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

Arms Control Is an Unnatural Act

Paul C. Warnke, 1984

Paul C. Warnke is a partner in the law firm of Clifford and Warnke and a former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He was chief U.S. negotiator of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) with the Soviet Union. Today he shares his views on how arms control can contribute to the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Mr. Warnke, at the press conference when you were concluding your service as ambassador to the SALT talks, you indicated that you'd come to the conclusion that arms control is a difficult act; it just does not come naturally. What were you sharing?

Warnke: Well, basically what I meant is that here you have a situation in which two countries who are very, very serious rivals are actually sitting down and trying to agree on steps by which one side will have a certain amount of influence over the strategic arsenal of the other side, allowing your enemy to dictate to some extent what it is that you can do in the way of a strategic nuclear weapons build-up does not come easily. By definition you have two countries that don't like one another that are afraid of one another, but yet at the same time they're trying to reach agreements on the most sensitive part of their entire military arsenal.

Whiteley: You've indicated that the SALT talks are a history of lost opportunities.

Warnke: Yes. What I mean by that is that each side has forfeited opportunities to make major progress because they put other items ahead in terms of priority. I think back at the time that I was in the Defense Department in 1968, and we had spent about a year preparing the initial SALT proposals. The very day in which Mr. Brezhnev in Moscow and President Johnson in Washington were to announce the beginning of the SALT talks, was the day in which the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. Now whatever their concerns may have been about the developments of a different ideology in Czechoslovakia, it certainly was not as important as trying to prevent the destruction of mankind by nuclear weapons.

Whiteley: You indicated our strategic nuclear weapons can serve only one sane purpose, and that's to deter the other side from using theirs.

Warnke: That is correct, and that has been the fundamental problem in trying to reach arms control agreements; we hold conflicting ideas. At one point we will say that we recognize there can be no winners in a nuclear war, but yet at the same time, we build up what is hoped to be a nuclear warfighting capability. Now until we recognize that no one can win a nuclear war, that no one can fight one rationally and successfully, we aren't going to be able to take the steps that are necessary to bring about strategic arms control.

Whiteley: What do you mean when you say that it's essential to the survival of the United States to have a viable arms control policy?

Warnke: Well, the alternative is an unlimited build-up of strategic nuclear weapons. Now that means that as time goes on the weapons on both sides become more vulnerable, because the weapons on the other side become more deadly. Now what that will lead to in time, in the absence of an arms control agreement, is a situation in which each side has to worry about the other side trying a preempted strike. The concept of 'use them before you lose them' will become the dominant theme in strategic nuclear policy. So at a time of crisis the question is going to be which side will panic first, and that's the way that the nuclear exchange would start.

Whiteley: In indicating that the Russians already have between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons, each of which would totally destroy New York City, you've indicated that it's simply not possible in any rational way to win the arms race, that it's not possible to outspend the Soviets and end up more secure.

Warnke: I believe that to be true. Regrettably the dominant idea in the Reagan Administration has been that we could somehow out-compete the Soviets, that because of our superior technology and superior resources, if we face them with an arms race, they'd give us arms control by default. Well, I know of no serious student of the Soviet Union that believes that. They recognize that the Soviet leaders can do whatever is necessary to match any strategic build-up in which we engage, and as a consequence, either both sides will build up or both sides will reduce. There's no chance that we can build up and scare them into reducing.

Whiteley: You've commented, based on your experience as ambassador to the SALT talks, your service in the Department of Defense, that the Soviets have shown in recent years a willingness to compromise some long-held positions in return for proper adjustments by the United States. What evidence is there for that?

Warnke: The evidence is that the Soviet Union has made all of the major concessions in the strategic arms talks, and in the comprehensive test ban talks. Now I think there are probably three reasons for that. For one thing they are more worried than we are. They are more familiar with the hardships of war. In the United States we haven't seen hostilities on this continent since the Civil War. Now admittedly, the loss of human life was massive, but in terms of the destruction of civilization, the Soviet Union and the Western Europeans have seen what can happen even with conventional war. That's one reason that they are more willing than we are to make concessions. A second reason, I think, is political. That they recognize that enough is enough, and they aren't faced with the political process that exists here in the United States. Now granted, that's our great strength, but nonetheless it does interfere with international agreements with an adversary. The Supreme Soviet is not going to veto any sort of agreement that the Soviet leadership reaches. The U.S. Senate can. In addition to that we have a free press and a lot of critical comment, so public opinion enters into it, too. So that the fact that the American public hates and fears the Russians interferes with our ability to make concessions. The Soviet Union does not have those constraints.

