Interviewed by Daniel Horner and Kingston Reif
William Perry is the Michael and Barbara Berberian professor emeritus at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, having previously served as deputy secretary of defense and undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. He is the author of My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (2015).
Perry spoke by telephone with Arms Control Today on December 8, 2015.Much of the conversation focused on the current impasse in U.S.-Russian relations and the nuclear weapons programs in those two countries.
The interview was transcribed by Elizabeth Philipp. It has been edited for clarity.
ACT: In your book, you write that Russia’s ongoing and planned production of new nuclear delivery systems is likely to motivate Moscow to test new warheads for its new missiles and that you expect it to withdraw from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] soon and begin those tests. Can you elaborate on why you believe that to be the case?
Perry: First of all, let me say that I don’t have any inside information from anybody in the Russian government. That’s not what my point was. It’s just that I know they are developing new nuclear weapons. They’ve said so themselves. I’m confident that that will lead the weapons designers to request new tests. That will put [Russian President Vladimir] Putin up to a decision. He will have to decide whether to allow that or not. I don’t know what that political decision will be, but I do believe that the pressure to test will be strong. So it will come down to a political decision on Putin’s part. Will he accept their recommendations, or will he think the political costs are too high? One of the reasons the political costs will not be as high as they should be is because we have not yet ratified the CTBT. That makes a decision to test easier for him.
ACT: Given that, is there any feasible way to prevent the resumption of Russian testing?
Perry: The best thing we could do is to ratify the CTBT. That would make the political costs substantially higher for Putin. That might lead him to decide then not to test.
ACT: Following up on the issue of U.S. ratification, even if the United States were to ratify the CTBT tomorrow, entry into force could still be years away if not longer. What steps should the United States pursue in the near term to strengthen the global moratorium against nuclear testing, especially in light of your belief that Russia may be on a path to the resumption of testing?
Perry: I think it’s very important to get China to ratify. I do believe that our ratification will put very strong political pressure on them to ratify, and I believe that they would. If that happens, then I think we’ve got a pretty good case to go forward, pushing to bring the treaty into force even if, let’s say, North Korea does not ratify.
I think a good argument can be made that we should not let an outlier like that stop the whole treaty from coming into force, but that decision is still ahead of us. The first step is to get the U.S. to ratify, then put the pressure to China, and then I think we should go forward with a program to try to bring the treaty into force even if the outliers do not ratify.
ACT: Shifting to another treaty, the United States has accused Russia of being in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] Treaty. Russia has denied the accusation and charged the United States with being in violation of the agreement. How do you evaluate the situation?
Perry: I don’t have enough data to make a judgment on whether or not Russia is in violation. That’s what our government has stated, and that’s all I have to go on. But I do not have an independent judgment of that.
ACT: Do you have any thoughts on how to get out of the impasse that the two countries seem to be in with regard to this violation alleged by the United States?
Perry: On that point, as well as other points of contention we have with Russia, what is badly needed is serious and meaningful dialogue with Russia, which we do not have today, at high levels. So I think it’s imperative for the United States to begin serious dialogue with Russia. It’s imperative for both countries to take the political step of high-level and serious dialogue. Even if there is disagreement, the dialogue is not only desirable, but necessary.
ACT: Okay, is there anything specific with regard to the INF Treaty, or is it all part of the larger picture?
Perry: No, it is a part of the larger picture. I think it is very desirable to keep that treaty in force. But the bigger problem is the bad relations between the United States and Russia, of which this is just a symptom, I think.
ACT: In a recent appearance in Washington, you said that any reasonable definition of deterrence would not require intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], the land-based leg of the U.S. triad. You argue that ICBMs are unnecessary and destabilizing because they are an attractive target and entail a greater risk of accidental launch than other nuclear weapons. How would you propose to phase out the ICBM leg of the triad?
Perry: I simply would not recapitalize it. If we decide to keep the ICBMs in the force, then in a number of years, not very many years, we have to begin to focus on building the replacements for the first ICBMs. So instead, I would simply let the present force phase out.
ACT: What would you say to the senators and representatives of those states in which U.S. Minuteman III ICBMs are based who say that the missiles and associated bases are an essential part of the U.S. deterrent and vital to the economies of their states?
