're now at the point where the only remaining treaty that's regulating and limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons is the new START treaty. That treaty will expire on February 5th, a mere 16 days after Inauguration Day, unless President Biden and President Putin take the steps they would need to take to extend it.

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think that's going to happen or are you concerned that it's not or are you thinking about that?

LYNN RUSTEN: I think it will happen. First of all, let me just say why it's so important, the treaty is so important. Not only does it limit the number of deployed US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, but it provides incredible verification, including 18 onsite inspections every year, thousands of notifications that go back and forth constantly about the location and movement of these systems.

It really gives each side tremendous insight into what the other side is doing. It allows you to plan to not do worst case planning, and it tamps down an arms race. President elect Biden has said that he would extend the new START treaty. President Putin has said that they want to extend the treaty. I think it will happen. It's demanding, for any incoming administration to do anything consequential in the first 16 days when much of your personnel are not yet in place. But I think it's really on their radar and I'm confident they'll get it done.

MICHAEL MORELL: Will that require congressional approval extension?

LYNN RUSTEN: It does not. The original treaty has a clause in it that says it can, by mutual agreement, be extended for five years. There's just a requirement to consult Congress or inform the Senate before you do it. On the Russian side apparently, it requires action by their parliament and they've said that'll take about forty five days and therefore it will require a legal mechanism called provisional application to actually get it done, because our countries will have to agree to do it before February 5th and then provisionally apply it until Russia completes its parliamentary procedures.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you think Putin sees it in his interest to get this done as well?

LYNN RUSTEN: I do. There's no reason that the Biden administration should have been jammed on this. We've known since the treaty was negotiated that it had this clause. The clock has been ticking. The Russians have made clear they wanted to extend. Over the last 18 months, they made some key concessions. They had some other conditions they wanted to attach. They dropped them. They made it clear that two of their new systems, ICBM and Hypersonic which were concerning. They've made clear that they will count under the treaty. So they've basically said we're ready to do it, and we're making it fairly easy.

The Trump administration just frankly, wasted a lot of time for us trying to figure out whether it would even extend the treaty and then just in the last couple of months decided that it would extend the treaty if Russia agreed to a whole lot of other things. That negotiation has not yielded results. Now we're in a position where the Biden administration will have 16 days to get this done.

MICHAEL MORELL: What about the INF treaty? How do you think about its importance? 

LYNN RUSTEN: That's a more complicated case. The IMF treaty was signed between President Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev. It banned an entire class of weapons, intermediate range ballistic and cruise missiles that were land based, globally deployed. That meant for us in Europe, but for the Russians everywhere because they had them in Asia as well. This was signed in 1987.

Unfortunately, when I was in government at the National Security Council, we came to the conclusion that the Russians were violating that treaty, that they had developed and deployed missiles in this class. We went through a long period of trying to resolve this diplomatically with Russia without success.

They never conceded the violation and came up with a bunch of response measures. Ultimately, the Trump administration withdrew from the treaty. You can argue whether or not that was the right response or not, but that was what precipitated it. The treaty is gone now. It's dead. I mean, it can't be revived without going through another ratification process. The Russians have made an offer of a moratorium of this class of missiles in Europe. They have recently said, without conceding that the missile that the United States thinks is a violation, have said that under their moratorium proposal, they would remove that missile from the west of the Urals. That's an interesting proposal that would merit further exploration, further consideration. The United States would have to consult with its allies in Europe. I think if we could prevent a proliferation and a rearmament of missiles in this class, it would be a very good thing.

MICHAEL MORELL: We can shift to talk about North Korea and Iran here a little bit. At present, there are not effective limitations on either of those two countries' programs. What was your view on the nuclear deal with Iran?

LYNN RUSTEN: I think the nuclear deal with Iran was a groundbreaking achievement that enhanced the security of Americans and indeed the world by putting in place strict provisions that would keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. They don't have nuclear weapons yet, which is different from the North Korea case.  But they have the capacity to produce materials to create a weapon. The Iran deal put really strict restrictions around that with incredible verification by the IAEA. That agreement is now hanging from a head because the United States withdrew, the other parties are European. The E.U., UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia are still parties. The question is whether and how to reenter that agreement under a Biden administration.

