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Global Viewpoint

Does the Obama nuclear strategy put the US at risk?

Former Secretary of State George Shultz, a Republican, defends Obama’s nuclear strategy and discusses his vision of a world without nukes.

April 14, 2010

Stanford, Calif.

George Shultz was US secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. He spoke with Global Viewpoint Network editor Nathan Gardels on Tuesday at Stanford University.

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Nathan Gardels: You sat in the room in Reykjavik back in 1986 when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev discussed for the first time the abolition of nuclear weapons. And, well before Barack Obama became president in 2007, you joined with Henry Kissinger, former US Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn to call for a nuclear-free world.

What prompted you in 2007 to make that statement at that time?

George Shultz: President Reagan was a long-time advocate of abolishing nuclear weapons. He thought their use was immoral and that building a global security system based on mutually assured destruction was wrong.

And I supported that. At Reykjavik, he actually engaged the Soviets on it seriously. It was without doubt a watershed in the cold war.

When I returned from Reykjavik to Washington, I was virtually summoned to the British Embassy where Margaret Thatcher handbagged me.

“How could you sit there and allow the president to propose a world without nuclear weapons?” she scolded” “But Margaret,” I said, “he is the president.” “I know. But you are supposed to be the one with his feet on the ground,” she continued. “But I agree with him!” I responded.

In general, there was a very hostile reaction to President Reagan’s proposal at the time.

At a conference at Stanford in 2006 that I organized with the nuclear physicist Sidney Drell, we looked backed on Reykjavik on the 20th anniversary of those talks. Kissinger, Perry and Nunn were there. We decided that if the time had not been right before the end of the cold war, now that it was long over the idea might gain more traction. And it has – not only because we had a vision of a nuclear-free world, but also because we identified the steps that needed to be taken to get there.

Among other things, those steps called for the substantial reductions of the size of nuclear forces in all states that possess them; providing the highest possible security standards for all stock of weapons, weapons-usable plutonium, and highly enriched uranium everywhere in the world; halting the production of fissile material for weapons globally; and getting control of the uranium-enrichment process – combined with a guarantee that what was needed for nuclear reactors could be obtained at a reasonable price.

The reaction this time was altogether different. This time two-thirds of the former living secretaries of State endorsed the idea. In the presidential election campaign, both Obama and McCain supported the idea. After the election, President Obama has been doing a terrific job of pushing for it. And Senator McCain has spoken eloquently on the Senate floor in support.

Gardels: It is a nonpartisan issue at this point?

Shultz: That is the way we are trying to keep it.

Gardels: With the new START Treaty, the new “nuclear posture” statement, and the just-concluded security conference with heads of state, how do Obama’s policies stack up with your proposals?