This interview was originally published by The Octavian Report.
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Former Secretary of Defense William Perry shaped U.S. national security policy in the aftermath of the Cold War. But our deteriorating relations with Russia, he argues in the interview below, have re-awakened many of the nuclear dangers the world faced then — and current global political imperatives make taking real steps towards disarmament more unlikely with every passing day. With the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, those imperatives look even more frightening.
Octavian Report: You’ve said that you believe the current era is the worst you’ve seen in terms of a threat of an actual nuclear catastrophe. Why?
William Perry: Yes, I have said that. I’ll try to simplify it but the reason is a little bit complex. The current hostilities between the U.S. and Russia have reawakened the dangers we faced during the Cold War. The danger is not that the United States and Russia would deliberately start or plan to start a nuclear war but that we could blunder into one.
We had that same problem during the Cold War. Now, that problem has emerged again. There are two different ways it could happen. One of them is through what I call a nuclear war by accident, an accident caused by our warning system for an attack initiating a false alarm that we respond to by launching a first strike nuclear attack ourselves. The probability of this occurring is very low, to be sure. We have gone many decades without responding to an erroneous alarm with a retaliatory response. But while the probability is low, the results would be no less than the end of civilization — so we must pay attention to it.
The other Cold War danger that has been reawakened is what I call a war by miscalculation. The poster child for that which occurred during the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis: we get into some kind of a military crisis or some kind of geopolitical crisis which could escalate into a military confrontation.
You can imagine with the current relationship with Russia that if there were altercations in the Baltics, U.S. and Russian troops could engage in minor conflict with the possibility of the confrontation escalating into a nuclear war. That would be what I would call a war of miscalculation where both Russia and the United States were pursuing what they thought were very reasonable political ends through minor military actions, which in turn could escalate into a nuclear war.
The other two dangers are new since the Cold War. The first is the possibility of nuclear terrorism. I think that is a very real possibility today. All it involves is a terror group such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda getting their hands on fissionable material from which they can make a nuclear bomb. If that happened, there’s no doubt in my mind they would use it. That would result in a nuclear catastrophe not of the same magnitude as a nuclear war but still quite catastrophic. The six-minute video which I have on my website is a dramatization of what kind of terrible consequences could result if we have a nuclear bomb go off, say, in Washington D.C. That is not a high probability — but it’s a much higher probability than either of the other possibilities that I have mentioned.
The other would be a war somewhere else, a regional nuclear war, as, for example, between India and Pakistan. While that would clearly have terrible consequences for India and Pakistan, it would have serious consequences for the rest of the planet as well.
OR: How possible is it at the moment for non-state actors to build and use a nuclear weapon? Do you worry as well about nuclear cyber attacks from such actors?
Perry: I don’t worry about the latter issue today, but it is not beyond technical possibility. It is something we need to take seriously. That would be another version of an accidental nuclear war. It is another way in which our warning system could give a false alarm and then we would respond. It is one way an accident could be induced.
I think the issue of cyber-attacks raises somewhat the probability of an accidental nuclear war, but even with that, I think it is still unlikely. But whether it’s one percent or a tenth of a percent, it is a very low probability, but again, the consequences could be really quite catastrophic so we have to take it seriously. It’s another way for that accidental nuclear war to happen.
I would say about the first part of the question that if terrorists can get their hands on fissionable material, the answer is — very possible. The question then revolves around how likely it is that they could get, say, 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU). A lot has been written on this question. You can think of a half-dozen ways that that could happen. One of the most likely being the scenario I use in my video dramatization of a nuclear terror attack. It supposes that there is an insider group in a country like Pakistan or Iran, which has facilities for making highly enriched uranium.
Although those governments would not release the HEU to a terror group, what if that insider group is sympathetic to ISIS or Al-Qaeda and is operating against the wishes of the government? In the case of Iran, that group might be a faction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is an important and significant faction within the Iranian government. In Pakistan there might be a faction within Pakistani military intelligence, which has been known to support terror groups in the past. If you have a factional group within either the Iranian government or the Pakistani government who supports terror groups and who decided to manifest that support in terms of diverting some highly enriched uranium, that is one scenario in which you could imagine a terror group acquiring HEU.
