The New Abnormal - Talking points by Dr. William Perry at the conference of the Luxembourg Forum in Rome. June 4, 2019

The New Abnormal

Earlier this year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists made their annual determination on the danger of a nuclear conflict.

As you probably know, they quantify that danger by setting a clock, where midnight represents a nuclear conflict that could end our civilization.

They estimate how close we are to that catastrophe and set the clock accordingly.

This year they set the clock at 2 minutes to midnight; closer to catastrophe than any year of the CW except 1954, one of the darkest years of the CW, when it was set at the same level.

But this year was the second year in a row at that level.

Rachel Bronson, president of BAS, said this reflected the new abnormal in which we are now living.

In one sense it is normal, since Americans and Russians seem to have accepted it.

But in a more important sense, it is abnormalsince it reflects such a dangerous condition.

How has the world gotten to this state of mind?How could we consider such a grim warning as normal?

That is what I will be talking about today.

And I will start by discussing the new abnormal for ARMS CONTROL TREATIES

From 1969 to 2016, almost 50 years, every administration in Washington or Moscow sought to limit the cost and the danger of the nuclear arms race through bilateral treaties.

And this resulted in a series of treaties from SALT in 1972 to New START in 2016.

In the US these treaties were pursued by Republican and Democratic administrations.

Both parties considered it normaland wise to seek to control nuclear weapons through bilateral treaties.

But there has been a dramatic change in how treaties are considered in the US.

For the Trump administration the new normal is to not negotiate any new treaties and systematically withdraw from the treaties that existed when they took office.

And, in the last two years, they have been remarkably successful in this wrecking operation.

The most significant action has been their decision to withdraw from the INF treaty.

It is noteworthy that the prime mover behind this withdrawal has been John Bolton, who was also the prime mover behind the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, almost 20 years ago.

The ABM treaty was a treaty of fundamental importance in that made it possible to limit the numbers of ICBMs, and it is now gone.

The INF treaty was probably the most significant arms control treaty ever negotiated, in that it eliminated a whole class of missiles, the intermediate range missiles, thereby removing a dangerous threat to all of Europe, including European Russia.

And it appears that the Trump administration intends to let New START expire in 2020, rather than extend it, or negotiate a follow on treaty.

If that happens, there will be, for the first time in almost fifty years, no agreed limit on nuclear weapons;

and there will be no bilateral talks underway on how to limit nuclear dangers.

This has become the new normalfor arms control treaties, which I call the new abnormal, and it has happened in just two years.

I don’t mean to blame only President Trump for this unhappy state; I believe the actions of President Putin have contributed significantly, especially concerning the INF Treaty.

This new abnormal is also happening in another major field:MINISTER-TO MINISTER DIALOG on nuclear issues.

For many decades of geopolitical disagreements between Washington and Moscow, those disagreements have been the subject of intense bilateral talks between our ministers of foreign affairs and defense.

That was the normal way our two countries worked to manage the existential dangers of nuclear weapons.

The talks were not always successful, but they were always conducted with the understanding that nuclear dangers could be so consequential that we could not let the geopolitical disagreements between our two countries erupt into military conflict.

The new abnormal is to not have a regular dialogue to deal with geopolitical disagreements.

Trump and Putin have had two summits, with no public understanding about what they discussed or the extent to which it might have covered nuclear issues;

but there has been no systemic engagement of our Foreign Ministers or Defense Ministers on nuclear issues.

To put this in perspective, by the time I had been Defense Secretary for 2 years I had met with the Defense Minister of Russia five times, and during those meetings we had reached agreements on matters of great significance.

We agreed on a course of action to dismantle 8,000 nuclear weapons in 3 former Soviet republics.

And we agreed on a plan by which US and Russian troops would operate together in Bosnia.

An important byproduct of this dialog is that we reached a level of understanding and trust so that if any new security issue arose, we could discuss it one on one to resolve it before it got out of hand.

And our meetings at the ministerial level were accompanied by robust meetings at the sub-ministerial level.

This I considered to be a normal and appropriate way of dealing with national security issues between our two countries.

But that normal way of dealing with security issues has been replaced with a new abnormalthat does not include these important bilateral meetings at the minister or sub-minister levels.

And yet, strangely to me, there is almost no attention to the fact that this dialog is not happening.

The normal we had established of a close working relationship between ministers led to a good understanding between them, so that when geopolitical issues arose, the ministers could discuss them from a position of mutual trust, allowing them to iron out those issues before they became a problem.

Thus it was unlikely that a misunderstanding could lead to a miscalculation that could lead to an unwanted conflict.

That was the new normal we developed when the Cold War ended.

