Arms Control, Peace, and Reducing the Risks of Nuclear War

Preserving Freedom and Maintaining Peace

Donald Rumsfeld, 1985

Mr. Rumsfeld has been a four-term congressman, White House Chief of Staff, Ambassador to NATO, and Secretary of Defense. Today he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Mr. Rumsfeld, as you've thought about the problem of achieving peace in the nuclear age, a significant development for you has been the massive shift in power since World War II from the United States to the Soviet Union.

Rumsfeld: There's no question about it if one thinks back to the 1940s and 50s, in comparison with the 1980s, that it has been a dramatic change in the world equation. The United States in the post-World War II period, of course, was preeminent politically, we were unequaled economically, and we were clearly superior in every measurement of military power. And during the intervening forty years we've seen a significant shift away from the United States to a variety of countries and multiple political leadership centers, a dramatic shift economically to a number of countries that have developed significantly in the post-World War II period, and with respect to military power, a very significant shift, particularly in the period after 1962 or 1964 towards the Soviet Union, away from the United States, and we've seen a movement like that.

Whiteley: You've also indicated that the status of the Soviet Union as a superpower is not based on the quality of its internal life, or its accomplishments economically, but on its willingness to use raw military power.

Rumsfeld: Well, I think the way I see it is that if one talks about superpowers, there are really only two nations that you can talk about in the same paragraph, and that's the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States interestingly, is a significant world factor from the standpoint of our economy, and clearly attractive from the standpoint of our political views and values in terms of freedom and self-determination for nations. Conversely, the Soviet Union, the other superpower, is obviously not a superpower because of the persuasiveness of its political ideology; it has not been winning the hearts and minds of the world politically, nor is it a superpower economically. Indeed, quite the contrary, it's got a centralized system that has been notably unproductive. Its only reason for being at the superpower table is just raw military power: ships, guns, tanks, planes, missiles, and the options that that provides the Soviet Union in terms of asserting its influence in the world.

Whiteley: When you were Secretary of Defense you commented a number of times that the evidence before you was clear that the Soviet Union was seeking military domination. Is that still your view?

Rumsfeld: Well, I think that it's unambiguous that since about the early 1960s the Soviet Union has been investing in defense and denying its consumer sector at a rate of somewhere, I suppose, between ten and seventeen percent of its gross national product, depending on the year and one's view. That is a significant portion of its total economic product. There is no question but that they have been doing it during periods when the United States was investing itself, but they have also been doing it during periods when the United States was not investing in defense. So they clearly have it as a central goal to maintain and develop and build-up a military power in the world that equals or surpasses the United States.

Whiteley: In commenting on the persistence of the Soviet build-up, you've indicated they're not distracted by arms control negotiations.

Rumsfeld: Well, they're not distracted by a number of things. They're not distracted by a free press; they're not distracted by a Congress that changes its mind from time to time as ours does. They're not distracted by their allies, since their relationships with their allies are very different than our relationships with our allies; and they certainly have not been distracted by the process of arms control. If one thinks back, the SALT process has been going on ten, twelve, fifteen years now. And during that period we've seen the most massive build-up in the history of the world by the Soviet Union. They have continued their investment, notwithstanding the fact that these discussions and debates and agreements have been sequentially evolving during that period of time.

Whiteley: Reflecting on the relationship of military power and the Soviet build-up to arms control, for you the central goal is the preservation of peace and freedom in the world.

Rumsfeld: It is. The thing that's concerned me about the national dialogue on this subject is that so often the issue has been 'should there or should there not be a particular weapons system; should there or should there not be a particular arms control agreement; should there or shouldn't there be a unilateral freeze, for example - Star Wars and all these other issues.' And I think that they are useful questions to discuss, but they always have to be put into context of what our principal goal as a nation is, and our principal goal as a nation has to be freedom and peace. And that has to be the standard against which arms control agreements, or weapons systems, are tested. Do they contribute or don't they contribute? To the extent they do then one can make the case that they're desirable. Too often they tend to get a momentum of their own.

Whiteley: You've indicated that there are three aspects of arms control that are very important to consider. I'd like to give them to you one at a time and ask you to share what you mean. The first is that arms control agreements will affect America's strategic strength throughout their duration.

