WASHINGTON – The threat of a nuclear disaster has greatly increased since the collapse of the Soviet Union, top Russian and U.S. experts meeting here agreed. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. negotiated eight treaties in 40 years limiting the use of nuclear weapons. Representatives of the two nations talked with each other virtually every day and had excellent working relations.
Times have changed. Today, even though Russia and the U.S. still have 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, there have been no official bilateral talks in six years.
The existing treaties are eroding through lack of attention. Nothing is being put in place to safeguard against nuclear strikes or nuclear accidents.
These gloomy and frightening descriptions were repeated over and over again by participants in a two day conference co-sponsored here by former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe.
The 35 participants included current and former members of Congress and of the Duma and some of the world’s top nuclear disarmament experts. However, they spoke as individuals; not on behalf of any government or organization. They insisted that they not be directly quoted, except for Nunn, NTI’s founder and chief executive officer.
Nunn pointed out that even though the total number of nuclear warheads has decreased, the possibility of a catastrophe has increased because controls have become lax.
Yet, controls are needed more now than ever before. Now seven nations have nuclear weapons. Terrorist groups such as ISIS are trying to acquire “dirty” bombs and chemical weapons.
In addition, Nunn said, “the increasing use of irresponsible rhetoric by political candidates and public officials has increased the risk of nuclear arms escalation and is fueling tension and fear.
“The relations between the U.S, and Russia are more strained and distrustful now than they were during the Cold War.”
What’s more, conference participants said they see no way to bring Russian and U.S. policy makers to the bargaining table.
Among other things, the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Russia because of the situation in the Ukraine. Russian leaders believe that the U.S. has positioned long range missiles in Europe aimed at Moscow and other cities. Furthermore, the two nations are at logger heads about the war in Syria and how to fight terrorists.
Because of all this, conference participants said that “track two” talks are only way to begin working toward ridding the planet of nuclear, chemical and cyber weapons. “Track two” talks are informal discussions between individuals who do not have the authority to make agreements but who have the ears of decision-makers.
The Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe, co-sponsor of this week’s conference, was established in Luxembourg almost nine years ago to facilitate track two discussions.
Participants disagreed about whether they should attempt to reconvene bilateral talks between the U.S. and Russia or if they should try to bring a broad group of nations into the discussion of limiting nuclear weapons.
Some participants said that most nations with nuclear capabilities are client states of either the U.S. or Russia and that the two superpowers should take responsibility for controlling them.
Others pointed out that “everything is connected to everything” and that nuclear arms talks should include a broad range of nations.
For example, some participants said that North Korea will not give up development of its nuclear capabilities because its leaders observed the “regime change” operations the U.S. carried out in Iraq and Libya and are afraid that they might be next.
Furthermore, participants cited an article recently written by economist Thomas Piketty saying that income inequality is the main cause of war and instability in the Middle East. The main reason many people feel driven to join and support terrorist groups, Piketty writes, is that policies of the U.S. and other western nations have resulted in a small number of monarchs grabbing the majority of Middle East oil wealth.
Despite their differences, all conference participants agreed that Russian and U.S. leaders should open communications based on their common goal of preventing terrorist groups from getting more powerful weapons.
Even without formal negotiations about nuclear weapons, the participants said, the U.S, and Russia could encourage better military-to-military planning and cooperation to prevent accidents such as the shooting down of a Russian plane by Turkey and the bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan by the U.S.
Furthermore, the U.S. and Russia could institute more transparency in their weapons programs.
This must include more than just sharing numbers with each other, Nunn said. “‘Transparency’ must include representatives from each nation explaining their views of the world.”
Lastly, conference participants said that both the U.S. and Russian Administrations should immediately extend the Strategic Arms Reduction TreatySTART) for five more years.
Most important, Nunn said, “U.S. and Russia must stop using negotiations as a weapon.
“Today, when countries get mad at each other they punish each other by not talking.
“This practice must end,” he said. “World leaders must wake up to the fact that today the world has only two options: cooperation or catastrophe.”
Photo: “Atomic cloud over Hiroshima” by Enola Gay Tail Gunner S/Sgt. George R. (Bob) Caron. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 542192. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.