It was of critical importance to our two countries, because it gave us an opportunity to work out misunderstandings before they resulted in a political miscalculation that could lead to a dangerous military response.

Today we have the new abnormalof no meaningful communications, and therefore no trust or understanding that could lead to a resolution of misunderstandings before they lead to political miscalculations.

This increases the danger of a military conflict arising from a political miscalculation.

I am convinced that the only way our two countries could have a military conflict is through a political calculation; that is, through a blunder.

But history is replete with military conflicts arising from blunders.

And today a blunder that results in a military conflict runs the risk of having that conflict escalate to a nuclear conflict.

So the new abnormal of no trust or understanding at the defense minister and foreign minister levels could be an important contributive factor to some future catastrophe.

In the absence of meaningful official dialog on nuclear issues we would expect that gap to be filled with unofficial or Track 2 dialog, as it was for many years during the Cold War.

For example, Alexei’s father, Georgiy Arbotov, led an institute set up to promote such unofficial dialog, and I was a bit player in many such dialogs during the Cold War.

It was my judgment then and now that those Track 2 dialogs played an important role in keeping our two countries from blundering into a nuclear war.

But today, inexplicably, we are seeing a major reduction in TRACK 2 DIALOG.

During the Cold War, and the first two decades after the Cold War, it was normal to have a robust program of Track 2 unofficial meetings between the US and the SU.

It is noteworthy that the leading scientists of our two countries played a leading role in these dialogs.

I myself was deeply engaged in several different Track 2 dialogs with my counterparts from the Soviet Union, and that is also true of others at this meeting.

We had no official function, but we did have close rapport with the officials in our government, and we were often able in Track 2 to work through a problem without the encumbrance of having to support an official position;

then carry the solution we arrived at to our government counterparts, to everyone’s benefit.

That was sometimes very helpful, and it was normal and accepted.

The new abnormal is to not have Track 2 meetings, perhaps because people fear that their government will consider that people who attend such meetings are somehow disloyal.

As a consequence, the Lux Forum is the only remaining Track 2 of significance that holds consistent meetings to consider ways of avoiding nuclear conflict.

For that reason, this Forum is of unique importance, and we should all feel a responsibility to support it, and give thoughtful and well-informed advice to our two governments.

But, there is something new on the scene--- a spontaneously organized youth organization that has been conducting unconventional Track 2 discussions the past few years.

It is called SURF, which stands for Stanford University Russian Forum, and it brings together students from Russian colleges and American colleges.

They meet twice a year; once at Stanford, and once in Russia.This year their US meeting will be held in conjunction with the Fort Ross Conservancy, which has been meeting for many years to commemorate and support Russia’s historical interest in Fort Ross, California.

Fort Ross is a Russian base built to support Russian settlers in Northern California.

It was built, of course, before the Czar sold Alaska and Northern California to the United States, but it is preserved as an historical monument by a private non-profit foundation, the Fort Ross Conservancy, which holds annual meetings attended by Russians and Americans alike.

This year SURF is going to conduct their annual meeting in conjunction with the Fort Ross Conservancy, and will add to their historical agenda a Track 2 dialog on nuclear issues.

The meeting will be co-chaired by the former governor of California, Jerry Brown and the current governor of Tyumen, Governor xxxxx.

In sum, SURF is deviating from the new abnormal in Track 2.

They are trying to start up a new Track 2 dialog devoted to lowering nuclear dangers between our two countries.

It will be interesting to see if this new youthful dialog can develop into a significant voice in reducing nuclear dangers.

The participants in this new dialog are not deterred by how their governments might feel about Track 2 activities.

The students are too young to care about such concerns;

Gov. Brown and I are too old to care about such concerns.

We are hoping that we will get a strong attendance at this meeting of influential Russians and Americans who also are able to rise above such concerns, but who are still influential.

In sum, there is definitely a new abnormal in how our two countries deal with nuclear dangers,

And we should wonder what is causing it.

To some extent, it can be laid at the feet of our two leaders, and the strange and opaque relationship they have developed.

But at a more fundamental level, it is attributable to the mindsets of many Russians and many Americans, who formerly participated in a robust bilateral dialog, but have chosen to not participate today.

That is, they have chosen to accept the new abnormal as normal; even appropriate.

I do not; and I hope most of you do not.

We need to get back to the mindset and the constructive dialog characteristic of the early Track 2 meetings.

In the meantime we should be thankful that there has been a notable exception to the new abnormal.

The Lux Forum has for twelve years continued unabated a meaningful Track 2 dialog on nuclear issues.

We should thank God that the Lux Forum exists, and for Dr. Kantor, who founded and has steadfastly supported the Forum these past twelve years.