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3 Questions: George Shultz on nuclear disarmament

The former secretary of state (and former MIT professor) discusses his ongoing campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Former Secretary of State and MIT economics professor George Shultz PhD ’49 discussed nuclear disarmament after a screening of the documentary film <em>Nuclear Tipping Point</em> Friday.
Former Secretary of State and MIT economics professor George Shultz PhD ’49 discussed nuclear disarmament after a screening of the documentary film <em>Nuclear Tipping Point</em> Friday.
Photo: Justin Knight

Former Secretary of State and MIT economics professor George Shultz PhD ’49 has recently teamed with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn to publicly advocate for the complete disarmament of the world’s nuclear arsenals. On Friday, Oct. 15, Shultz hosted a screening at MIT of Nuclear Tipping Point, a documentary film about nuclear security that premiered earlier this year, and he responded to audience questions afterward. Shultz believes prompt international cooperation is needed to dismantle weapons, secure nuclear materials and install safer deployment practices. He also believes that Iran, which has taken steps to acquire nuclear capabilities, can be driven to the bargaining table by a combination of public diplomacy, economic sanctions and even the threat of military intervention. MIT News spoke to Shultz after Friday’s event, which was sponsored by the Center for International Studies and the MIT Energy Initiative.

Q. The United States and Russia signed the New Start nuclear arms reduction pact in April. In an op-ed in The New York Times, you called this a “modest step.” What are the next steps necessary to reduce these arsenals further?

A. I think in the United States there’s a general agreement that in our next U.S.-Russia negotiation, we ought to address the question of so-called tactical nuclear weapons. They are light, easy to move around, and they are subject to being stolen. They are very high-powered. And they’re elusive; they’re hard to verify. The Russians have many more than we do. We have already destroyed huge numbers. It’s hard, but we should address that issue.

Q. President Obama brought 47 world leaders to the White House this spring to discuss nuclear arms control. But some countries are not currently in a negotiating posture: In addition to Iran and North Korea, which have nuclear programs though no bombs yet, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. What must happen for the prospect of discussions involving India and Pakistan to become realistic?

A. It’s also a difficult problem. But I suspect India is ready. Of course, India is much bigger, and so Pakistan no doubt regards its nuclear arsenal as kind of leveling the playing field a little bit. But India is increasingly, I imagine, less preoccupied with Pakistan, and more realizing that it’s growing to such an extent that its issues are in the world economy, and if matters on its border with Pakistan can be dealt with, so much the better. However, Pakistan may not be in the frame of mind yet. But maybe steps can begin to get them there. Then you still have to address the problems in Kashmir. But if Pakistan can feel, justifiably, that India’s preoccupations are not with them, but with other things, and that India is not a threat to Pakistan, then I think things will change.

Q. Nuclear Tipping Point suggests that the concept of abolishing all nuclear weapons, which Reagan and Gorbachev discussed in 1986, was an idea ahead of its time, especially in that Cold War context. Your first op-ed calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons appeared in January 2007. To what extent are people now taking seriously the notion of complete nuclear disarmament?

A. Well, there has been a gigantic response to our op-eds. It’s amazing what has happened in three-and-half, four years. The United Nations Security Council met, showing the film, and voted unanimously to support this initiative. Quite a few of those leaders cited our initiative. So people are very aware of it. President Obama generously invited us to come to the White House. The 47-nation meeting was an important one. The initiative of Australia and Japan [outlining steps for global disarmament] is an interesting one. The Norwegian government said to us, if you’ll bring your act to Oslo, we’d like to convene a meeting [The International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament, in February 2008] which of course we went to, and they got 29 countries, all the countries including Israel that have nuclear weapons. There was a meeting in Rome that Mikhail Gorbachev and I co-chaired [in April 2009].

So there is a lot of that. But we have the problem of Iran, and the problem of North Korea. If we can’t do anything about those problems, then where are we? At that United Nations meeting, in some ways the most startling comment was made by President Sarkozy of France. He said, “Well, this is very fine and we’re all for it. But let’s get real. If a tinpot country like North Korea cannot be stopped, where are we? If we can’t stop Iran, where are we?” So there are still hard problems.

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