Sam Nunn enjoys the days he doesn’t have to wear a necktie. Even 15 years after he left the U.S. Senate, those days are rare.
This week he returned from a trip to China, traded his tie for a sweater vest and settled down to talk for an hour with The Telegraph.
Nunn, a Democratic senator for 24 years, is one subject of a new book by former New York Times reporter and editor Philip Taubman. “The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and their Quest to Ban the Bomb” chronicles the effort to control nuclear materials worldwide. Nunn joined former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and Stanford University physicist Sidney Drell to write a 2007 Wall Street Journal article calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and they’ve traveled the world in quest of that goal ever since.
Nunn and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., co-sponsored the effort to corral nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union after 1991, and a decade later Nunn founded the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative with funding from media mogul Ted Turner. NTI just released a comprehensive Nuclear Materials Security Index which catalogs nuclear materials and security country by country. That was one of the main things on Nunn’s mind as he answered questions Thursday at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
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Occasionally tapping his fingers on the glass-topped table for emphasis, he borrowed a calculation from Warren Buffett, who donated $50 million to NTI.
“He says if there’s a 10 percent chance of having a nuclear catastrophe -- a city goes up -- in a given year, and that persists for 50 years ... there’s only one-half of a 1 percent chance of avoidance,” Nunn said. “In other words, 99 and one-half percent chance it’s going to happen over 50 years, somewhere. If you can move that 10 percent to one percent ... then over 50 years, you’ve got a 60 percent chance of avoidance. That’s what threat reduction’s all about. It’s a global problem, but as I say often -- and it’s true -- we’re in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.”
Was your trip to China about nuclear security?
“It includes this, but is much broader,” Nunn said. “This is the third one (dealing with issues beyond nuclear security) -- second time we’ve been to China. We meet every other year there, and every other year in Washington. So it was about a two-day meeting. ... We have counterparts from China, and we talk about economic issues, environmental issues, energy issues, security issues including nuclear issues. This time I led a discussion on cyber security, which is a growing concern; industrial espionage and that sort of stuff.”
He, Kissinger, Perry and Shultz were joined by financial and military experts when they met with Chinese political leaders, including the likely next president and premier, he said.
What contact do you have with Macon and Perry?
Nunn said he was born in a Macon hospital, because Perry didn’t have one at the time.
“We always lived in Perry,” said Nunn, who spent Christmas with family in Atlanta, then a couple of days in Perry, and New Year’s at their house on St. Simons Island.
“We keep a house in Perry,” Nunn said. “I’m going to spend more time down there because we are planting pecans down there right now. The pecan market is doing much better these days.
“Two big factors: the Chinese have discovered pecans, and Texas had a drought. So this is the highest price anybody can remember.”
What is your involvement with the Sam Nunn School and associated policy forum?
“They call me a professor, but that’s a very loose term,” Nunn said. “I enjoy being a part of it, but I don’t actually teach a formal course. I’m traveling too much.”
This spring’s Bank of America-sponsored policy forum will deal with energy issues, from the international level to Georgia.
“I hope we’re going to be able to look at what some of the important installations in Georgia are doing; for instance, Robins Air Force Base,” Nunn said. “I’ve encouraged Georgia Tech and their huge technical expertise both in alternate energy forms and nuclear energy as well as efficiencies, energy conservation, to work with the base.
“I think all of Middle Georgia -- Macon, Warner Robins, Houston County, Bibb County, Peach County, Pulaski -- all of us have a real stake in having the Air Force base be as efficient as (it) possibly can be, from the point of view of saving taxpayer money, but also from the point of view of being competitive with any other base in the country.”
What do you think of Taubman’s book?
“It’s a very complicated subject and a very complicated relationship,” Nunn said. “I thought he did a really good job. Phil Taubman’s a reporter that I have admired for a long time, but I had not known him personally until he undertook this project. He spent about two years on it, two and a half.
“We tried to cooperate in every way possible. We arranged for him to travel with us. Kissinger and Shultz and Perry and I have probably been to six foreign trips in the last four or five years. We’ve been to Russia twice, we’ve been to London twice, we’ve been to Norway and we’ve been to China twice. Phil Taubman was on about two or three of those trips, so he kind of watched us operate for a while.”
How is the anti-nuclear partnership going? Hasn’t Kissinger been reluctant?
“I think probably some of us have a different perspective of how hard and how long it’s going to take to get there. And part of that reflects our experiences,” Nunn said.
“It’s not simply weapons. You’ve got to control nuclear material, and you’ve got to stop producing the stuff. You could get rid of every nuclear weapon in the world, and the world would still be a very dangerous place if a terrorist could make a weapon. Nobody’s saying this is going to be easy. But the other way to go is to say ‘We’re going to have them forever.’
