An interview with State Department Policy Planning Director Mitchell Reiss
Miles A. Pomper
Nearly a decade ago, Mitchell Reiss wrote an acclaimed book, Bridled Ambition, which sought to explain why some countries had chosen to abandon their nuclear weapons programs.
“Just as all cancers are not terminal, nuclear status is not immutable,” Reiss wrote. “With the proper treatment (and a dose of good luck), a serious illness can go into remission. Sometimes it can even be reversed.”
Now a top aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Reiss is trying to turn some of his academic prescriptions, which included “dollar diplomacy,” U.S. leadership, and preservation of the global nonproliferation regime, into diplomatic reality.
Reiss was named the Department of State’s director of policy planning in August, putting him in charge of its in-house think tank. The appointment came just as Powell and other administration officials were grappling with both short- and long-term challenges to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT, which has been endorsed by all but a handful of nations, seeks to block the further spread of nuclear weapons and encourage their elimination.
On Reiss’s “to do” list has been seeking a way to end North Korea’s nuclear program and similar suspected efforts by Iran. He is also looking at longer-term proliferation problems, from technological changes that could make it increasingly difficult to uncover covert weapons programs to a growing market for civilian nuclear reactors in Asia.
In an April 9 interview with Arms Control Today, Reiss offered his views on all of these subjects. Shunning diplomatic boilerplate for verbal jousting, he demonstrated that he has not abandoned his academic roots altogether. He cracked jokes, battled over ideas, and eagerly poked holes in what he viewed as false preconceptions about the Bush administration’s approach to arms control concerns.
“Part of what I want to do in this interview is just start conversations,” Reiss told ACT.
Drawing an analogy to manufacturing and distribution techniques that were pioneered commercially by Japanese manufacturers and are now used worldwide, Reiss said he is concerned that nuclear proliferators could soon follow suit. Such “just-in-time” proliferation he said, would mean that materials for nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons materials would no longer be stockpiled but only brought together when they need to be used.
“The concept works beautifully in the private sector, and there’s no reason why it can’t work for the bad guys,” Reiss said. “But this will create enormous challenges for the [International Atomic Energy Agency], for the Nuclear Suppliers Group [an export control clearinghouse for most of the major countries with civilian nuclear industries], for all the countries of the world, in order to prevent continued nuclear proliferation.”
In particular, Reiss said this strategy might pose particular problems for on-site inspections—a key tool of international nonproliferation regimes.
“I think on-site inspections certainly are important—essential in some cases,” Reiss said. ”Still, there is a concern that you can inspect a place one day and there will be nothing there, and you come back the next week and everything will be there.”
One of Reiss’s few public speeches since assuming his new post tackled the subject of ending North Korea’s nuclear program (See ACT, April 2004.) In his 1995 book, he pointed to a 1994 agreement that the Clinton Administration made to freeze Pyongyang’s proliferation program as an arms control success story, although he warned that it might well unravel.
Today, he contends that the kind of limited agreement struck by the previous administration is no longer useful, arguing that, like Libya, Pyongyang has to make a “strategic determination” to disarm. “I don’t know [if] North Korea will follow Libya’s lead,” Reiss acknowledged, but said that Tripoli’s recent disarmament does provide an appropriate model.
“[North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il faces a choice,” Reiss said. “He can continue to depend on the kindness of strangers, overseeing a devastated economy with an isolated population, or he can join the 21st century. He also has the historic opportunity to do what his father never did, which is to create a stable, peaceful relationship with all his neighbors.”
In making this argument, Reiss draws on his academic research. Officials in the nine countries he surveyed, he said in his book, witnessed the demise of the Soviet Union and “realized that nuclear arsenals and their boundless expansion were unnecessary, even counterproductive, to larger economic and political objectives.”
Reiss also dismissed criticism that the Bush administration’s preference for a multilateral format had needlessly delayed a resolution of the nearly two-year-old crisis. Instead, he said that the six-party talks had succeeded in forging a “united front” among the five other participants in the talks—the United States, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan—leaving Pyongyang little diplomatic wiggle room.
“There’s utility in forcing them to be a little bit franker, a little bit more open and honest, than they were when they could play one off the other,” Reiss said, adding, “I think they realize that the other five countries are lined up against them because all five are opposed to North Korea having nuclear weapons.”
For a complete transcript of the interview click here