The most important post-Cold War initiative to reduce nuclear dangers undertaken by the United States has come to a quiet, unceremonious end. Cooperative threat reduction programs to secure loose nukes and reduce surplus force structure in the remnants of the former Soviet Union were the crowning achievements of the distinguished legislative careers of Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. These programs became necessary and possible only when Moscow was a supplicant and when Washington was generous to a battered rival. Think of a Marshall Plan narrowly tailored to weapons of mass destruction and disruption, and think of recovery in terms of preventing proliferation and nuclear terrorism – and you have the essence of the Nunn-Lugar initiatives.
A quarter-century after the Cold War ended, bilateral relations have again reverted to hard times. These programs are now deemed unnecessary and inappropriate by Russian President Vladimir Putin and by majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. Russia is no longer a supplicant, and the U.S. Congress is no longer feeling generous.
The good works of Nunn-Lugar are usually summarized by numbers – missiles, bombers and submarine hulls cut up, warheads dismantled, fissile material safeguarded, and security upgrades at sensitive sites. The extraordinary nature of these accomplishments seemed oddly diminished by the photo-ops that prompted the occasional news story of work in progress. These pictures and stories of distinguished U.S. visitors observing the dismantlement of the detritus of the Cold War didn’t begin to convey the breadth and unprecedented nature of this work.
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