Thank You, Senator Lugar. And Welcome, Professor Lugar

When I was an undergraduate student years ago, I had the opportunity to have lunch with a U.S. senator from Indiana named Richard Lugar–someone about whom, I now cringe to admit, I did not know much at the time. The Cold War was still frigid, but the world was not far from momentous changes few saw coming. I remember clearly my reaction to Senator Lugar–here is someone who thinks deeply about U.S. interests and cares about American responsibilities beyond our shores.

In his long career in public service, Senator Lugar exhibited those traits in many contexts, but perhaps most famously in his work to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the very early 1990s, with his colleague Sam Nunn, Senator Lugar created the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTRP), widely known as the Nunn-Lugar program, which is hailed as one of the most significant U.S. national security policies of the post-Cold War period. The program was effective in not only achieving its initial objective of helping states emerging from the Soviet Union’s collapse keep nuclear weapons and related materials and capabilities from falling into dangerous hands but also expanding into chemical and biological weapons and beyond the former Soviet states. In December 2012, the U.S. government and the non-proliferation community celebrated the 20th anniversary of the CTRP.

This milestone asks us not only to reflect on the past but also to probe the future. Senators Nunn and Lugar know better than anyone that the CTRP has not made WMD proliferation a relic of another time and place. Indeed, the CTRP’s expansion beyond nuclear issues illustrates both the dangerous legacy of chemical weapon arsenals and the difficult task of managing “dual use” knowledge and capabilities in the biological realm. Further, the CTRP approach is predicated on mutual political commitment to cooperation, a prerequisite not present in important contexts of proliferation concern, such as Pakistan, Syria, North Korea, and Iran. Worries have arisen with Russia too given its declaration in the fall of 2012 that it would not renew its CTRP agreement with the United States in 2013 without changes to the arrangement–a disconcerting development given the scale and seriousness of the remaining WMD threat reduction agenda in Russia.

Problems with Russia and the inhospitable political conditions for cooperative threat reduction in other contexts of proliferation concern do not spell the “end of Nunn-Lugar.” However, we are entering a potentially challenging phase for this strategy that requires thinking hard about U.S. interests and caring about American responsibilities. Cooperative WMD threat reduction might become increasingly complicated for external and domestic reasons.

Externally, maintaining progress with CTRP efforts faces shifting national interests, characterized foremost by Russia’s re-evaluation of its arrangement with the United States. The risk of such shifts is not the sudden embrace of WMD proliferation; rather it is the danger of slackening focus on the urgency of threat reduction. In addition, cooperative threat reduction strategies might well find future crises that involve proliferation concerns extremely hard to affect. Just think of the proliferation fears that experts have about the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria, the implosion of the North Korean regime, or the potential cascade effect of Iranian development of nuclear weapons.

Domestically, commemorating two-decades of CTRP success should not underestimate looming political problems. Richard Lugar is no longer in the Senate, which raises questions about who will assume the burden of leadership he bore effectively on this issue for so many years. And leadership will be needed because the United States is facing wrenching choices at home and abroad as the moment of reckoning with its worsening fiscal crisis is upon the nation’s political institutions. Senator Lugar’s defeat in a primary election demonstrates the lack of traction his statesmanship on WMD proliferation had with voters–a cautionary tale for any politician operating in an extremely polarized country fixated on domestic issues and living well beyond its fiscal means.

In January 2013, my employer, Indiana University, named Richard Lugar a Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Practice in its new School of Global and International Studies. Professor Lugar (how strange that sounds) is donating his senatorial papers to Indiana University, a gift that will provide a treasure trove of resources for research on many issues, but especially his dedication to reducing the dangers of WMD proliferation. We still have much to learn . . .


One Comment on “Thank You, Senator Lugar. And Welcome, Professor Lugar”

  1. “Just think of the proliferation fears that experts have about the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria, the implosion of the North Korean regime, or the potential cascade effect of Iranian development of nuclear weapons.”

    I do – and pretty much dismiss them all as highly unlikely events – and even if they do occur, probably all of them could be contained.

    Syria doesn’t have nuclear weapons and chemical weapons have to be handled by experts and have limited shelf lives and limited strategic and tactical use. Syria is never going to give them to Hizballah in Lebanon or anyone else. Even if “Al Qaeda” got their hands on them, odds are they couldn’t use them effectively – and Israel would be trying mightily to make sure they never did, as would the US.

    If North Korea collapses, China will most likely assume control of its nuclear facilities and technology and it’s unlikely any of it will be spread much further than it already has. The US policy toward NK of sanctions and threats is not helping the current NK proliferation problem.

    And Iran will never develop nuclear weapons, at least not under the present regime, because there are no strategic or tactical use cases for Iranian nukes and the present regime has repeatedly stated they understand that and have no intention of making nukes.

    The place where proliferation is potentially a real problem is India and Pakistan – and the US has done nothing in either case. Now it’s too late as both countries have adequate arsenals as well as significant military force to make it difficult to impose disarmament on them. If there is any place in the world where nukes might actually be used in anger, it’s there.

    And the previous thread cited Stephen Walt’s article at Foreign Policy pointing out the “inconvenient truth” that the US is never going to give up its nukes – and neither is Israel. Which means neither is Russia or China or the EU.

    So what does that leave to talk about? Brazil? Argentina? What are their use cases for nukes (other than each other?) Missing tactical nukes?

    In general, non-proliferation is really low on my threat radar – except where it is used as a red herring to “justify” another war as was the case with Iraq and is the case with Iran.

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