Another is that they are able to go to a research reactor — there are still some in the world that use highly enriched uranium — and because they are not protected as robustly as military facilities, they might be able to steal some HEU. The scenario where they make HEU on their own, I think, is not a plausible scenario because that involves a huge industrial operation. That would be very expensive, and very difficult to conceal.
OR: Whom do you view as the biggest proliferators or potential proliferators?
Perry: North Korea is a major proliferator. Iran has certainly been on the margins of that, although presumably they are now contained by the agreement we have made with them, which in my opinion was a very good agreement and saved us a lot of grief. But it does not really change the fact that they do have highly enriched uranium in pretty large quantities.
The potential sources would be probably those countries that are certainly proliferators. North Korea we know has sold nuclear technology to other countries. We know to Syria. We know also to Pakistan, although Pakistan was already a nuclear power. That’s not quite the same issue.
I worry about North Korea — due to desperate economic conditions, partly because of our sanctions — actually selling nuclear materials or technology not only to other countries but also possibly to non-national groups. It’s a different problem in North Korea and Pakistan. In Pakistan, it would be a rogue group, a dissident group within the government. With North Korea I would not expect to see the government itself selling bombs but selling other material from which a terrorist group might be able to make what they need. We don’t have any evidence of that happening in North Korea but we do have evidence of them selling, for example, a nuclear reactor to Syria. We have evidence of considerable trade and traffic between North Korea and Pakistan. What we don’t have is evidence that they’re dealing with any non-national groups.
I would say in India and Pakistan the probability that military conflict, which escalates to nuclear war, is certainly not remote. I also think that a nuclear terror attack is not remote.
OR: What kind of fallout, literal and figurative, would a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India bring with it?
Perry: There are two different potential fallouts. One of them is the possibility that other countries would get involved. Pakistan has been an ally of China for many years, probably because of China and India’s tense relationship. There is not a strong possibility but a possibility that China could get involved. There is a possibility that Russia could also get involved.
Secondly, there is what I believe is a high probability of an environmental disaster. If the exchange were large-scale between India and Pakistan and you had perhaps 100 nuclear weapons being used on each side destroying cities in each of these countries, the amount of smoke and soot and debris from all the burning cities in the atmosphere would be very, very large and could very well result in something which some people have called a nuclear winter. In other words, it would have the effect of changing our atmosphere for some number of years, of lowering temperatures around the whole globe resulting in crop failures.
OR: What about the risks around Iran? If they do get a nuclear weapon, how do you see that playing out? Do you think there will be an arms race? Do you think they would actually use it?
Perry: There are a lot of scenarios that could play out. I don’t know which one is the most likely. The one scenario which would have to be taken very seriously is that as they actually came within the threshold of producing a weapon, Israel would attack in a preemptive strike — I would say that is not at all unlikely.
If Israel saw Iran about ready to produce a nuclear bomb, there might be a preemptive attack on Iran’s facilities. I can imagine what the consequences of such an attack might be in terms of the response from Iran and the response from other nations in the Mideast. Basically, it would set off a tinderbox. It would detonate the tinderbox which is the Mideast. That would be one very real consequence and maybe the most likely consequence of Iran getting a nuclear bomb.
Even if that did not happen, there’s no doubt there would be what we could fairly call a nuclear arms race in the Mideast with other countries like Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries not being reconciled to a Shia Iranian power. They would want to offset that Shia power with their own nuclear bombs.
There are enough concerns about Iran and the Middle East by other countries that we would see responses from, I think, Saudi Arabia and Egypt at the minimum.
OR: Do you see, given the desperation of the Kim regime, North Korea actually using a nuclear weapon?
Perry: I don’t have a short, simple answer to that question. I have worked with and studied North Korea for a long time. I believe I understand what is driving them. They are not an irrational government, as has been suggested. They are not maniacs. They do have a strategy. We don’t like their strategy, but they do have one. The goal that they put number one is preserving the Kim dynasty. You could also say preserving their national security but they look at it as preserving the Kim dynasty. They would do anything to achieve that goal.