“I think Henry Kissinger subscribes completely to that. He thinks it’s going to be extremely difficult, and none of us know how you ‘get to the top of the mountain.’ We make that clear. We just believe that’s the direction you’ve got to head in. It may take the next generation, or the generation after, to really get to that point.
“Other countries have to go with us. This is not a unilateral mission. America should not get rid of our nuclear weapons until all other countries get rid of their nuclear weapons, but we have to move in that direction. Without the vision of moving to a world without nuclear weapons, you’re not going to get the cooperation you need to take the steps to secure nuclear material and to do all the other things we need to protect our own country right now.”
Why should countries hostile to the United States listen to you?
“At some point they’re going to realize that these weapons are a threat to them, too, and that nuclear material’s a threat to them,” Nunn said. “We just had a very interesting request back in October of this year from the North Koreans. We and about four other nongovernmental organizations were asked to send one expert to North Korea to talk about securing nuclear materials. They didn’t say they were going to give up their nuclear weapons, but they wanted to have a better idea of how you secure nuclear materials, which is in our interest as well as their interest.
“At some point the light bulb goes off: ‘Hey, if we use this stuff, we’re going to have retaliation. If we leak it out to a terrorist group and they blow up a city, and it’s traced back to us, we’re going to pay the price. Now, what are we doing this for? Is this really helping our security or not?’ And everybody’s going to have to ask that question.”
Thirty-two countries have radioactive material that could be used in a nuclear weapon or a “dirty bomb,” and controlling access to that is the best defense, Nunn said.
“I call that the long pole in the tent. It’s the easiest job for us to protect it,” he said.
What do you think of current tensions over Iran’s nuclear weapons program?
“That’s a huge problem, because if the Iranians get nuclear weapons ... there are at least four or five other countries in that area of the world, maybe more, that are going to say ‘If they’ve got them, we want them.’ It’s not just the Iranians getting them, it’s what’s going to happen after that,” Nunn said.
“We’re going to be in a period of real tension over the next 12 months over Iran,” he said, but a show of international unity there will make action against other countries easier.
“You certainly don’t want to have to have a war every time you have to enforce. You’ve got to find a way to do it without war, if you possibly can.”
What’s your opinion of proposed major cuts to defense and other federal spending?
“Over a 20-year period, we’ve got to make changes in personnel, we’ve got to make changes in retirement,” Nunn said. “But you have to grandfather people in. You can’t get right to the end of somebody’s career under one retirement system and say ‘Hey, sorry about all that, we’re changing it.’ You’ve really got to do it over 20 years. That’s the way the whole federal budget ought to be done. It’s like a huge aircraft carrier; you can’t whirl it around and change it like this. You’ve got to gradually change it. If we get the trajectory going, though -- for instance if you move the retirement age up for some of the entitlement programs; and you do it for 30 days each year for 15 years, but exempt people the first 10 (years), in the next 25 years you’ll save literally billions and billions of dollars without a hardship on anyone.”
Automatic cuts, divorced from strategy, are “the worst way to do it,” he said. Entitlement programs have to change, but a tax system that brings in more money while encouraging individual saving is imperative, too.
“We can do it without basically a huge amount of sacrifice on any particular group, but everybody has to pitch in. We’re all Americans, and we all care about our children and grandchildren.”
Has your opinion on the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” changed over the years?
“I think they went about it in the right way to repeal it,” Nunn said. “What people a lot of times don’t understand about the military, it’s not just having the chairman of the Joint Chiefs understand a change. It’s having the sergeants and chief petty officers, leadership at the enlisted level understand it.
“I think it’s doable now. I did not think it was doable in the early ’90s. I thought at that stage it would basically destroy unit cohesion in the military. It was going to be done all of a sudden. The military’s a reflection of society. And society has changed on this subject. A lot of people may not like it, but that’s the direction. That’s what our young people are telling us in every poll.”
Do you have any inclination to rejoin the political fray?
“I’ve had 28 years of elected office: four in the (Georgia) Legislature and 24 in the Senate, so I think I’ve had enough, and I suspect the voters of Georgia have had enough of me in elective office,” Nunn said. “I am going to be more outspoken this year about the need for the middle of America to rise up. I think that that’s essential.
“By the ‘middle’ I don’t mean people who are wishy-washy. I mean people who have firm views but realize that other people have firm views ... At some point the middle has to say ‘I’m not going to vote anymore for people who won’t compromise. I don’t want a stubborn ideologue, whether they’re on the left or the right.’ ”
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.