Whiteley: What thoughts have you come up with about how to get a better opportunity for having ratified sensible agreements that are entered into by various presidents of the United States. As you know we've had at least three treaties negotiated by three different presidents that have not been ratified, and we do not have a consistent policy toward arms control.

Warnke: Yes. I would say that there are a couple of things that could be done. One of them is to try and get the entire question of arms control out of the political polarized debate. There is no reason why it should be a partisan political subject. After all, the SALT talks started under Richard Nixon, and the SALT II Treaty and agreement were completed in 1972 under Richard Nixon. SALT II was negotiated under three presidents over a period of seven years. It never should have become a political football. I think that what is most important is informed public consideration of the issues. Regrettably, there's been an awful lot of misinformation, a lot of talk about the fact that the United States is weak in negotiations, gets out-traded, a lot of talk about the fact that we're behind in the nuclear arms race, none of which has any basis in fact. But I think what's important is for the American public to become informed, and this is happening.

Whiteley: You've made several strong statements on the role of verification, a variation of which is 'can you trust the Russians?' The basic thrust of your remarks is that verification, an important issue several decades ago, is not an issue in the world today. Why is that?

Warnke: It is because of the fact that arms control agreements are so designed as to be verifiable. At first, let's consider what is verifiability, what is verification. It's being sure that the other side can't cheat in a fashion that is going to put you in a military or political disadvantage. Now all of the agreements that have been negotiated have been negotiated in a fashion that permits us to have more than the adequate degree of verification. If anything, we can over-verify. We have immense capability in the form of photo-reconnaissance satellites, other types of devices that can intercept communications. The Soviet Union has the same thing. As far as SALT is concerned we count things that are readily observable, and we would know if the Soviets cheated to any significant extent.

Whiteley: Are there some weapons systems that are harder to verify than others?

Warnke: Yes, there's no question about it. One of the real problems was the development of MIRVs (the Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles) because now it means that if you look at a missile silo you can't be sure whether that silo contains one warhead on a missile, or maybe ten. So as a consequence, if that missile is of the type that's ever been tested with ten warheads, we have to assume that every missile of that type contains ten warheads. Now this means that you can't get as drastic reductions as you would have been able to get if we knew that one missile had only one warhead. The same is true of cruise missiles. They will be more difficult to verify because of their relatively small size, particularly ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles. I've said, for example, that now when we look off the Massachusetts coast, and see a Russian fishing boat, we can assume it's loaded with codfish. If we go ahead with the development of cruise missiles of a sea-launch type, you won't be able to tell whether it's codfish or cruise missiles, and whether that's a fishing trawler, or a strategic nuclear delivery vehicle.

Whiteley: This gets to the further issue of on-site inspections. A legacy of Russian history, for a variety of reasons, is a strong view of the sanctity of their borders, and they're the most closed of the industrialized societies in the world. What changes have occurred in how they think about on-site verification?

Warnke: Well I think first of all, you have to recognize that on-site inspection is useful for some types of agreements, but not for others. In the SALT II Treaty we didn't try for on-site inspection because it would have done us no good. Instead, we had to have counting rules which assume the worst, because what would you verify? You'd go to a missile site, you'd look inside the silo; you'd say, yep, I recognize that, that's an SS19. Now what happens when you leave, what happens under cover of darkness, or if there's cloud coverage? Would you know 48 hours from now, with a sufficient degree of certainty, that that still contained that particular missile rather than something else? So on-site inspection would not be as useful as our counting rules, and our national means of verification, for something like the SALT II Treaty.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was one in which on-site inspection was very important because you wanted to have the ability to determine whether what's referred to as a seismic disturbance is an earthquake, or an underground nuclear explosion. Now under those circumstances you'd know where to go, you'd be able to pinpoint the location, you could send a team armed with equipment that would enable them to tell whether there was any radioactivity, or other indications of an underground nuclear explosion. And the Soviet Union agreed to on-site inspection in the course of the comprehensive test ban talks. We talked about cruise missiles. If we are to have limits on cruise missiles, it seems to me that some kind of on-site inspection of at least a challenge variety is going to become important.

Whiteley: What's a 'challenge variety?'

