Others May Worry, But He Acts

- Jun• 06•16

Guy QuinlanGuy C. Quinlan, an All Souls Member since 1974, is head of the Nuclear Disarmament Task Force. Guy, who retired in 2008 from Roberts & Wells/Clifford Chance, is president of the U.S. affiliate of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Weapons and is a member of the Committee on National Security of the American Bar Association International Law Section. He also serves on the board of directors of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security at the United Nations.

The All Souls Nuclear Disarmament Task Force, which he founded in 1997, has more than forty members and attracts even more participants to its educational lectures and advocacy letters and phone calls to Members of Congress. It sometimes joins with groups from other UU congregations across the country and with the Interfaith Committee on Nuclear Disarmament. Guy says that his Unitarian Universalist faith informs this work “in terms of respect for human life, the worth of every human being, and for the interdependent web of life. This is a threat to all of that, this nuclear issue, and I think I feel an obligation to respond to it. In a sense this is a religious commitment for me.”

Communications intern Marc Dolgow sat down with Guy for a talk about his work on this issue, an abridged part of this lengthy interview follows.

How likely is the continued spread of nuclear weapons and their use by a state or terrorist organization, if the nuclear status quo continues?

I think it’s very likely and that’s not just my opinion. William Perry (President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense and a Unitarian Universalist) recently said that we are on the brink of a new nuclear arms race and that the chances of a nuclear calamity are greater now than they were during the Cold War. He said that we are getting back into a Cold War mentality, and most of the public seems blissfully unaware of the extent of the danger.

Last June, there was a report published by a commission of international military experts (which got almost no attention in the media). Most of these experts came from NATO countries (and also from some other countries like China and India). The chair was James Cartwright (Four-star US Marine Corps General and former Vice Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff). They said that the clock is ticking on the actual use of nuclear weapons somewhere in the world, because the nuclear technology is spreading, getting more dangerous and warning times are getting shorter.

There are still about 16,000 nuclear weapons left in the world. The US and Russia own about 90% of these, while seven other countries hold the remainder. The US and Russia each keep several hundred nuclear missiles on “launch on warning” status—ready to be launched in a few minutes notice. Several times in the past we have come within minutes of actual nuclear war because of computer failure or human error. The danger is getting greater because of cyber-warfare. Two years ago at a Senate testimony, the commander of US Strategic Forces at the time testified that he was extremely worried about the possibility of a cyber-attack on our nuclear command and control centers and on the weapons themselves. This is one reason a number of arms groups have been urging the US government to try to open negotiations to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. When he campaigned for President in 2000, George W. Bush said he would take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, but of course he did not. Obama said the same thing in 2008, calling it a dangerous relic of the Cold War, but the situation still hasn’t changed. So I think the danger is very real— much more so than people realize— and things at the moment are not going in the right direction.

Why do you think our leaders come into office talking about how they’re going to do so much to live up to the commitments of the NPT and disarm their nuclear arsenal, but then they don’t do it when they actually get into office?

I believe one reason is simply institutional inertia. The military has developed all sorts of reasons for why we need to keep the weapons on launch-on-warning alert. To disrupt any major government policy is always very difficult. People are wedded to having things done a certain way. One illustration of how hard it is for people to change and adjust to new realities is how they respond to the concept of nuclear winter. In the 1980s, a number of nuclear scientists (including Carl Sagan) argued that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would cause smoke and soot from nuclear firestorms to linger in the atmosphere for years and that this would cause a drastic drop in temperature that could lead to a new ice age. Both (President) Reagan and Gorbachev (last president of the Soviet Union) heard about this, which is what motivated them to start taking initiatives to reduce nuclear weapons. But by the end of the Cold War, this fell off the public’s radar and it’s hardly spoken of anymore. In the past six or seven years, some scientists have gone back to researching the subject again, with the aid of far more accurate climate models than what they had back in the 1980s. These scientists found that the threat of nuclear winter is very real and that the scientists of the 1980s may actually have understated the case. They concluded that if there were to be a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia, even with reduced arsenals under the New START treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, 2010) , there would be a return to ice age conditions for a decade or more. It would probably mean the end of the human species.

How many nuclear weapons need to go off in order to trigger this sort of catastrophic climate change?

Let me put it this way: even if there were a small nuclear war, such as a regional conflict between Pakistan and India, in which each nation used 50 relatively small nuclear weapons (think of Hiroshima-sized bombs, which are a tiny fraction of the power of what the US and Russia have now), the resulting weather conditions would cause a global famine and put up to 2 billion people at risk.

You’re an advocate for both nuclear disarmament and combating climate change. What do you feel the connection is between these causes? Do you think of your efforts in each as part of one goal?

Yes, but the situation is a little more complicated than that. There’s a paradox here, because the kind of climate change that we’re currently worried about is gradual global warming, which was the subject of the Paris Climate Treaty (2015). However, what would happen in the case of a nuclear war is almost the reverse — a sudden and drastic drop in temperature that would last for several years.