MICHAEL MORELL: What's your assessment of the critique of the deal, do you think it was all based on substance, or do you think there were politics involved? 

LYNN RUSTEN: There is an ideological strand of thinking in our country and in the Congress that has some antipathy towards arms control deals in general. There is a suspicion of them, that feels that on balance, we're better off being an unconstrained ourselves.

This is different  than a deal with Russia, where it's reciprocal. The idea that we shouldn't be giving things up to get constraints on other countries, that we're just better off with a total freedom of action ourselves.

On the Iran deal, which again is not like standard arms control deals with Russia, I think there was a lot of concern about what's not in the deal, the things that it didn't address, like their ballistic missile programs, their other disruptive behavior in the region.

That was one concern and there were also concerns about the duration of some of the limits, but I just want to say it's very common for critics of arms control deals, including the new START, to criticize what it doesn't do. But they never look at the real world choice of the agreement we have versus not having it. They compare the agreement we got with the mythical agreement people would want that did everything we wanted and gave no concessions to the other party. That's not how you reach agreements or have sustainable agreements.

MICHAEL MORELL: How do we get back into the deal with the Iranians and how hard do you expect that to be given a significant political change in Tehran?

LYNN RUSTEN: I think it's going to be difficult to unwind all the sanctions on our part. What they've done is because the US withdrew, they've backed off and stopped implementing some of their commitments under the deal. But to date, they've still let the IAEA continue verifying, which is very important. So it will be possible to get them to assume the constraints they had assumed initially. And for the United States to work very closely with its other treaty partners in this to try to get back. I think that's a starting point to then building on that to extend the limits and address some other issues.

MICHAEL MORELL: And the Iranians have a presidential election next year as well which is a complicating factor.

On North Korea, I don't know how many presidents have tried to deal with this issue of North Korea actually having nuclear weapons as opposed to Iran, as you pointed out, which is just developing the capability to do so.

Do you see any possible path to a deal with North Korea that would either eliminate their nuclear weapons program or cap it in a significant way?

LYNN RUSTEN: We certainly have to get back to trying to achieve that outcome. There's not a single area in terms of nuclear arms control and nonproliferation policy that isn't in worse shape now than it was at the beginning of the Trump administration. Certainly, the North Korea case is exhibit A. North Korea has more fissile material now than it did and undoubtedly more nuclear weapons now than it did four years ago.

I think President Trump's willingness to pursue diplomacy with the North Korean leader which although unorthodox, was fine to try, but the problem was it wasn't backed up with any serious plan going into it or any serious follow through coming out of it in terms of organizing a sustained, serious negotiation.

It was all photo-op diplomacy with no follow through. We're now in a situation where that collapsed, and the threat is growing. Our alliances are badly strained with allies in Asia, not to mention in Europe. We're going to have to start from the ground up. Our relationship with China is also very strained and complicated. China is a key factor in reaching an agreement with North Korea on freezing and hopefully ultimately eliminating its nuclear capability.


To what extent is China the elephant in the room here? Is there anything we can realistically do about China's nuclear program and the impact that's having on how we think about other issues in this area?

LYNN RUSTEN: China's really important and addressing its nuclear capabilities in the Asia-Pacific is important. But it isn't as big an elephant in the room as the Trump administration made it out to be. The United States and Russia each have more than 4000 nuclear weapons. Russia has more than that. China has two to three hundred. When the Trump administration tried to condition the extension of the new START treaty with Russia on China joining either that agreement or a future agreement in a trilateral arrangement, it was just completely unrealistic, a poison pill.

It only had the effect of ensuring that we didn't get to a new START extension under the Trump administration and got us no closer to a serious dialogue with China on nuclear risk reduction and strategic stability, which we need to have. I think that has to happen more slowly. We're not going to immediately jump into a nuclear arms control negotiation with China. I think the United States really needs to do more homework in terms of what we actually want and what are we prepared to give to get it when our forces and interests are so asymmetrical. 

