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Robert McNamara

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 1986



New York

ROBERT McNAMARA has had four careers: Harvard professor, Ford Motor Company executive, secretary of defense, and president of the World Bank. But as he bounds up the curving staircase to his room at the River Club here, taking the steps two at a time, you might peg him for a fifth career - as athlete. Upstairs, as he turns his attention to the agenda for the 21st century, his mind proves equally athletic. He speaks with the rapid-fire vitality of a thinker seized by the subject and impelled by its urgency. Not surprisingly for a man with his background in defense and development issues, he singles out two central items for his agenda.

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The first is the nuclear threat, which is the subject of his new book, ``Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age.''

``After all,'' he says, ``if we can't survive as a civilized world, then there's no time to work on any other subject.''

The other item he describes as ``the population problem - not as a density problem, but rather as an imbalance of population growth rates on the one hand and social and economic rates of advance on the other.''

It is a problem, he says, that is ``going to cause very, very serious economic, social, political, and perhaps even military problems'' for the 21st century.

Ranked below these two ``high leverage'' issues, he says, are three others:

East-West political tensions, which he argues are ``distorting our allocation of economic resources.''

A loss of some of the traditional moral values of American democracy.

The need for new forms of institutions fitted to a changing world.

On this last point, Mr. McNamara does not expect to see the development of a world government. But he notes that ``in 50 to 100 years from now, we [in the United States] will find it's in our interest to transfer from national sovereignty to international institutions certain of the powers that we exercise now as a nation-state.''

``The longer we delay in addressing some of these issues - the East-West tensions, the institutional forms appropriate for an increasingly interdependent world, the return to our national traditions - the greater difficulty we're going to face in the 21st century,'' he concludes.

Turning to his first agenda item, McNamara discounts the argument that the West's nuclear strategy - which he finds seriously flawed - has preserved peace since World War II. ``I think it's extremely dangerous,'' he asserts, ``to carry on our present strategy and our present weapons-development programs, in the direction they're headed, for another 40 years.''

The danger, he says, arises ``because of the environment we're in. We are in a world with 50,000 nuclear warheads - each one, on average, some 30 times the destructive power of that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.'' What nuclear war plans omit `WAR plans covering their use are in existence - and there is, in effect, a mind-set that would assure their use in the event of confrontation between East and West,'' he explains, condensing arguments he has developed at greater length in his book.

``And yet,'' he adds, ``no plan exists for initiating the use of nuclear weapons without the probable destruction of the civilization in the initiator.''

How dangerous is the threat of such conflict?

``I don't believe that any well-informed, coolly rational military or civilian leader on either side, East or West, would initiate the use of nuclear weapons,'' he says. ``But it has been my experience - and I think it is a widely shared experience - that military and civilian leaders in times of crisis are neither well informed nor coolly rational.''

``And I, for one, am not prepared to accept the risk that these [East-West] political rivalries will not, over a period of decades, upon occasion lead to military confrontation,'' he adds.

What, then, can be done?