Their second goal is to gain international respect. Their third goal, which falls far below those first two, is improving their economy. They have shown a willingness in the past to sacrifice that third goal in order to achieve the first two. They have tried to achieve those first two goals by non-nuclear means and we have had many negotiations with them. The most significant negotiation reached a culmination in the year 2000, when the Clinton administration was about ready to finalize an agreement with them which I think would have given them those first two goals — ensuring their security to enable them to preserve the regime and giving them international respect.
The Clinton administration ran out of time and didn’t finish that negotiation. Then the Bush administration dropped it like a hot potato. Under the Clinton administration we proposed a way of achieving their goals through non-nuclear means. It was through recognition by the United States and through economic assistance from South Korea and Japan. I won’t go into the details of that. At the time they saw, I believe, that they could achieve their goals without building a nuclear arsenal.
When the Bush administration repudiated that negotiation and cut off relations with North Korea, they then pursued nuclear development full steam ahead. Their efforts resulted in the first nuclear test a few years later. They were already well advanced in the R&D necessary to build a nuclear weapon in the year 2000, when that negotiation was terminated, so in 2001, they pulled out all stops.
There were several attempts during the Bush administration to try to get them to back away from that. There was a possibility that those negotiations might have succeeded but in fact they didn’t. As a result, by the time Obama came into office, the die was really cast. They were already moving full steam ahead on achieving their goal of a nuclear weapon. They could achieve both the goal of preserving the regime and gain international respect with nuclear weapons. It was an alternative to negotiation.
When Obama came into office, they were well advanced on their nuclear path. Obama had very little means of turning it around at that time. Whatever chance he had was probably squandered on trying to do it through the so-called Six-Party Talks.
In effect, we have reached a stage now where, through their nuclear development, they have achieved their goals. What are their goals? As I said, they really have to do with preserving the regime and getting respect. They do not involve, in my judgment, suicidal attacks on the United States. They are developing this capability to attack not only South Korea and Japan, which they already have achieved but are underway to develop the ability to attack the United States as a means of what we call strategic deterrence. It gives them a way of assuring their security. Whether we think it’s fanciful or not, they really believe that the United States has the aim of overthrowing their regime and has the capability to do it. They see their nuclear program as a way of deterring that from happening.
That is my judgment of what is going on in North Korea. It does not include a suicidal regime intent on attacking the United States leading to its own destruction. It entails having a viable threat to attack the United States, which would deter the United States from attacking it. That doesn’t mean that they might not attack us if something went off the rails in some other direction. It’s something very much to be concerned about. I am saying that their objective in getting a nuclear weapon is to have a deterrent not to deliver a suicidal attack.
I don’t mean I’m happy about that or complacent in any respect. I’m just trying to understand where they’re coming from.
OR: Do you view the risk of Russia using a nuclear weapon as lower or higher than China? Do you view those as equal threats?
Perry: In a sense, they’re equal in that both have a significant nuclear capability. They both engage in policies which could lead to some kind of conventional military conflict.
In Russia, the military conflict could be in the Baltics or the Ukraine. The Baltics are more likely, I think. That is more likely to involve NATO or American troops than Ukraine. I have no reason to believe that the Russians are going to engage in a military conflict in the Baltics, I think that’s unlikely — but if they were to then there would undoubtedly be some kind of a conflict between Russian troops and NATO troops, including American troops. That could be a minor skirmish. It could be quickly resolved, perhaps — or it could escalate. If it escalated, then there is a danger that Russia, in desperation, might choose a tactical nuclear weapon to gain military advantage, thinking that it would not trigger a general nuclear war, thinking that they could control the escalation to major nuclear usage.
I have sketched out, then, a set of actions, each of which I think are unlikely but which are plausible and could lead to a nuclear conflict with Russia. It gets back to my scenario that a nuclear war could result by miscalculation. That triggering event in the Cold War we know about was Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis could have led to a real nuclear conflagration. If we got in some kind of a conflict in the Baltics, it could play the role that the Cuban Missile Crisis played back in the Cold War, namely a triggering event for a military conflict, which in turn could escalate.
In China, the triggering event could be some event in the South China Sea where we have military forces in close proximity to each other. We have a disputed issue, which is the right of free passage in what the Chinese consider to be national waters. What I want to emphasize, though, as strongly as I can, is that I think neither Russia nor China is seeking a military conflict. Neither of them is seeking a nuclear conflict, but both of them feel strongly they have rights on which they are going to work hard to prevail.