There is what's called a P5 dialogue. That's the recognized nuclear powers, United States, Russia, China, U.K. and France, who have a special responsibility under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to work towards disarmament. We have a review conference for that treaty coming up. It's been postponed to the summer of 2021 because of covid.

The world is really looking toward the P5 to show commitment toward reducing nuclear weapons and their reliance on them. It's an important moment for the Biden administration to show global leadership. For the US and Russia to not just extend the new START but to build on that agenda, to do more. For the P5 to continue talking about the circumstances under which they could join in a negotiation as well as taking immediate steps. Bilaterally, there needs to be an intensification of dialogue in military channels and diplomatic channels to talk about strategic stability and nuclear risk reduction, both with Russia and with China separately.

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think we would have an open door in both places if we knocked on it?

LYNN RUSTEN: I think the door is very open with Russia. Partly because we have an established history and pattern over 50 years of talking about this stuff.

I think with China it's a little bit of an open door. The P5 dialogue context is already established, and I think the issue is making it more productive. In bilateral, this is a piece of a broader set of dialogues that need to go on.

They're certainly sending signals. My read is that they would like to be in not as a confrontational situation as far as the United States and China appear right now. But they never like to talk about nuclear things. They're very focused on secrecy, whereas we think of transparency as being stabilizing. It's a process, but it's necessary.

MICHAEL MORELL: The U.S. leadership is critical here to getting things done, to furthering the mission that your organization stands for.

How do you think about the health of the U.S. government's capabilities to negotiate and to verify agreements going forward?

LYNN RUSTEN: There's a couple of elements. It's important to have a functioning national security, interagency process. I worked in the executive branch under 4 administrations 2 Republican and 2 Democrat. In my experience, there's been a functioning national security decision making process led by the NSC, where options are developed and considered and raised for decision at the highest levels. Then there's a coordinated government approach to implementing them. That has completely broken down in the current administration.

I think that capacity is still there, although at some agencies the morale is really bad. For instance, at the State Department. A lot of the most capable people have left or been forced out. We need to reconstitute and refresh the talent in agencies, but also the mechanisms of government. I'm really excited about the team that President-elect Biden is bringing in because they're seasoned national security professionals who know how to do this work both within the government and then negotiating with the other.

There's two other really critical elements. We've really got to have more cohesion between the executive branch and the Congress on national security and foreign policy. We need to repair our alliances in Europe and in Asia as a foundation. We need to do that. As we pursue security policies and arms control with countries like Russia and China, you need to do it in coordination with and in consultation with allies whose security is directly at stake.

MICHAEL MORELL: What worries you the most when you think about the threat from nuclear weapons? 

LYNN RUSTEN: I think it's the finite capacity of human beings and policymakers to understand and manage the consequences of advances and in technologies. For example, the idea of nuclear deterrence and avoiding a war, it all rests on the idea that technology is infallible. Information's accurate. Humans don't make mistakes. None of that is true. So you worry at what point will there be a breakdown with a catastrophic consequence?

When you introduce something like cyber, which can come not only from an adversary, but it could be from a third party. We have as much interest in the Russian nuclear command and control system working properly and not being messed with as we do our own because we're on the other end of their mistake. That's what I really worry about, is the capacity of policy makers to understand and mitigate the risks of technologies as well as capturing its many benefits.

MICHAEL MORELL: If you had a few minutes with President Biden, , what's the one key point you would want to get across to him about this issue that you've worked on your entire professional life?

LYNN RUSTEN: Of course, he has too. He knows a lot about this. But nonetheless, I'd say, 'you're inheriting an incredible mess, you've got covid, you've got an economy and in duress, you've got domestic issues that we need to address, social justice. In addition, nuclear weapons are inherently presidential. And without your attention and direction, we'll continue to drift in this dangerous, complacent path that we're on. I urge you to make this a priority and set a safer course for our country and the world.'

MICHAEL MORELL: This is one of the few things that actually poses an existential threat to the United States of America. 


MICHAEL MORELL: Not too many other national security issues do. Lynn, thank you thank you so much for joining us. It's been great to have you. Really great conversation about a complex issue that people need to pay more attention too. So thank you so much for joining us.

LYNN RUSTEN: Thank you so much for having me. It was really great to talk to you.

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