The U.S. must re-engage with Russia to ensure the ultimate weapon doesn’t spread and is never used.
The most difficult task facing the U.S. is also the most important—to refocus on America’s most vital interests even as we respond firmly to Russia’s aggressions.
The three of us experienced the low points of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, and the nuclear dangers that arose. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the 1981-83 confrontation over intermediate-range nuclear missiles were periods of increased tensions, reduced trust and rising nuclear risks. With Henry Kissinger, we wrote in 2007 that although the world escaped the nuclear knife’s edge of the Cold War through a combination of diligence, professionalism and good luck, reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective as more states gain nukes of their own. The U.S. and other nuclear states have yet to take decisive steps toward the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and the dangers continue to mount.
Deterrence cannot protect the world from a nuclear blunder or nuclear terrorism. Both become more likely when there is no sustained, meaningful dialogue between Washington and Moscow. The risks are compounded by the rising possibility that cyberattacks could target nuclear warning and command-and-control systems, as well as the continuing expansion of global terrorist networks. Since the crises broke out in Ukraine and Syria in the past few years, U.S. and Russian forces have again been operating in proximity, increasing the risk that an act of aggression, followed by an accident or miscalculation, will lead to catastrophe.
A new comprehensive approach is required to decrease the risks of conflict and increase cooperation, transparency, and security. This will require a united effort in Washington and with U.S. allies on a Russia policy that reduces the unnecessary nuclear danger we are currently courting, while maintaining our values and protecting our vital interests.
The U.S. must first address its own dysfunctional Russia policy, and Congress must lead the way. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should convene a new bipartisan liaison group of legislative leaders and committee chairmen to work with senior administration officials on strengthening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and renewing dialogue with Russia. This model was used in the arms-control observer group led by Sens. Robert Byrd and Bob Dole in the 1980s. The group was able to build bipartisan consensus for a defense modernization program that strengthened America’s defenses and bolstered NATO’s deterrence, as well as a Russia policy that led to negotiations eliminating missiles in Europe. These policies helped end the Cold War.
Second, Presidents Trump and Vladimir Putin should announce a joint declaration reaffirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This would renew the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev statement that Americans and Russians received positively as the beginning of an effort to reduce risk and improve mutual security. A joint statement today would clearly communicate that despite current tensions, leaders of the two countries possessing more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons recognize their responsibility to work together to prevent catastrophe. This could also lead other nuclear states to take further steps to reduce nuclear risk. The timing of such a statement would also signal Washington and Moscow’s commitment to build on past progress toward disarmament, as next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Third, the U.S. and Russia must discuss a broad framework for strategic stability—including increasing decision time for leaders—in a period of global destabilization and emerging military technologies. In a positive step, Presidents Trump and Putin apparently agreed in Helsinki last summer to open a dialogue on strategic stability, focused on nuclear dangers that threaten both nations. Yet their inability to follow up by empowering their military and civilian professionals to follow through underlines how dangerously dysfunctional relations have become.
This effort must begin now. America’s leaders cannot call a “time out” to wait for the aftermath of the Robert Mueller investigation or other issues to play out in Congress or the courts. Nor is there time to await a new U.S. administration, a new leader in the Kremlin, or the gradual resolution of current international disputes. The risks are simply too grave to put America’s vital interests on hold.
The U.S. and Russia should work toward a mutual vision for a more stable security architecture in the next five to 10 years, and identify the tools and policy initiatives necessary to get there. Our nations have a shared responsibility to communicate about crisis management, including between our armed forces, and to maintain our agreements on arms control and transparency. Where treaties are not likely or feasible, understandings and red lines are imperative.
The U.S. and Russia, joined by other nuclear states, must decisively confront the problems that threaten global security. It is essential that we re-engage with Russia in areas of common fundamental interest to both nations, including reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, keeping them out of unstable hands, preventing their use and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.
Mr. Shultz served as secretary of state, 1982-89. Mr. Perry served as defense secretary, 1994-97. Mr. Nunn, a Democrat, was a U.S. senator from Georgia, 1972-97, and was chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Appeared in the April 11, 2019, print edition.