In the case of China, their rights have to do with their presumed ownership of islands in the South China Sea. They feel strongly about those and will take strong actions including conventional military actions to support those rights. All I am doing is weaving a scenario which could lead to a military clash, a relatively minor military clash between Chinese forces and American forces or between Russian forces and American forces. Once you have that clash, then the question is how might that escalate and will it escalate into a nuclear conflict of some sort? Being a doomsayer, I am saying that there is a scenario by which you could get to what I’m calling a war by miscalculation, a war which neither side plans for, which neither side wants. But both sides are willing to take actions that have put us on the threshold of such a conflict.
OR: Do you think that it was a mistake that Western powers have not tried to enforce or honor the promises made to Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum?
Perry: No. I think the mistake that the West made, and I do write about this in my book, was not taking Russia seriously enough, not taking Russian aspirations seriously enough, not being willing to treat them as one of the great powers back in the 90’s when they were really down in the dust with a crumbling economy and with really no prospects at the time, it seemed, but still with thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons.
We looked at the position they were in and said, “They don’t have to be taken seriously. Their interests and their aspirations don’t matter because there is not much they can do about it.” One of the big objectives that Putin had was to demonstrate that Russia needs to be taken seriously and there were things they could do about it. He put a major effort into building up his military and using it in threatening ways and actually engaging in adventures like in Crimea and Georgia and Ukraine and threatening adventures in Ukraine and in the Baltics. I am not saying we brought this on ourselves. I am saying we created the conditions which made his adventures highly popular in Russia because they saw it as restoring Russia as a great power, restoring Russia’s respect in the eyes of the rest of the world from a position where they felt humiliated and debased.
When Russia was down in the 90’s, the Western powers had alternatives about how they treated Russia. We chose to treat them as inconsequential. We chose to treat them as if their views about issues like NATO expansion and issues like the deployment of ABM systems in Eastern Europe were inconsequential. We treated them like an inferior country. We referred to them as being a country with a smaller economy than Denmark.
Those degrading comments, that brushing off of their objections to what we, the West, were doing, set the stage in Russia where a leader like Putin came in who claimed that he was going to restore Russia’s greatness. He was met with great popularity in Russia. Even today, when Russia’s economy is starting to slip again, Putin’s popularity remains high because he is seen as the man who restored Russia’s greatness. I think we set ourselves up for that problem by the way we treated Russia in the late 90’s and the early part of the 21st century.
OR: Do you think we should have deployed a Marshall Plan for Russia after the Cold War?
Perry: I thought so then and I recommended so then. We never did. Even so, I think we might have avoided the worst of the consequences by at least treating Russia with respect diplomatically, by taking seriously their concerns about NATO expansion, by taking seriously their concerns about an ABM deployment in Europe.
All of those issues were issues which drove them down what I considered a slippery slope. Not to what they are doing today but to creating an environment in Russia which allowed a leader like Putin to take the actions he is taking now by creating the feeling that something like that was necessary to restore Russia’s position as a great power in the world. He appealed to Russia’s patriotism and pride and appealed to them very successfully with actions which I think are not only detrimental to the West, but which I fear could eventually lead to some kind of a conflict between the West and Russia.
OR: Do you think that the largely successful Russian adventure in Ukraine sends the message that it was a mistake for other Budapest signatories to have signed?
Perry: I think Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum in all sincerity, with every intention of following it. What happened subsequent to that was that the West began treating Russia as an inferior power which led to the conditions where they felt that they were right, or at least justified, in ignoring the Budapest Memorandum. I don’t believe they signed it insincerely. They signed it under conditions in which they felt they could honor it. Those conditions went on to change.
Again, I think that we were moving in the right direction both for us and for Russia with decreasing the number of states that had nuclear weapons. All of those things were steps in the right direction not only for us but for Russia as well. I do not think the world would be safer or better today if, for example, Belarus had nuclear weapons or Ukraine had nuclear weapons. The result was still the right result.
OR: Would a future Ukraine or Belarus, so to speak, give up their weapons knowing how the Budapest Memorandum turned out?