Rumsfeld: There's no question about it. The United States does not enter into treaties or agreements except with the full conviction that we will adhere to them. So the extent one agrees to a particular treaty, then our Congress and our executive branch arrange the development of our capabilities within the constraints of that agreement. So one has to recognize that technology evolves; we have to be able to look out for the duration of those agreements and understand, in an evolving technological world, what will the implications for our national security be if we and the other party to an agreement, agree on constraining A, B, C, or D. And too often we have a tendency to look - take a snapshot today - and think well, today it's desirable and not reflect on what the implications will be down the road.

Whiteley: Following from that point, it's essential to keep in mind that arms control agreements set the context for the next arms control negotiations.

Rumsfeld: They really do. There's no question but that SALT I and Vladivostok formed the stepping-off point for the SALT II deliberations, which had been taking place for a good number of years now. It's an important point because one has to recognize that in a negotiation there's a tendency on the part of people to want to get an agreement. It's a natural human instinct, and that sometimes leads to a certain amount of impatience. And in examining an agreement there are a lot of complexities, but one of the ingredients ought to be, what does that agreement do by way of forming that stepping-off point. Is it going to create an environment for the coming negotiations that will contribute to the possibility of achieving something that's in our national security interest, or might it almost codify some asymmetries or some disadvantages for us that, while not important with respect to that one agreement, might very well be significantly disadvantageous to it with respect to a follow-on agreement.

Whiteley: The third key element for you is the effect on world opinion.

Rumsfeld: As I mentioned, one of the great differences between the United States and the Soviet Union is that we disagree on fundamentals. We believe in freedom of the individual and individual rights and a free press, and they don't. As a result, the very process of negotiating with the Soviet Union has the effect of creating in the minds of a great many people the impression that well, the Soviet Union is a superpower, the United States is a superpower and they're having talks. And they're both basically the same, except they live in different parts of the world, and they have somewhat different views. And the fact of the matter is that's not true. We have fundamentally different views, and we are coming off that side of the wall and they are coming off that side of the wall, and the chances of our finding areas where we can agree, where our interests converge sufficiently at a point in history, are not predictable.

And,therefore, it seems to me that during those negotiations we constantly see photographs - the world sees photographs of negotiators clinking champagne glasses, meeting, talking, and people can begin to feel that the Soviet leadership doesn't have its goal to influence and effect, and indeed dominate, a major portion of the world. That they're not in Afghanistan, which in fact they are. That they're not engaged in wars of liberation in South America and Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. And I think it's terribly important that we keep in mind those differences so the lulling effect of arms negotiation has to be guarded against so that we recall the importance of those differences in behavior.

Whiteley: As you have reflected on the SALT record, the nearly two decades of strategic arms limitation talks that have gone on, you feel both it's an era of unprecedented military build-up, and it has not been to the United States' advantage. Why?

Rumsfeld: The United States, during that period, the fifteen years of the SALT deliberations, has suffered from a Congress that had been hopeful about the possibility for agreements, and in their misguided way, managed to reduce defense budgets consistently during that period to the detriment of our capability, and second to the advantage of the Soviet Union. And in my judgment, to the detriment of the possibility of achieving agreements, because there's no question but that the Soviets are much more interested in negotiating at that point where they think we have capabilities worth negotiating about. To the extent we're engaged in unilateral self-denial, they're not very interested.

Whiteley: You've indicated we put the cart before the horse. What do you mean?

Rumsfeld: Well, I think that the important thing for the United States of America is to understand the nature of the world, our position in the world, the value we place on freedom and on peace. And then see that our defense investment is calculated to improve our goals of preserving our freedom and enabling us to contribute to peace and stability in the world. I think arms negotiations again have to be looked at totally in the context of to what extent do they contribute to our ability to preserve our freedom, and our ability to contribute to peace and stability in the world. Arms control agreements cannot become a goal in and of themselves. They aren't, just as weapons systems don't have a goal, in and of themselves. They have to be part of the overall context of what we as a people, what our civilization believes in, the values of our civilization, and with full recognition that the Soviet Union represents the most significant threat to our peace, and to our freedom, and to our values.

Whiteley: They do not stop building while they're negotiating. Why have we, historically?

Rumsfeld: It's because their system enables them to proceed without the interaction of the Congress, without the interaction with their publics. These are people who don't hold office as leaders of the Kremlin by the consent of the people. They hold it simply through the authority and the power to repress the people. In the United States, conversely, people are affected by the press, they're affected by educational institutions, they're affected by their hopes and their aspirations. And in a representative system, there's no question but that we from time to time err; the old saying that free people are free to err as well as be wise, and we've made errors. And it seems to me that the important thing for us as a people is to recognize that we've arrived at a point today where, unlike the 1950s and 60s, we don't have a big margin for error. The Soviet power has grown relative to ours. We have a much smaller margin politically, economically, and militarily. And, as a result, it calls on us to exercise foresight and thoughtfulness of a degree that wasn't required in earlier periods.

