Thankfully, US-Russia cooperation on nuclear security will continue—for now. Since 1993, the United States has spent $1.6 billion on Cooperative Threat Reduction (known as the Nunn-Lugar pact), a program designed to increase safety and security at nuclear and chemical-weapons facilities of former Cold War antagonists. But last June, the pact expired after twenty years, and despite pledges from the Obama administration that work would continue “unfettered,” recent events in Ukraine have introduced enough friction into the relationship to cause alarm.
Cooperative Threat Reduction includes treatment of nuclear and radiological material and facilities, as well as efforts to destroy chemical weapons and keep smugglers from secreting weaponry across the Russian border. The necessity to stay on top of this delicate—in every sense of the word—work cannot be understated. Paul Walker, international program director of the environmental security and sustainability program of Green Cross and Global Green, expressed concern about Russia’s ability to safely deal with its chemical and nuclear arsenals without US assistance quite bluntly. “I worry about the Russians going off on their own and making some unintentional mistakes, having some accidents,” he said. Unfortunately, unintentional mistakes and accidents have been part of both the Soviet and American nuclear programs since the Manhattan Project.
Though unrecognized as such, one of our most critical human resources—if not the most critical—is the carefully maintained control of the world’s nuclear arsenal. The idea that “control” is a resource, and not a state of being, is born out in Eric Schlosser’s magnificent Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety, a comprehensive chronicle of American atomic weapons since 1945. Control, Schlosser demonstrates, proves to be a fleeting concept, something that can be reached for, and sometimes temporarily harnessed (in a treaty, for example), but never fully realized. Indeed, “The search for stability was inherently destabilizing,” summarizes The New Yorker in a review, with each advance in safety matched—and more often than not superseded—by a corresponding development in technology or strategy that rendered the safety benefit moot.
So we should be alarmed to discover that nuclear safety has become a bargaining chip in the ongoing US-Russia-Ukraine situation. Amidst hawkish bluster from House Republicans, some of our lawmakers seem hellbent on ensuring that suspicion and instability—along with unintentional mistakes and accidents—remain an integral part of the nuclear age.
On April 8, Representatives Michael Turner (R-OH) and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon (R-CA) introduced a bill that, among other things, prohibits “the contact, cooperation or transfer of technology between the National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] and the Russian Federation until the Secretary of Energy certifies the Russian military is no longer illegally occupying Crimea, no longer violating the INF treaty, and in compliance with the CFE treaty.”
Engendering nuclear instability by using safety as a stick is an incredibly reckless way to approach global security, and the difference between congressional GOP chest-thumping and the precious-bodily-fluids paranoia of Dr. Strangelove’s Gen. Jack D. Ripper is one of degree, not kind. As Schlosser and Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick make clear, when it comes to atomic weapons, no state with nuclear capability will ever cower and retreat to a more cooperative position when threatened with nuclear attack. Intimidation and braggadocio yield only more intimidation and braggadocio, which in turn yields recklessness, instability and, ultimately, catastrophe. To make the NNSA’s work subject to the political ebb and flow of an immediate crisis such as that in Ukraine is utter folly. We cannot afford to relive the last seventy years of our nuclear history.
Read Next: Nation in the News: A Diplomatic Resolution to the Crisis Over Ukraine Is Still Possible.