Perry: I don’t believe it. They’re not an essential part of the deterrent. We have ample deterrence from the submarine force, and certainly if you add the bomber force to that, that’s an overwhelming deterrence force. So I cannot understand the argument that we also need ICBMs for deterrence. We might need ICBMs for other reasons, for geopolitical reasons, but not for deterrence. Any sane nation would be deterred by the incredible striking power of our submarine force.
ACT: You have said that a desire to maintain parity with the Soviet Union and later Russia has been and continues to be a main driver of the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and that this approach doesn’t make sense. Why do you believe that parity should no longer guide U.S. force requirements?
Perry: Because I don’t think it has anything to do with deterrence. I think deterrence has to do with our power and our ability to strike. The fact that we need to have, for example, ICBMs in the force, which is a kind of a parity, just doesn’t hold up. I don’t understand the argument that we need to have an equivalent number of weapons and equivalent type of weapons as Russia as an argument for deterrence. That is a political argument, and I understand the political argument. But that’s not an argument for deterrence.
ACT: Do you have in mind a rough number of [warheads], what a U.S. nuclear force should look like, should be composed of?
Perry: Certainly less than the numbers we have now. But I also understand the political argument that as we bring the numbers down, we ought to see if we can find some way of having the Russians come down at the same time, whether that be by a treaty or by some sort of a mutual understanding.
ACT: I want to go back to the larger point about U.S.-Russian relations that you raised before. As you were saying, the relations now are at a very low point. Is there anything that Russia and the United States and maybe other countries could do to improve the situation?
Perry: We have a number of points in common with Russia. So I would think our diplomacy would emphasize trying to strengthen cooperation in the areas in which we feel the need to cooperate, the desirability of cooperating. For example, we did cooperate on the Iranian agreement, and that was a big plus. We certainly have a need to cooperate in the field of terrorism and especially nuclear terrorism, and there are certainly trade areas where we could find a reason for cooperating as well, as we did in the Cold War. We should look at issues of mutual importance—certainly preventing nuclear catastrophe has to be highest on that list—and find a way of cooperating in those areas without having to agree with the Russians or having even political accords with Russians in other areas.
ACT: What would an agreement on nuclear terrorism look like that goes beyond what’s already currently agreed under the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism? What more would they be able to do?
Perry: One of the principal actions would be protecting fissile material on a global basis. The program that the president has initiated, the nuclear [security] summit [process], I think is an excellent example of what we can do along those lines. I certainly applaud the administration for their initiative on the nuclear summit and their continued pursuit of it. I think that all we can be sure of at this point is that there will be one more nuclear summit, the one in Washington next spring. So I would put the highest priority on getting major agreements at that summit meeting, and that could be facilitated by prior discussions with the Russians on what one can mutually hope to accomplish at that nuclear summit. Certainly it’s as much for the security benefit of Russia as it is for the United States to solve nuclear terrorism. So it should be a very powerful argument for working together to get major steps forward on the nuclear summit upcoming this spring.
It’s one thing just to go to the meeting and talk. It’s another thing to go to the meeting with a plan worked out with the Russians ahead of time on what the two of us might be able to accomplish to help get the fissile material controlled in other countries. So I think I would put that number one on the list of areas of cooperation with the Russians that can greatly reduce the danger to both of us of nuclear terrorism.
ACT: Do you believe that that’s realistically achievable in the here and now?
Perry: I certainly do. We have still a few months where we can be meeting and talking with the Russians. So we could have a solid program of accomplishment that we mutually agree on that we would like to see come out of that possibly last summit meeting.
ACT: Switching gears slightly, we understand that you have recently visited a number of U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia to discuss nuclear and other related security policy issues. In your conversations with officials, did they express any concerns about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and increasing Chinese assertiveness in its near abroad?
Perry: No, nobody raised that question with me. It seems clear to me that any informed and objective observer would see that our nuclear deterrent is quite powerful.
