Lessons from Max

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Max Kampelman, who passed away on January 25th, was a man of many talents, accomplishments, and distinctions.  His service to the United States was lengthy, varied, and sometimes controversial, but his contributions to reducing nuclear dangers are undeniable.  He was a voice of reason and a skilled negotiator and bureaucratic operator during the Reagan years, blunting more strident voices advising the president.  His official legacy included key arms control negotiations during those tension-filled years of the renewed Cold War, but his lasting legacy may well be the rebirth of the nuclear disarmament movement during the past decade.  Max worked behind the scenes to inspire the “Four Horsemen” of Kissinger, Nunn, Perry, and Shultz, whose articles and meetings with world leaders gave legitimacy to the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons among governments officials and politicians.  And he was an early backer of “Global Zero,” a world-wide movement working for world-wide nuclear disarmament. 

Max was an old-style Washington hand.  He believed firmly in the adage that you could accomplish much in Washington by remaining in the background and giving others the public credit.  He believed just as strongly in bi-partisanship.  His obituary in the Washington Post noted that in 1984 he served “simultaneously [as] a foreign policy advisor … to Walter Mondale and a legal counsel to Edwin Meese III,” soon to become President Reagan’s attorney general.  When an idea for advancing policy struck him, he was indefatigable in its pursuit, exploring every avenue for its implementation, every opportunity to bring it to the attention of policy makers, twisting and turning it to find the best means of making it attractive to those in power.  It was this relentlessness which permitted him to persuade Soviet leaders to release hundreds of dissidents during the most difficult days of the renewed Cold War, and it was this same determination with which he pursued nuclear disarmament during his final years. 

The Obama Administration could learn much from Max Kampelman.  The President took our breath away in April 2009 when he announced in Prague that he would seek, “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”  Progress toward that goal has stalled since ratification of the New START treaty at the end of 2010, however.  Some obstacles are international: Proliferation issues with North Korea and Iran, troubled relations with Russia.  But others are domestic and political; the New START debate seems to have seared the President so badly that he’s forgotten how to say the word, “nuclear,” unless it’s coupled with a threat to Iran.  “Nuclear” wasn’t mentioned in the recent inaugural address, for example, and a study intended to implement the Administration’s greatly improved nuclear posture, which was decided in 2009, has been shelved for political reasons for nearly two years.

It’s time to relook at these issues.  Perhaps it’s time for a fresh approach to each.  The Administration, with a new national security team, should re-examine the obstacles to nuclear progress and consider alternative approaches.  We’ve pursued the same tracks with Iran and North Korea for way too long, with little or no progress to show for the effort.  And, certainly, Russia has much to lose from encouraging a new military competition with the US; that’s what broke the USSR after all.  Surely, we can consider changes in the policies that strain relations and begin a quiet dialogue outside formal negotiations that might put things back on track. 

As for US politics, it is evident that the President has much on his plate.  Fortunately, nuclear policies are not hot-button issues except among a tiny minority.  Most Americans support the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons and negotiating verifiable treaties that make progress toward that goal.  Financial and budgetary issues, deficits, immigration, climate change, gun control — these are politically charged.  But nuclear questions are not.  By beginning a quiet dialogue with Republican leaders on the issues, the Administration could resume progress toward the moderate and realistic mid-term goals it envisioned on the long road to zero without political jeopardy. 

When I last lunched with Max, we discussed Global Zero’s 20-year plan to eliminate nuclear weapons.  “Too long,” he argued, “I’m already over 90 and I want to see my grandchildren safe.”  I’m nearly 70; too late for me also.  But nuclear weapons can be eliminated in President Obama’s lifetime.  It’s time to move forward on the Prague agenda.   


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