Whiteley: Your basic view is that arms control progress is going to be modest at best. Why is that?

Rumsfeld: Well, I think what's important for free people is to study history, and to review the record of arms control. I think the realities are that notwithstanding our hopes and our aspirations and our good intentions, arms control throughout history has tended to be a snapshot of weapons systems that existed at the moment, with very modest constraint on future developments. That the general record of arms control has to be characterized as modest. What has contributed to peace in the world since World War II has clearly not been arms control agreements; it has been the deterrent effect that created in the mind of potential aggressors the reality that it was not in their interest to undertake those risks.

Whiteley: But based on your assessment that our deterrent capability has been deteriorating, you opposed the final SALT II Agreement, despite a belief that arms control in general is in the best interest of the United States. What had occurred as events overtook the talks in your view, that caused you to take that position?

Rumsfeld: Well, there were a variety of things that happened really in the Carter Administration's negotiation of that SALT II Agreement. One thing was that they came into office and unilaterally began canceling weapons systems which weakened the Soviet's perception of what our future strength would be. Therefore, the Soviets, in my judgment, felt they were in a much stronger negotiating position. Mr. Carter canceled the B1 Bomber, he delayed the MX missile, he delayed the Trident.

Whiteley: And your point is that you unilaterally do not do those things.

Rumsfeld: To the extent you want to achieve an agreement, one it seems to me, ought not to be behaving in a manner that suggests to the other parties to the agreement that they don't have to agree to anything because they're going to achieve what they want regardless of whether or not they end up in agreements constraining themselves.

Whiteley: As you have struggled with the issue of verifying arms control agreements, is it necessary to trust the Russians?

Rumsfeld: No, it's not only not necessary to trust the Russians, but we would be fools to even think that we could. What one has to do is to assure that arms negotiations take place in an environment where the issue of verification proceeds in parallel with the negotiations. And to the extent we seek agreement on certain elements, they must be elements that are verifiable. And of course there's a significant asymmetry in this regard. The Soviet Union, with a controlled press and controlled access to many locations in their country, is competing with the United States with a totally free press, with a leaky Washington, where everything seems to end up in the newspaper, and where Soviet nationals have access throughout the United States, and we have very few secrets as a country. So what we have to do is, through national technical means, be able to satisfy ourselves that in fact those things constrained in the agreement are being constrained by the Soviets.

Whiteley: With a properly crafted agreement, is that possible?

Rumsfeld: Sure it's possible. You can - the best of course would be on-site inspections, which we would be delighted to engage in because we in effect have that unilaterally now, whereas the Soviet Union denies us on-site inspection. But I think that it is perfectly possible - it's not easy - but it's possible to find areas where we might agree that in fact we would have the ability to verify those agreements.

Whiteley: You've just indicated that one of the factors that influence the United States in arms control agreements is the fact we are an open society.

Rumsfeld: Which is a great strength.

Whiteley: But a second is that we also have a special relationship with our allies, very different than the Soviet Union with its satellites. How does that work?

Rumsfeld: Well, of course, I use to serve right in the center of that set of issues as United States Ambassador to NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and it is a dramatically different set of relationships. The United States leads not by command, but by consent. We lead only to the extent we can persuade these other sovereign nations that moving in a certain direction is in fact in our collective interests. And the reality is that we have great areas of common interest, but by the same token we have areas of somewhat different views, politically, economically, as well as militarily. Conversely, the Soviet Union's satellites have been positioned in a manner where they are highly dependent on the Soviet Union and exceedingly responsive to the Soviet Union. And they don't have to persuade; they can command. They have Soviet troops in many of the nations in satellite countries, the Warsaw Pact countries.

Whiteley: One of your concerns about future negotiations is the unrealistic expectations held by your fellow citizens.