Warnke: That you can demand the opportunity to come and look at a particular thing or a particular situation, and the other side, if it rejects it, then is in effect repudiating the agreement.

Whiteley: It has been over a decade since we had a ratified agreement. Is any of this inspection possible in the absence of a ratified agreement?

Warnke: I doubt it. I don't think that the Soviet Union is going to be able to bring itself to accept the intrusiveness of an on-site inspection on an informal basis.

Whiteley: What in your view affects most fundamentally whether or not a treaty is ratified.

Warnke: I would say it depends upon the political strength of the President of the United States. If you look back at 1972, at the time that the ABM Treaty was ratified, and the interim agreement on controlling offensive arms was accepted by both the House and the Senate, that was the absolute peak of Richard Nixon's political power. He had mined Hai Phong and bombed Hanoi in April of 1972; in May, he was accepted in the Soviet Union where Mr. Brezhnev agreed to both treaties. It demonstrated his political control. This was when Watergate was just a little-known apartment-hotel complex in Washington.

Whiteley: So presidential power is one issue.

Warnke: It's one big issue.

Whiteley: What are the others?

Warnke: The other, I think, is information, so that those who instinctively reject an arms control treaty aren't able to demagogue the issue, and confuse the public. If the public is informed, then I think that they will recognize that they can see to it that their representatives go along with what they want. Now regrettably, until recently, the American public has not been that informed. And so as a consequence, being for arms control has not been a political plus.

Whiteley: So for you a central issue for our democracy is arms control.

Warnke: It is. It certainly is.

Whiteley: What effect has the climate of Soviet-American relations had on whether or not agreements are ratified?

Warnke: It has a very, very significant impact as has been demonstrated by past events. I mentioned earlier the fact that the beginning of the SALT talks was stalled for a full year from 1968 to 1969, following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. There's no question in my mind that we could have completed a SALT II Treaty no later than the middle of 1978 if it had not been for American concern about Russians and Cubans in Africa. And I think that certainly the SALT II Treaty would have been ratified eventually had it not been for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Now these are events which obviously affect the climate, I think also on our side. The decision to normalize relations with the People's Republic of China, and have a visit from Deng Xiaoping, at the beginning of 1979 unquestionably slowed up the completion of the SALT II Agreement. So that these are events that do affect the overall climate and negotiations are more difficult when there's a very severe chill in U.S.-Soviet relations. We keep saying that we aren't linking the arms control agreements to anything else, but nonetheless, it does in fact impact on our willingness to make the necessary readjustments in our position, and the same is true of the Soviets.

Whiteley: It's ironic, however, that both countries would be safer with arms control treaties signed and ratified, rather than deferred over other reasons.

Warnke: Certainly that's the case. The very fact that there are these recurrent crises in U.S.-Soviet relations, is the primary reason why nuclear arms control is vital. What we want to do is to eliminate the chance that in a time of extreme crisis the use of nuclear arms begins to be considered. If we were friends, if we got along well, if the Soviet Union's international behavior was always what we wanted it to be, we wouldn't have to worry about nuclear arms and nuclear arms control. It's the very fact that we are rivals that makes it a matter of transcendent importance that we see to it that this rivalry isn't translated into mutual destruction.

Whiteley: Given the stakes in keeping that probably irreconcilable set of differences from ever leading to fully normalized relations with the Soviet Union, and given the central role, in your view, of arms control in promoting the national security of the United States, what can we do as a country to participate in cutting down the time it takes to negotiate treaties? I mean given the numerous issues out there where technology is essentially fast outrunning our ability to negotiate agreements about it, and in the absence of treaties there's not been restraint on both sides, what thoughts do you have on how our society can act to make this a more functional process?

Warnke: I'm afraid I have only one answer. In a democratic society the only institution that does affect the policy of our leaders is the ballot box. And I think if the American public regards this as being a tremendously important issue, then we have to make it an issue of political life or death. We have to see to it that those who are reasonable and rational on the subject of arms control get into office and stay in office, and that those who apparently are reckless with regard to the growing nuclear danger, receive very early retirement.

Whiteley: What options do we have as a country for preserving the national security while taking unilateral action to lower the risks of nuclear war?

Warnke: There are distinct limits on the extent to which you can take unilateral action. Even if militarily you could do so, and I think you could, politically it would be tremendously unpalatable. At a minimum, the opponents would say you're giving away things that you ought to bargain away. Now in my opinion bilateral agreement is within our reach, and as a consequence, I don't think we have to resort to unilateral action with all of the political penalties that that entails. I think if we are serious about negotiating restrictions, we will be able to negotiate those restrictions on a mutual bilateral basis.