Perry: Probably not.
OR: Do you think we should be investing more heavily in missile defense?
Perry: I have a mixed feeling on that. First of all, I do not believe that any missile defense we could conceive would be able to really protect us from a full-scale nuclear attack from a country like Russia. I think that is a fantasy and we delude ourselves to think that we could do that. I do believe that missile defense gives us some degree of protection against a very small-scale attack such as we might imagine from a small country like North Korea. I just don’t see North Korea firing nuclear weapons at us as a real danger, as a real threat.
As I said, I think their nuclear weapons are for deterrence. But if something should go wrong and if they were to fire them, then the small attack they could launch we would have some degree of defense from with an ABM system. I also see an ABM system as being a defense against a mistaken launch of a single missile. There are some scenarios where you could imagine missile defense being useful. What is delusional is to think that such a system could somehow protect us from a large-scale attack from a country like Russia or for that matter from a country like China. That should not lull us into thinking that we do not have to deal with Russia and with China effectively on nuclear issues, that an ABM system somehow relieves us of the painful task of trying to come to some kind of agreement and understanding with Russia and China which lower the possibility that either of those countries would ever fire or we could not drift into a nuclear war with those countries.
I have talked about what the benefits of an ABM system might be but what I have not talked about and should say something on is the danger of an ABM system deployed against the Chinese or the Russians. This stimulates exactly the actions we do not want them to take, which is increasing the size of their missile forces. Any country that wants to have nuclear missiles as a deterrent against the United States attacking them, well, when they see United States building an ABM system that might threaten that deterrence, that country takes the logical step on their part — namely, increasing the size and the capability of their ICBM forces.
OR: You’ve advocated for abandoning first use as an option, as well as arguing that the U.S. should get rid of its ICBMs. Can you explain the rationale behind those positions and their potential consequences?
Perry: The ICBMs among our nuclear forces are unique in that they are in fixed, known locations that are therefore susceptible to attack. In other words, they could be destroyed in their silos before they are launched. If you imagine that a country is going to be launching a preemptive attack against the United States, you have to imagine that the ICBMs would be on the list of targets. In fact, you would have to imagine they would be primary on the list of targets. That is not true of our submarines, which cannot be so targeted.
Therefore, because we understand these ICBMs are going to be targeted, we have a launch-on-warning policy. This means that if we see a warning, if we see a launch underway, we give the President the option of launching our ICBMs before that attack lands in our country. Therefore if our warning indicator is incorrect, if it’s a false alarm, so to speak, then the President may very well have launched our ICBMs falsely. We may have started a nuclear holocaust by accident by misreading our warning signals.
As I have mentioned several times before and particularly in my book, we have had in the United States false alarms at least three different times that I know of, one of which was a very realistic false alarm. Happily, we were able to detect all of those and conclude that they were false alarms before we woke up the president in the middle of the night and asked him to make the decision, in six or seven minutes, as to whether he was going to launch our ICBMs.
Because of that problem, the ICBMs can be the cause, the agent by which we will accidentally start a nuclear war. There are two ways of dealing with this problem. One is the policy way, in which we abandon our launch on warning policy. We say that whatever our warning systems tell us, we will wait until first impact before we actually launch a counterattack. This means, in effect, that we’re going to give up, we’re going to cede the possibility of losing our ICBMs in such an attack. The other is to simply base our deterrence forces on submarines and bombers and not on ICBMs.
We have proposed unsuccessfully for many decades to drop the launch on warning policy since, even if you drop the policy, there is always the possibility the president will use it anyway. Another alternative is to simply give up your ICBMs. Then, you know you’re not going to be susceptible to that particular problem.
Having said all that, I want to be very clear. I think the probability of this happening is very low. Our warning systems are good. Our safeguards are good. That has been demonstrated by the fact that they have worked for more than 50 years. It was a very small probability of a huge, huge catastrophe like the end of civilization. Where do you want to focus your emphasis? Do you want to focus on how low the probability is or do you want to focus on how high the level of catastrophe is? I worry about the catastrophe and I think I would be willing to give up our ICBMs in order to eliminate the possibility of that great catastrophe. The reason I’m willing to do that is because I believe we can achieve our deterrence objectives without the ICBMs. If I didn’t believe that, I might be willing to take the chance anyway.