The nuclear deterrent, however, does not prevent the Russians from doing many things that are not directly nuclear related. I always have believed and I think events have demonstrated that nuclear deterrence is pretty well limited to deterring a nuclear attack, not deterring many other objectionable actions. During the Cold War, Russia took many actions that were very highly objectionable to us, and our nuclear deterrent did not stop them from taking those actions. Arguably, all that U.S. nuclear weapons have done is stop the Russians from carrying out a nuclear attack on us.
ACT: In any of your conversations, did any officials from allied nations take a position on whether the United States can further reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in its national strategy?
Perry: The only such issue I have come across, particularly with Japan, is the extent to which our nuclear deterrence is specific to Japan—that is, whether it involved nuclear weapons specifically designed to protect Japan as opposed to general deterrence. That has to do with maintaining shorter-range nuclear weapons. But there’s never been a question that I’m aware of as to whether our long-range nuclear weapons were capable of deterrence. This was an issue we had, as you may remember, back during the Cold War. Even though we had overwhelming capability in our strategic nuclear forces, the Germans felt it necessary to have nuclear forces based in their country to guarantee our deterrence to them, extended deterrence. That was, I think, a misguided judgment on the part of the Germans. But they certainly felt strongly, and as a consequence, we did keep medium-range nuclear weapons based in Germany to give them the confidence of our deterrence. I don’t see that lack of confidence today, though.
ACT: As you write in your book, progress on nuclear disarmament has slowed since the early days of President [Barack] Obama’s first term. How can multilateral disarmament move forward when the forums for multilateral diplomacy, such as the Conference on Disarmament [CD] and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] review conference, appear to be in a stalemate?
Perry: I think they are in a stalemate. I would not say that arms negotiations has slowed; I would say it has stopped. I don’t see any significant action between the U.S. and Russia today that has any chance of moving towards another treaty. I know that many people in the U.S. government that would like to do that and are trying to move in that direction. But they haven’t gotten any two-sided discussions that seem to have any significance going forward yet. I’d say this is not the fault of the U.S. officials; it’s just that Russia isn’t showing any interest in moving forward in nuclear arms agreements. So that’s one of the main issues ahead of us, and if we can get a stronger positive relation with Russia on other issues, we should also be working with them to try to get forward motion again on a follow-on to New START [the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty].
ACT: I was also asking about multilateral diplomacy, not just the bilateral U.S.-Russian interaction. Is there any way to stimulate movement in the CD, to deal with the issues that have divided the NPT members at their last review conference, issues like that? Who needs to take action to do that? Is there anyone besides the U.S. and Russia who can move that process or help move that process?
Perry: Probably yes, but I don’t have a good answer to your question.
ACT: In your book, you write that the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program over the past 15 years “is perhaps the most unsuccessful exercise of diplomacy in our country’s history.” What could the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have done differently to avoid this outcome?
Perry: Well, we had a negotiation going with the North Koreans in 2000, which was very close to an agreement. When the administration changed, the Bush administration simply cut off any discussions with the North Koreans. That was demonstrated to be not an effective way of dealing with the North Koreans, but it didn’t seem to me to be a wise way even before we saw the outcome. We should have kept the dialogue going, and that was a big mistake, I think.
ACT: With regard to the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea, how would you assess its strategy toward reducing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program?
Perry: It evidently has not been effective. But I would say, somewhat in their defense, that by the time they got into office, North Korea already had nuclear weapons. In 2001, North Korea did not yet have nuclear weapons. There was an opportunity for a much easier negotiation; it was much more feasible to negotiate with them not to develop nuclear weapons and not to produce nuclear weapons. Once they had nuclear weapons, the negotiation got very much harder. Now the administration had to argue with them to give up what they already have, and so I think the opportunity that was lost was between 2001 and 2008. That was when we had the chance to stop the North Korean nuclear program.
ACT: Given where we are now, what realistically in your view can be achieved at this point to stop and perhaps roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program?
