Addressing nuclear threats depends on diplomacy, international engagement

Indiana University's America's Role in the World conference brought together politicians, diplomats and scholars to discuss the world's greatest foreign policy challenges.

To ensure stability, prosperity and peace amid the threat of nuclear weapons, the United States needs strong leadership, diplomacy and international cooperation, according to diplomats and politicians who recently came together at Indiana University to address the world's most pressing foreign policy challenges.

National security was a focus of great concern at IU's fourth annual America's Role in the World conference, a two-day event hosted by the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

"The risk of nuclear weapon use is higher than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis," Ernest J. Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy and chief executive officer and co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told the audience gathered for his address at the Global and International Studies Building. "The conditions that could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation are growing."

Ernest MonizView print quality image
Ernest J. Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy and chief executive officer and co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, delivered the keynote address at the fourth annual America's Role in the World conference. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

In his talk, Moniz described the need to effectively manage the potential risks posed by nuclear weapons and focused on the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

"The reality is, there is no political space right now for anybody who wants to carry on a constructive discussion with Russia to do so," he said. "Our president currently does not have the confidence of either political party in dealing with Russia."

Moniz emphasized the role of treaties developed through diplomatic engagement as a means to maintain security despite nations' possession of nuclear weapons.

"There is a lot of concern that we are seeing before our eyes the crumbling of the remainder of the arms control structures, the edifice that's been put in place, hard won over many decades," he said.

Among the diplomats and politicians who have worked to develop such structures are former Sen. Richard G. Lugar and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, who attended Moniz's talk and gave their perspective on similar issues earlier in the conference.

"Congressman Hamilton and Sen. Lugar are part of a long lineage of outward-facing, forward-looking voices from the American heartland who have confidently supported the idea that our country is better off, and the world is safer and more just, when the United States engages with the world on the basis of pragmatism and principle," said Lee Feinstein, founding dean of the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, when he opened the conference.

Hamilton, a leading figure on foreign policy, intelligence and national security, served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission and co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. Until recently, he served as co-chair of the U.S. Department of Energy's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future with Gen. Brent Scowcroft and as a member of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board and Homeland Security Advisory Board.

During his six terms in the Senate, Lugar forged a bipartisan partnership with then-Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn to destroy weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union. To date, the Nunn-Lugar program has deactivated more than 7,600 nuclear warheads that were once aimed at the United States.

Rep. Lee Hamilton and Sen. Richard Lugar speak from a stageView print quality image
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former Sen. Richard Lugar take questions from the audience during their talk about national security challenges. Photo by Anna Powell Teeter

While fielding questions from the audience at the close of the first day of the conference, Hamilton and Lugar offered their perspectives on U.S. relations with Russia and North Korea and emphasized the importance of strong diplomacy and global alliances to keep the nation secure.

"Peace and prosperity depend on engagement with the world," Hamilton said.

Although Hamilton admitted he has been critical of President Donald Trump, he said he hopes Trump will be able to effectively engage North Korea to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons in the region.

"I have problems with Trump, but I do not want him to fail," he said. "I want him to end his presidency with success."

Lugar wasn't optimistic that the current administration in the White House has a strategic plan.

"Our administration is just beginning to get underway with North Korea and arms control," Lugar said. "We're a long distance from getting rid of North Korean weapons."

It's uncertain if the U.S. will be able to reach an official agreement with North Korea, and in the meantime, Lugar, Hamilton and Moniz commented on the importance of maintaining treaties that are already in place, particularly with Russia.

Lugar drew on his personal experience with diplomacy, pointing out that treaties like the New START treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement between the U.S. and Russia that is set to expire in 2021, are "really hard to come by."

In his remarks, Moniz cautioned that failure to extend the New START treaty "would be the end of decades and decades of having some verifiable limits on our nuclear weapons situations."

If advising the president, Moniz said, he would suggest triggering a five-year extension for New START.

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Although Moniz expressed skepticism about the likelihood of a New START extension, he did offer a small "glimmer of hope."

"With the change in leadership in the House, we have opened up the aperture for bringing a conversation into context," he said.

Moniz is hopeful that the 2018 election has placed more officials in the House of Representatives who will recognize the importance of managing the risks posed by countries armed with nuclear weapons.

He encouraged those in attendance to work to make the nuclear threat a voting issue in the 2020 election.

"We need to elevate this, and certainly here at the Hamilton Lugar School, it's a great place to start," Moniz said.