These causes do intersect in a couple of ways. One is that climate change can exacerbate the danger of nuclear war. In 2010, the Defense Department said there is no question climate change is real and that it’s causing major destruction in our world today. This raises the possibility of serious international conflict due to food and water scarcity, increasing competition over scarce resources, and forced migration of populations. Put simply, climate change raises the danger of international conflict and this makes the use of nuclear weapons more likely. Three years ago, the National Research Council made this very point, highlighting the risk in the Indian subcontinent because glacial melt will cause a rise in sea levels that will put this area in particular at risk. By unfortunate coincidence, India is currently in the world’s most acute nuclear arms race with Pakistan. In recent years Pakistan has said it is developing smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons to offset India’s military superiority. India has responded by saying it won’t recognize any distinction between a smaller nuclear weapon and a larger one and that if any country uses any form of nuclear weapons against India this would justify full retaliation. These two countries have already fought three wars, not to mention their political skirmishes in between.

So the dangers intersect, climate change and the nuclear threat. Meanwhile, Congress is not doing its part to help. Retooling for climate change and creating renewable energy requires immense financial resources. But where are we going to get these resources when we continue to pour them into nuclear weapons? The US is planning on spending $345 billion over the next decade on upgrading its nuclear arsenal.

Why do US leaders want to do that?

They say to modernize their arsenal. They want to make sure the weapons remain reliable and don’t fall behind in what is becoming a new nuclear confrontation with Russia. The congressional budget office estimates that depending on its plans over the next 30 years this could cost as much as $1 trillion. The current plan that the administration endorsed talks about developing 100 new strategic nuclear capable bombers, a new nuclear air launch cruise missile, and 12 new nuclear launching submarines and an entire new generation of land based nuclear weapons. The other nuclear powers are also engaged in nuclear modernization programs.

Do you feel there is a disconnect between the things world leaders like Obama say they’re going to do and the actions they’re taking?

There clearly has been. Don’t get me wrong; Obama has done some good things too. The Iran situation was extremely dangerous and getting that peacefully solved was a major achievement. Obama is not worse than other leaders — in fact he’s been better in many ways. But his actions on nuclear weapons have not always lined up with his rhetoric.

In regards to the Iran deal, how do you address the people who are concerned that Iran will not live up to their end of the agreement?

This concern helped shape the way the deal was put together. The Iran deal has the most rigorous inspection regiment that has ever been achieved in any arms control agreement, and these inspections do not lapse after 10 or 15 years – they are permanent. The International Atomic Energy Agency is allowed to monitor Iran’s entire fuel cycle and to make unannounced and intrusive visits at any stage in its nuclear program and that is permanent. In order to go back and try to develop a nuclear weapon, Iran would blatantly have to expel the nuclear inspectors, and it would be very obvious what they were doing. This deal was not based on trust; rather it was based on a very meticulous set of safeguards and verifications.

Was it a priority for the Nuclear Disarmament Task Force to advocate for this deal?

Yes, we spent probably the biggest part of our time on that this year. We weren’t alone on that; most nuclear disarmament organizations agreed that the Iran deal was the single most important nuclear arms control issue of the last few years. It would have been a disaster if the deal had not been approved.

Do you feel that this deal is a good model to apply to future nations that show nuclear ambitions, or do you feel that this deal is very unique to Iran and can’t necessarily be applied to other nations?

I think it could be a good model. The UN Office of Disarmament has been trying to push the idea that this deal should be replicated, in particular with regards to North Korea. One of the problems of negotiating with North Korea is what happened in Libya. Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons, and North Koreans say look at what happened to him. We actually had an agreement with North Korea (the “Agreed Framework”) under Clinton that called for the dismantling of their nuclear program. The North Koreans didn’t definitively walk away from it until Bush made his Axis of Evil speech and they concluded that he was determined on regime change. The North Korean government is one of the worst in the world, it’s a Stalinist dictatorship, but when people talk about it being irrational – they’re wrong. In terms of calculating their own survival they know exactly what they’re doing. So the lesson they got from Gaddafi’s fall and the subsequent events in Libya was that continuing to develop nuclear weapons was their only security. The Iran agreement perhaps offers a model for a different approach.

Speaking of rational and irrational actors, what is your level of concern in terms of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist organization?

The concern is great, and again I don’t think this issue is getting enough attention. Within the past few months there were four separate arrests made at various places in Eastern Europe of criminals offering to sell what they said was highly enriched, weapons usable uranium — enough of it to make a bomb for anyone who was willing to pay a sufficient price. Four of these couriers were arrested in different places. What’s especially concerning is that forensic examination of the samples revealed they really were weapons grade uranium and that all four of these samples came concurrently from the same batch, which lends credibility to their claim that they could sell enough uranium to make a bomb. Terrorist organizations have made no secret of wanting to acquire weapons of mass destruction. ISIS apparently has already made progress on chemical weapons. There is evidence that they used sarin gas in Iraq and Syria. So the danger is real that they could make a good nuclear device if they could get their hands on enough highly enriched uranium. Additionally, there is concern about the theft of nuclear weapons. Pakistan is particularly worried about this as a nation with many religious extremists and a growing nuclear arsenal.

What measures can nations like Pakistan take to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists?

Pakistan has taken measures. The weapons are supposed to be under strict military control, but there are many loose cannons in Pakistan and obviously that’s a concern. There’s concern with India too, as a number of international groups have said India has been lax in their nuclear security. The US has been pressing them to raise their security standards.

Guy’s knowledge of this issue is vast and comprehensive, and Marc’s interview was actually much longer. If you’d like the full text, feel free to contact carolynjackson36@gmail.com. Better still, attend a Nuclear Disarmament Task Force meeting or check in with Guy at Coffee Hour.

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