Unrest in Ukraine and the threat of biological terror were on the minds of former U.S. Senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn in February, when they reunited at the University of Indianapolis to discuss their disarmament legacy and the continuing dangers facing today’s world. The authors of the landmark Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, credited with eliminating thousands of nuclear weapons and weapons facilities in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, visited campus February 25 for “Diplomacy in a Dangerous World,” a public conversation presented by UIndy in partnership with WFYI Public Media. After taking the stage at Ransburg Auditorium to a standing ovation, the two statesmen made national news and displayed their casual mastery of international affairs in an hour-long conversation with moderator Steve Inskeep (left), co-host of NPR’s popular Morning Edition news show. The discussion was webcast live from the UIndy and WFYI websites, and it made its broadcast debut later that week on WFYI 1 Public Television and WFYI-FM 90.1.
The deepening crisis in Ukraine was in the news that week, and both guests expressed relief that the former Soviet nation no longer possessed the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, as it had before their historic Nunn-Lugar legislation became law in 1992. On the other hand, the looming collapse of Ukraine’s political and economic systems still posed a serious concern for the international community. “Somehow in this we’ve got to create a win-win situation; Russia sees this is a win-lose situation,” Nunn said. “We’re going to see in the next few months whether we’re going to have this as a source of tension for decades to come.”
Asked by Inskeep to review the history, Nunn and Lugar recalled the waning days of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, when Soviet officials visited them in Washington and expressed concern about deteriorating conditions at weapons sites in Russia and its neighboring republics. “They were giving us the word: things were breaking apart, thing were getting worse,” recalled Lugar, now a distinguished professor at UIndy and namesake of its Richard G. Lugar Academy. “This is a very rough translation of what they said, in essence: ‘You Americans must know that security is breaking down around the nuclear weapons that are aimed at you,’ … In essence, Sam and I said, ‘What do you want?’ and they said, ‘We’re going to need a lot of your money, and second, we’re going to need your personnel experts who know how to bring about security.’”
Thus Nunn, a Democrat, and Lugar, a Republican, worked across the aisle to persuade congressional leaders that neutralizing this threat was well worth the effort and expense, despite initial resistance toward providing any aid to former Cold War adversaries. “Dick Lugar was so respected, the two of us worked together, and that’s how Nunn-Lugar came about,” Nunn said, gesturing toward Lugar. “This man is a remarkable leader, so I give him huge credit.” One means of persuading their colleagues was to take them along on trips to former Soviet nations, where inside weapons facilities they saw posted photos of the U.S. cities targeted by nuclear missiles. “We all got religion together,” Lugar said. “We could have been obliterated.”
Asked by Inskeep what scares them most in today’s world, neither Nunn nor Lugar pointed to a specific nation, but instead to the unconventional threats faced by all nations, such as biological agents that could be deployed by a terrorist group even without support from an established state.“We have weapons of mass destruction that can be produced by people with a little bit of knowledge and not a lot of money,” Lugar noted, also pointing to computer-based information attacks that can be launched by “a 17-year-old kid sitting in a basement somewhere.” As a result, he said, the nations of the world have more incentive than ever to work together in making the world a safer place.
“We can’t solve the North Korea problem without working with China, we can’t solve the Iranian problem without Iran, and we can’t solve the Ukrainian problem without Russia,” Lugar said. “We are indeed in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.” Each speaker, however, tempered his warnings with optimism. “In this whole area, there’s so much to be concerned about,” Nunn said, “occasionally we have to look on the bright side of these things.” He pointed out that an agreement with Russia, stemming from their Nunn-Lugar initiative, had allowed the United States to purchase stockpiles of uranium enriched for weapons use and instead use the material as fuel in U.S. nuclear power plants. “So 10 percent of all the electricity in the United States for the last 20 years has come from weapons material that was aimed at us during the Cold War,” Nunn said. “I consider that a parable of hope, when you’ve got all the other problems that we sometimes wring our hands about.”