As Washington antics undermine our confidence in government, it is instructive to think back 20 years to challenges a President and Congress faced in December, 1991. President George H. W. Bush was finishing the 3rd year of his first term, exhausted by the international avalanche that began shortly after he took office. First the Berlin Wall came down, the Warsaw Pact disintegrated, Saddam invaded Kuwait, and the President mobilized 500,000 American troops to lead a coalition to victory in Desert Storm. A year before he would stand for reelection, the U.S. economy was in recession and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. President Bush and his key advisors wanted nothing more than to get out of town for a well-deserved vacation break.
On December 15, "Meet the Press" hosted the Secretary of Defense to ask what would happen to the nuclear weapons if the Soviet Union fell apart. He answered: "If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons and they are 99% successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control."
That Secretary of Defense was Dick Cheney. The moderator followed up with a question about what the U.S. could do to affect these developments, Cheney responded: prepare for the consequences since he was unable to think of anything else. As he said, "Given the disintegration of their society, given the sad state of their economy, the only realistic thing for me to do as Secretary of Defense is to anticipate that one of the byproducts of the breakup of the Soviet Union will be the proliferation of nuclear weapons."
Faced with inaction by the Administration, two Senators -- a Democrat, Sam Nunn, and a Republican, Dick Lugar -- refused to stand by and let stuff happen. Instead, they invented the most significant national security initiative in the post-Cold War era. Nunn-Lugar legislation established and funded a program that gave U.S. Defense Department officials a direct role in shaping the post-Soviet nuclear future. Over the past two decades, with strong bipartisan support, $20 billion American taxpayers' dollars have been invested in the most cost-effective expenditure in the defense budget.
Two decades after Cheney's forecast, how many nuclear weapons from the former Soviet superpower arsenal have proliferated to rogue states like Iran or terrorists like al Qaeda? Not the 250 Cheney predicted. Not 25. Miracle of miracles, not a single nuclear weapon has been discovered outside control of Russia's nuclear custodians.
On Christmas Day, 1991, the Soviet Union formally dissolved. The hammer and sickle that flew over the Kremlin came down for the last time. On the territory of the eleven-time zone expanse of the "Evil Empire," there emerged Russia and fourteen newly-independent states. In addition to Russia, three of these states had major strategic nuclear arsenals: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Among them, they hosted 3,200 strategic nuclear warheads, most atop ICBMs aimed at targets in the United States. In the greatest nonproliferation success in history, each of these new nuclear states' arsenals were zeroed out. Today there are no nuclear weapons in any of these three countries.
In addition, the Soviet Union had deployed 14,000 tactical nuclear weapons across these 15 states, many of a size well-suited for terrorists. Over the years that followed, thanks primarily to the work of Russian nuclear custodians, but with significant help from the U.S. through Nunn-Lugar programs, all of these weapons were also zeroed out. Today none of these states have any nuclear weapons.
In a related program, "Megatons to Megawatts," most of these warheads have now been dismantled, their nuclear cores extracted, and the highly enriched uranium blended down to make fuel rods for civilian nuclear power plants. In the U.S. today, half of all the electricity generated by nuclear energy plants to light our homes is fueled by rods imported from the former Soviet nuclear weapons program. When this program is concluded in 2013, the equivalent of 20,000 nuclear warheads will have been burned up in American nuclear reactors.
Who can imagine the past 20 years with 250 loose nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran or al Qaeda? Leaders in Washington today should try to imagine the U.S. two decades hence if they fail to address what recently-retired JCS Chair Mike Mullen identified as "the single biggest threat to American national security today:" uncontrolled deficits and unsustainable debt.
Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and author of the book 'Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.'