Whiteley: Do you see a viable role, in a world that's characterized by a system of international anarchy, for some multilateral world organization to have an effective role, either current organizations or ones constructed to deal with this problem?

Warnke: Yes, I think that there is a role for a multilateral organization; as a matter of fact we have one. We have the Committee on Disarmament that meets regularly in Geneva. And I don't think we've paid enough attention to that or that we've used it as effectively as we could. Now we have to recognize that to some extent it's a bilateral problem. We could not substitute multinational negotiations for bilateral U.S.-Soviet negotiations.

Whiteley: So your view is political rivalry rather than some mad technological momentum that's really fueling the arms race, and therefore bilateral actions can contain it?

Warnke: I have no doubt that bilateral actions can contain it. We have to recognize that to some extent it has worked in the past. We did put an end to atmospheric testing more than twenty years ago. We did put an end to the addition of additional warheads on the large Soviet missiles, a major concession on the part of the Soviets. Otherwise they'd probably have twice as many warheads today as they had. We have demonstrated that it can be done if we have the wit and the will to do it.

Whiteley: Would the world have been safer if we'd had a treaty against the Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles?

Warnke: Oh there's no question that if we had agreed back in 1968 and 1969 to ban MIRVs we'd have a much safer world today. The so-called 'window of vulnerability' exists even in theory, only because of the fact that one missile with several warheads theoretically can destroy several missiles on the other side, so that it does give a premium to the side that strikes first. Now if you had one warhead per missile, it's figured that it takes two warheads to destroy a hardened missile silo - two warheads at a minimum. So that means that the attacker would have to use up two missiles to have any chance of destroying one missile on the other side, if it were not for MIRVs. So that this technological marvel in which we had a several years lead, has succeeded in reducing our own national security, and increasing the risk of nuclear war.

Whiteley: There are a number of issues before the public that in one variation or another will be before the public for sometime to come. I'd like to present them to you, and ask if you think arms control treaties are a viable way for addressing those issues. The first is anti-satellite weapons.

Warnke: Certainly at this point a ban on anti-satellite weapons would be verifiable, and would be very much in the interest of the United States. We proposed that back in 1977; we began those negotiations in 1978. We never should have abandoned them.

Whiteley: What about constraining further first-strike weapons?

Warnke: Well that could be done too. In my opinion, if we were to propose that we would give up the MX if the Soviet Union would give up the SSX 24, they would accept that. The SSX 24 will have ten warheads much more accurate than anything they have at the present time, and therefore much more of a first-strike system. We could trade off any new ICBM for a similar constraint on the Soviet Union.

Whiteley: So in your view some weapons systems are viable bargaining chips.

Warnke: Oh, certainly. The only reason that the other side is willing to bargain is because they know that you can do something they don't want you to do. You have to have something to give up, as Andrei Sakharov put it in his article in Foreign Affairs.

Whiteley: Is defense possible in the nuclear age?

Warnke: There is no known technology, and no foreseeable technology, that would give us any degree of defense against a Soviet nuclear attack. The offense can still overwhelm the defense. So if we put up a defense, all that would do would be to stimulate the Soviet Union into further increases in its offensive nuclear strength.

Whiteley: What is your advice on the planning and research on an anti-ballistic missile system?

Warnke: We have to abide by the ABM Treaty. Now that permits us to conduct advanced research, and I think we ought to do that because you never know what may in time turn out to be possible, and we shouldn't take the chance that there is some sort of a technological surprise that all of a sudden might put the Soviet Union in a position in which they would have some sort of a genuine edge. But that doesn't mean that we ought to go ahead and deploy ineffective and useless kinds of systems, and that's all we can do at the present time. Any system we could deploy would do nothing actually to protect the United States. The Soviet Union could come up with additional warheads, dummy warheads, chaff, systems that could destroy our ballistic missile defenses in space. Instead of that, what we ought to do is to recognize that there is nothing that can be gained by engaging in a nuclear competition in space. At a minimum it will cost us billions and billions of dollars, but what is more likely is it will diminish the security of the United States.

Whiteley: Mr. Warnke, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the role that arms control can have in the security of the United States, and the constraint of nuclear weapons.