Rumsfeld: I've actually been kind of encouraged in this regard over the past decade and a half. There's no question but that as we've gone through this period, the level of understanding, the level of realism has improved. I mean it was not an accident that President Carter's SALT II Agreement was not ratified by the Senate. The votes weren't there. He negotiated an agreement that in fact was not in the interest of our country; he was not in a position to get the Senate of the United States, which was controlled by his own political party, to agree to it. And that suggests that the reason they weren't willing to agree to it was because the American people, their constituents, in fact, were concerned that it wasn't in our interest.

Whiteley: But we have had three treaties negotiated under several different presidents in the post-World War II era that were signed, were negotiated fully, carefully, not ratified. Is that a problem of our democracy, or was it the problem with the treaties?

Rumsfeld: Well, the significant treaties that have been negotiated in my adult lifetime, have in fact been ratified by the Senate.

Whiteley: As you project ahead to issues that will be before the democracy with the SALT III Treaty whenever it comes before us, the issue of defense in the nuclear age is certain to be an underlying consideration. It has been once since absolutely watershed decisions occurred with the ABM Treaty. What issue should your fellow citizens keep in mind as they reflect on that set of concerns?

Rumsfeld: Well I think the first thing that one has to keep in mind is that we have had nuclear weapons since 1945, and they've never been fired in anger since the close of World War II. And that is an accomplishment of note, and I think it's worthwhile thinking about that, and valuing it, and asking ourselves what are the kinds of things that have happened during that period that have permitted that. With respect to defense, I've never found it possible to separate offense and defense. If one looks at the history of the world and conflict, potential conflict or deterrence that inhibited the outbreak of conflicts, it is the interaction of offensive capabilities and defensive capabilities. And it isn't at one level; it's at all levels across the spectrum. That is to say, at any given time, we face a variety of risks or threats, to use the Pentagon language, nuclear, theater, regional, guerrilla, in the modern era, state-sponsored terrorism. No one offense or defense creates a balance that provides a deterrent at all levels of the spectrum.

In direct answer to your question, it seems to me one of the realities we're facing is that one of the reasons SALT II has proven to be so difficult is the fact that as technology has evolved, we have seen the so-called 'gray area' systems. They didn't neatly fit in the strategic category, and they clearly didn't fit only in the theater category. For example, the 'Backfire bomber' was a question for sometime as to whether it was strategic or whether it was - there was never any doubt in my mind that with a refueling probe it was strategic - but it also had a theater implication. The cruise missiles obviously can be both conventional and nuclear, and they can be strategic, meaning intercontinental, and theater.

Whiteley: As you reflect on the role of conventional forces in the strong non-strategic military preparation, what's its relationship to arms control?

Rumsfeld: Well it's directly linked. Think of Western Europe. To the extent the United States and our NATO allies fail to make the necessary investments for conventional capabilities, we create an enticement to the Soviets to engage in a non-nuclear conventional adventure in Western Europe. Now the problem there is that that creates the risk of the use of nuclear weapons, so we can in fact raise the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons to make it less and less likely, to the extent we're willing to invest in conventional capability. Because by investing in conventional capability we create a more stable situation, a less risky situation, and therefore an environment that is considerably less likely to ever involve nuclear weapons, which would clearly be in our interest.

Whiteley: Should people look to arms control to change the strategic balance?

Rumsfeld: No. It's not likely that arms control - I don't know of a single arms control in history that has altered the balance. An arms control agreement - they tend to be a snapshot of what is. They tend to put constraints on a limited number of things, and that is not to say that that might not be useful; it is only to say that the total balance is a combination of so many factors that it's unlikely that that would occur.

Whiteley: I'd like to close with a theme that's been recurrent in your writings, and that's the notion that peace through strength is a fundamental prism with which one considers arms control agreements What do you mean?

Rumsfeld: Well, I guess the reality is that human nature, being what it seems to be, the world is not a warm safe place. The - I think it was Will Durant's book that talked of some several thousand years of recorded world history, where possibly two or three hundred years out of several thousand, could be characterized as having been peaceful. I think the reality is that we have police forces in our communities because we've come to the conclusion that we value security, we value the ability to move around in our cities without being fearful for our lives. Given the value we place on freedom, given the fact that none of our other goals as human beings are achievable, absent peace and freedom, then clearly the first responsibility of government is to provide for that freedom and peace. And history shows that weakness is provocative. There have not been wars that have occurred because the United States has been too strong; there have been wars that have occurred because nations were sufficiently weak that they provoked others into adventures that they never would have thought, had they thought for a minute, that there would have been a penalty for them doing it.

Whiteley: Mr. Rumsfeld, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the ways to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.