Perry: I don’t have any better advice on that than Sig Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, has given. He said that, given that they already have the nuclear weapons, making our position in the negotiations that they must give them up is a very hard negotiation. So he argues instead to put that aside for the time being and take a more limited goal in diplomacy. It’s what he calls the three noes, which is no new nuclear weapons, no more nuclear weapons, and no selling of nuclear weapons or technology.1 Those are the three noes that he states, and he offers some positive incentives we might give for that to happen. He said that should be the basis of the negotiation. If we ever succeed in that, then we can take the next step in trying to get them to roll back their arsenal. But as far as I can determine, we have not proceeded along the lines of those three noes. That was a tactical approach that Sig had that I supported at the time and still do. I think it was a reasonable approach to dealing with the North.
ACT: I want to go back to the issue of nuclear terrorism, which we touched on briefly a few minutes ago. You wrote in your book that the threat of nuclear terrorism is the “gravest threat of our time.” Why do you think that’s the case?
Perry: The threat of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat of our time, and nuclear terrorism is the most likely form of it. If you consider the deterrent we have to somebody attacking us with nuclear weapons, it’s very powerful. But we have no deterrent to nuclear terrorism, and it’s relatively easy to imagine how such an attack could happen. So it’s not that it’s as catastrophic as a nuclear war; it’s just it has a much higher probability.
ACT: You mentioned the nuclear security summit process. How successful do you think that’s been in addressing this problem of nuclear terrorism?
Perry: I think it’s the most effective thing we can do because the most likely way for a terrorist to get a nuclear weapon is to get the fissile material and then build a crude, improvised bomb himself. So the biggest obstacle to a terrorist getting a nuclear weapon is getting the fissile material, and the nuclear summit process is specifically addressed to putting fissile material all over the world under much better control or eliminating it.
ACT: So as a result of the nuclear summit process, do you feel less troubled or less concerned than you did, say, seven years ago before the process started?
Perry: Yes, I do. I mean, there are just fewer opportunities now for a terrorist group to get ahold of the fissile material. But I don’t feel by any means relaxed about this because there’s still a lot of it out there not under really good control. That’s why I think this final nuclear summit next year is so important. It gives us an opportunity to take even stronger actions than we’ve taken in the previous summits, including the opportunity for setting an international standard for the control and protection of fissile material.
ACT: What should be done to continue to focus high-level attention on the problem after the summit is completed?
Perry: I’m sorry to say that the thing that would really give high-level attention to the problem is a nuclear terrorist incident. Then what had once seemed to be a theoretical possibility will become real. All I’m hoping and working for is that we can find the actions to stop nuclear terrorism without having that triggering event.
ACT: On the question of the likelihood, periodically people say within so-and-so many years there’s such-and-such a percentage chance of a nuclear terrorist incident taking place. People have been saying that for the last 30 years or so, and there hasn’t been one. So what do you think is the likelihood and over what time period?
Perry: I’ve never been able to put a number on it. But I would say it is quite feasible for it to happen in the next year, and I don’t see the actions we have now to keep that from happening as strong enough to give me any comfort that it’s not going to happen. It could happen next year; it could happen the following year. It’s a matter of the terrorist group putting the priority on doing that and putting the resources and the effort to making it happen. But I just don’t know how to put a number on it, a probability on it. Certainly, the likelihood of that happening is much higher than any of the other nuclear catastrophes.
ACT: As President Obama enters his final year in office, what more can he realistically seek to achieve with regard to the ambitious agenda he articulated in his Prague speech in April 2009?2
Perry: Number one, he could put a major effort into making this last nuclear summit a big success. That would be my number-one priority, I think, particularly since it addresses the threat I’m most concerned about, which is nuclear terrorism. Secondly, if he can get a renewed serious dialogue with the Russians, I would try to get a follow-on to New START under way. Third, a major push on the CTBT, however he could go about doing that, to try to get that ratified before he leaves office. That is a very steep uphill climb, and I don’t want to be optimistic. But as I recommend things to the administration, I do recommend that they make a major effort still to try to push that through, not to give up on the ratification of the CTBT. Many people will say that’s an impossible dream, but I would like a major push to achieve ratification.
ACT: Thank you very much for your time; we really appreciate it.
1. See, for example, Siegfried S. Hecker, “North Korea Reactor Restart Sets Back Denuclearization,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 17, 2013, http://thebulletin.org/north-korea-reactor-restart-sets-back-denuclearization.
2. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.