A shorter version of this interview appeared in Los Angeles CityBeat June 12, 2008
When Joe Cirincione talks, people listen, and you would too when the ever-articulate president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, holds forth on The Bomb. And hold forth he did in Santa Monica June 8 at the annual gala of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles where he received their 2008 Founders Award.
Author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (Columbia University Press, Spring 2007), Cirincione was listed by the National Journal as one of the 100 people whose ideas will shape the policies of the next administration. That would be a most welcome development because if nuclear war or terrorism ever visits this increasingly desperate and overpopulated planet, it won’t matter if Your Maker wears a towel, turban or tutu — we’re toast.
CityBeat: The world is awash in nuclear weapons yet many people, especially young ones, seem to think they are relics of the Cold War and pose no danger unless terrorists get a hold of one. Is this a false sense of security?
Joe Cirincione: There are about 26,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, held by nine nations. Over 96 percent of them are held by Russia and the United States. The Cold War is long over but the weapons remain. Just one of them could destroy a city, a few dozen could destroy a country, and a few hundred could destroy the planet.
Nuclear terrorism is the number one threat, but not the only threat. Consider this: On June 5 the top military and civilian leaders of the U.S. Air Force were forced to resign because of the careless way the service is handling nuclear weapons. Last year, a B-52 bomber flew across country with six nuclear weapons under its wings that no one knew were there. They had been loaded by mistake. The equivalent of 60 Hiroshima-size bombs, they sat on the plane for overnight without special guards, protected only by a chain link fence. Every single one of the security checks that should have prevented this failed. A few months later, we found out that the Air Force had mistakenly shipped fuses for nuclear warheads to Taiwan. The country had ordered helicopter batteries.
If these mistakes can happen in the country with the best command and control systems in the world, what are the risks in Russia? Or Pakistan? The lesson is clear: we have too many weapons with too little purpose. We are an accident away from catastrophe. We have been lulled into believing that everything is under control and the only problem is bad guys getting these weapons. But the weapons are a threat wherever they are, whoever has them.
How would a limited nuclear exchange, say between Pakistan and India, impact the United States?
We would feel the fallout and climate consequences of even a small war, but if it got just a little bigger, it could be end life on the planet. Scientists, using the climate models developed over the past few years, now believe that as few as 100 nuclear bombs could trigger a “nuclear winter.” India and Pakistan each have enough nuclear material for about 60 to 120 bombs. They could have such a war. The mega-firestorms caused by the explosions would pour enough smoke and particles into the atmosphere to blanket the earth in a dark cloud, blocking sunlight. Most food crops would die, followed soon thereafter by us. So even what theorist used to call a “limited” nuclear war would have a global impact.
How would that impact the United States?
We would feel the fallout and climate consequences of even a small war, but if it got just a little bigger, it could be end life on the planet. Scientists, using the climate models developed over the past few years, now believe that as few as 100 nuclear bombs could trigger a “nuclear winter.” India and Pakistan each have enough nuclear material for about 60 to 120 bombs. They could have such a war. The mega-firestorms caused by the explosions would pour enough smoke and particles into the atmosphere to blanket the earth in a dark cloud, blocking sunlight. Most food crops would die, followed soon thereafter by us.
So even what theorist used to call a “limited” nuclear war would have a global impact.
The U.S. is seeking increased budget requests for our ballistic defense system. How much are those requests and is this money wisely spent?
The president wants $12 billion for these weapons this year ($10 billion directly for the Missile Defense Agency and about $2 billion more for related weapons). This is the largest weapons program in the budget. Much of the funds are for interceptors designed to shoot down long-range missiles. This is an obscene amount of money for weapons that don’t work and is not needed. The weapons have repeatedly failed tests and have never been realistically tested against the kind of missile we would actually face. Fortunately, there are fewer long-range missiles in the world now than 20 years ago, fewer countries with missile programs and fewer hostile nations with missiles. The threat is actually shrinking.
You just returned from the U.S. – Russia Transition Working Group, sponsored by the Carnegie Moscow Center, discussing the future of the U.S. Russian security relationship. Where are we do we stand with the Russians regarding our nuclear weapons relationship?
The Russians are willing to work with us to cut the number of nuclear weapons drastically. The experts and the government would support cutting down to about 1000 weapon total—from the 10,000 we have and the estimated 15,000 they have. But, these cuts have to be worked out in conjunction with agreements on anti-missile systems—they don’t want us to build military bases on their borders, as we are planning to build in Poland and the Czech Republic—and they don’t want us deploying new weapons in outer space, as the administration would like. This is a deal we should take. What we need is political leadership smart enough to know a bargain when it sees one.
What is the aftermath of the so-called Bush Doctrine and where do we go from here?
The Bush Doctrine is dead. The idea that we could stop the spread of nuclear weapons by overthrowing certain regimes that tried getting them has proven a disaster. Iraq did not have nuclear weapons (or chemical or biological weapons), but the war convinced Iran and North Korea to accelerate their programs. We are much worse off today than we were in 2000. We have to change course. Fortunately, we see a consensus developing for new policies that will unleash American power across the entire spectrum—diplomatic, economic, even cultural, as well as military means—to better protect our security and that of our allies, like Israel.
In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, you lauded McCain for speaking to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on March 26, saying that “the United States should lead a global effort at nuclear disarmament.” The op-ed seemed to embrace both McCain and Obama as equally adept at tackling the nuclear arms issue. Which candidate, in your opinion, is more likely to make real progress on this issue?
Senator McCain has broken with some of the worst parts of the Bush Doctrine, such as the refusal to negotiate nuclear reductions with the Russians—but he still embraces both the Iraq War and the idea that we can overthrow adversary regimes. Senator Obama has introduced legislation with Republican Senator Chuck Hagel that details the most comprehensive set of solutions to our nuclear threats. Very importantly, for me, he has pledged that as president he would secure and eliminate the global stocks of nuclear bomb materials, thus effectively preventing nuclear terrorism. He has married the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons with pragmatic steps to reach that goal and make the country safer in the process.
Finally, in March you became president of the Ploughshares Fund which funds groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles which advocate nuclear arms elimination as you do. What is the importance and role of PSR-LA, and groups like it, as we approach a “new moment” for nuclear disarmament?
We know that 70 percent of the American public supports the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. But how do we translate that into policy? We need organizations like PSR-LA to give voice to the popular will. The political leaders we elect must be kept to their promises and must know that ending these nuclear dangers is not just the right thing to do, but the popular thing to do. In the end, the citizens of this country determine the policies our leaders implement.