OR: Is the idea that the world could be free of nuclear weapons at this point a fantasy?
Perry: When the four of us — George Shultz, myself, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn — wrote our op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (which is over 10 years ago now), I think then there was a prospect we could move towards a world with a greatly reduced number of nuclear weapons and greatly improved security for everyone.
When we wrote that, the United States and Russia were still, despite our tensions and the problems we had, cooperating on most security issues. We had a friendly if not an allied relationship and were negotiating arms reduction treaties. We were a long way from an ideal world but were still moving in the right direction. It was possible then to conceive making major steps in the direction of nuclear disarmament. Even then, it was not possible to foresee a zero world, a world with zero nuclear weapons — but it was possible to see major steps in that direction.
What has happened in the last seven or eight years, particularly since Putin’s re-election, is that we have moved dramatically away from that world, largely because of steps that Putin has taken but as I have said before, some of those steps were taken in reaction to things that United States and the West had done earlier.
Therefore, the idea that we are going to be reducing nuclear weapons is politically untenable in today’s geopolitical climate. Russia is well advanced in a major re-buildup of its nuclear forces and is flaunting them and using them to threaten their neighbors and, to a certain extent, the U.S.
We are in a very different world than we were in 10 or 12 years ago. The possibility of moving towards major reductions in nuclear weapons, the possibility of moving in the direction of nuclear disarmament seems very remote today. Therefore, today, under these geopolitical conditions, the best we can hope to do is to focus on what can we do to reduce the dangers that we will blunder into some kind of a nuclear catastrophe.
In a sense, we are like we were in the Cold War. The best we can hope to do is reduce dangers. Certainly, one of those dangers is the danger of an accidental nuclear war. That is why I have recommended phasing out the ICBMs but I have not recommended reducing our nuclear deterrence. If I did not believe that we could achieve deterrence through our bomber forces and our nuclear submarines, I would not have made that recommendation.
I am not recommending that we give up our strong nuclear deterrence. I would like to be able to do that but I recognize the geopolitical conditions don’t really permit that today. Instead, I’m recommending that we maintain a strong nuclear deterrence but we do it in such a way that we lose at least one of the nuclear dangers we face: the danger of an accidental nuclear war.
OR: Do you think these conditions mean a catastrophe occurring in the next century?
Perry: I end my book on a note of optimism. I think that somehow human intelligence and wisdom will prevail. We will not destroy ourselves. But that view, I have to say, is based more on optimism and hope than on objective consideration of the dangers we face. The dangers are very, very great. We are not taking the actions we could take to mitigate those dangers. We are moving in the opposite direction right now. We are heading back towards a Cold War mentality and towards the thinking of the Cold War, which will only increase the dangers we face. While I am basically an optimist, which has somehow prevailed through all of this, I am not optimistic about the direction we have been heading in the last few years. I believe we are heading in the wrong direction, probably because people don’t understand what the dangers are and probably because geopolitical forces are pushing us, seemingly inexorably, in the wrong direction.
OR: What can people do to move us back in the right direction?
Perry: I believe that, sadly, there’s not much politically we can do right now. The forces are too powerful moving in the wrong direction because people do not understand the nature of the dangers. During the Cold War, at least, most people understood how dangerous it was. Today that is not really the case.
I believe our first task is to educate people in this country and around the world on how dangerous the nuclear situation has become. As I said, it is even more dangerous in some ways than it was during the Cold War. Yet the recognition of that, the understanding of that, simply does not exist. I am focusing my efforts not on political actions but on educating younger people since I think we are going to have to face these problems for a long time. It is going to be up to the generation now coming into power to understand the issues and to hopefully take the right action.
Anytime anybody asks me for advice, I say, “Educate yourself. Understand and help educate other people.” Until we have the understanding of how dangerous the situation is, we are not going to take any serious actions about it. I have no optimism that the specific political actions I am taking, like phasing out the ICBMs, will be enacted. I am focusing on longer-term actions, which do involve much better education, first of all of our people and ultimately people all around the world.
William Perry served as Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton and is currently the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor (emeritus) at Stanford University.