Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has been traveling the world — Europe, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia — with an urgent message: Unless world leaders begin to dismantle their nuclear arsenals, sooner or later humanity is going to blunder into a massive, intercontinental, nuclear catastrophe.
Now he is coming to Sonoma County — to Petaluma — to talk about what can be done about it.
At 90, Perry has the energy and drive of a person half his age. He is now spending the rest of whatever time he has left warning the world about the existential danger of nuclear weapons. In his recent book, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” he explains: “I do this because … having helped to create our Cold War nuclear forces, I understand what it will take to dismantle them, and I believe that I have a special responsibility to do so.”
That responsibility involves exposing much of the conventional wisdom about nuclear policy during the Cold War to closer scrutiny. In those years, “The world avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management,” he writes.
The current administration’s belief that more, and more dangerous, nuclear weapons enhances our country’s “security” is an example of “primordial thinking,” as Perry sees it. On the contrary, the larger the nuclear arsenal, and the greater destructive potential built into it, the greater the chances of mechanical glitches, miscalculations and launch accidents.
As Perry’s collegue and nuclear expert Scott Sagan put it: “Nuclear weapons are the most complex systems known to man. Catastrophic accidents increase with technical complexity.”
Greatly compounding that complexity is the density of factors integral to the command and control effort in managing a nuclear breakout — once set in motion.
In short, technological advances in nuclear weaponry have outpaced humanity’s ability to manage them. It thereby follows, with Perry’s kind of distilled rationality, that a worldwide dismantlement (and disincentive) project is the most logical path out of this dilemma.
For his critics who argue that it’s too late for all this (e.g. “The genie is out of the bottle,” or “No country is going to give up its nuclear arsenals”), Perry is not one to be trifled with over the logistics or political conditioning involved in the task.
His personal involvement in the mutual dismantling of U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals following the Cold War — an operation that initiated the reduction of their combined 70,000 nuclear stockpiles to today’s 13,000 — is testament to his pragmatic vision. The joint diplomatic efforts on both sides to greatly lower their nuclear stockpiles — along with treaties that put a stop to the arms race — left the world a little safer for the following two decades.
This is why Perry has taken exception to the emerging new cold war with Russia. Arms races, by their very nature, invite challenge and blow back. A classic case in point is Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of new technologies designed to evade the missile “shields” deployed by NATO throughout Russia’s circumference.
Perry was among the early critics of the Reagan administration’s similar missile shield project (the Strategic Defense Initiative), not only because countless scientists questioned the plan’s feasibility but also because, as Perry put it then, “The Soviets would certainly mount programs to counter it.” The déjà vu in Putin’s latest salvo is in the self-fulfilling prophecy arena of all arms races.