Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why Nunn-Lugar Matters

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson


November 30, 2012

By Tyler Wigg-Stevenson

Russia announced in early October that it did not plan to renew the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, better known as Nunn-Lugar, when it expires early next year. This move startled many U.S. security experts and has raised questions about the future of a program that has been a cornerstone of U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War, when then-Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), pioneered an initiative to direct U.S. funding toward the securing and dismantlement of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet states.

That initial investment of $400 million, which the Washington Post recently called “one of the most farsighted foreign policy initiatives of its generation” has grown over two decades to an annual expense of $1 billion, with a total of $15 billion spent over the program’s lifetime.

This cost, in perspective, is a fraction of that spent on nuclear defense programs, which offer far less bang for the national security buck. In purely quantitative terms, Nunn-Lugar has resulted in the demolition of more than 7,600 nuclear warheads, thousands of ballistic missiles and nearly a thousand nuclear-capable bombers and missile launchers. In terms of political benefits, the program facilitated the removal of former Soviet nuclear arms in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, and has allowed for ongoing collaboration and trust enhancement between the American and Russian nuclear security apparatuses.

American security experts are concerned that the termination of Nunn-Lugar is a symptom of a broader move by Putin to limit the influence of American money, programs and power in Russian affairs. But it remains to be seen whether this trend will continue unabated into 2013 and beyond. Some observers saw a rise in Russian tough talk this year as a preemptive move against the possibility of a Mitt Romney presidency, given candidate Romney’s vocal labeling of Russia as America’s chief geopolitical rival. Now, with the Russians facing a second Obama administration, observers of Nunn-Lugar are asking whether the program might be salvaged.

Senators Lugar and Nunn, whose decades-long work for nuclear security goes far beyond the program that bears their names, have indicated a cautious optimism that Russia is only seeking a revision to the agreement, not its outright termination. The negotiating parties in the U.S. government have so far refrained from comment, but further clarity may emerge at a high-level symposium about the future of Nunn-Lugar, to be held at the National Defense University on Dec. 3.

In the midst of the widespread anxiety about the Russian announcement, however, some people—especially budget hawks – might be inclined to raise a dissenting eyebrow. After all, President Putin’s announcement did not indicate that Russia would be reneging on the treaty obligations for nuclear reductions, which are laid out in the 2010 New START agreement. Putin simply said that Russia would foot the bill for their own nuclear security from here on out. In today’s fiscal climate, isn’t this something to celebrate?

Unlike every other area in current American politics, however, Nunn-Lugar is a place where we want to be spending money. It is a truth at once lofty (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:13-15) and mundane (“if you’re living under my roof and eating my food you’ll obey my rules!”) that financial interest facilitates relationship—however rocky it might be. Since the early days of the nuclear arms race, the firepower at stake has created a security situation in which both sides have an existential interest in maintaining the peace.

This shared interest can take a negative, adversarial form, as it did in the hyperbolic Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Or, it can take a measured, prudential and cooperative form, as it has for two decades through the Nunn-Lugar program, which both symbolizes and instantiates the common good at stake in the proper management and disposal of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

In addition to maintaining the concrete threat-reduction programs that have served American national security, therefore, the long-term interest for the United States is to preserve the cooperative paradigm facilitated by the program. This is why it is critical that American policymakers ensure that the U.S. finds a way to keep actual “skin in the game” concerning the security and disposition of the Russian arsenal, as a peaceful manifestation of our mutual interest.

—Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the director of the Two Futures Project.

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