Lynn Rusten on Press the Button

an interview with Joe Cirincione

This is a transcript of a recent interview from the podcast Press the ButtonLynn Rusten, Vice President of the Global Nuclear Policy Program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, sits down with Joe Cirincione to discuss the history of arms control between the United States and Russia, and how the Trump administration's actions have put the New START treaty in danger. Listen and subscribe to our weekly podcast today! 

Interview with Lynn Rusten, August 27, 2019

JOE: I'm delighted to be here with Lynn Rusten, who is the Vice President for global nuclear policy at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, NTI, as we all know it. She has a long career in this field. From 2003 to 2008, she was a senior professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Later, she played an integral role in the negotiation and ratification of the New START treaty when she was serving as the senior director for arms control, non-proliferation in the Obama administration's White House National Security Council Staff. And [she worked] at the Department of State as Chief of Staff for the Bureau of International Security and Non-proliferation, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There's all these very long titles that you've acquired in your field. How did you get started in this field? Why and how did you enter the nuclear security field?

LYNN: So, first of all, thanks for having me on Joe and I’m enjoy your podcast. I'm pleased to be participating in it. So I will date myself and tell you that I was in college in the late seventies. I went to Oberlin college and, although I started out as an English major, I switched to Government, otherwise known as Political Science. And I came under the tutelage of a wonderful man named George Lanyi, who taught Soviet Foreign Policy. And by the way, turns out he was also a mentor of Scott Sagan, who I didn't know because Scott was a few years older than me at Oberlin. But it's interesting that we both kind of ended up in the same career, to some extent.

JOE: Well, Scott is the man on nonproliferation.

LYNN: But I also think he was deeply influenced by this wonderful professor, George Lanyi. And so from there I developed a real interest in the Soviet Union and Soviet foreign policy. I actually studied Russian at Leningrad State University. Yes, I said Leningrad, not Saint Petersburg. And I went on to the university of Michigan and I got a graduate degree in Russian and East European studies and, long story…long. When I then when it was time to find a job, really the jobs in those days if you were in the Soviet field or in the intelligence community, the defense community or arms control and I think through some combination of happenstance and preference and interest, I landed in the arms control field. My very first job was at Common Cause when they were active on these issues with SANE and some of the other advocacy groups.

JOE: Oh yeah. When? That must have been in the 80s?

LYNN: It was 1982. And I was hired to help write a little, little primmer they wrote on arms control – this was the height of the freeze movement, right? – it was called “Up in Arms: Nuclear Arms Control”–

JOE: Get out! I remember that! I was on the staff for the House Armed Services Committee in the 80s and I remember getting this.

LYNN: So that was just a temporary gig and I was looking for, you know, permanent employment. And I got really lucky because I applied for and got a job at the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress as a Research Assistant to a man named Charles Gilliner who was a senior specialist in International Affairs. And I wrote a bunch of issue briefs and papers for Congress with Mark Lowenthal.

JOE: Mark Lowenthal? I probably read some of that.

LYNN: We had a whole series of papers on the Soviet position on name-your-arms-control-negotiation; so the Soviet position ASAT arms control; the Soviet position on the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. You know, all that. And so all of these issues –

JOE: You’re bringing me way back, Lynn. I forget all those. When you were on staff and there use to be stacks and stacks of Soviets and nuclear arms and looking at SS-18s and SS-19s – anyway to this day I tell people, young people, in the field not to overlook the Congressional Research Service. If they want to get a good job in Washington, they’re always looking.

LYNN: It was a great job. It was a great exposure to Congress and how things work. Although it's not the same as working there, which I discovered 20 years or whenever later when I worked on the Senate Armed Services Committee, but a great first exposure to Congress, a great exposure to the substantive issues and to the community.

JOE: And you ended up working on the original START treaty, the one that Ronald Reagan started, and George H.W. Bush concluded. How'd you do that?

LYNN: Exactly. And I'll answer that with that. And I don't want to spend a lot of time, but I actually ended up working next at the National Academy of Sciences for the Committee on International Security and Arms Control with some wonderful Manhattan-era scientists and, actually, Bill Perry and Ash Carter were on my committee. And anyway, so that was a whole other experience that was really important. But flash forward after doing that for a while – the environment changed with the Soviet Union and we went from a period almost like where we are now, where there was very little dialogue, there were no official arms control negotiations – things were not good – to a period where they were starting to be more engagement. And so I decided I wanted to get experience in government. So I landed a job at what was then the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. And I was working on the original START treaty. I came in at the end in the last year and I was involved in the backstopping process in Washington and then on the negotiating delegation in Geneva. And I was there when we finished the treaty. And ‘round-the-clock negotiating sessions.

JOE: And so I'm going to jump you forward to another period. You were also involved in the New START treaty.

LYNN: I was.

JOE: And so this is the one that Barack Obama started negotiating in 2009. What was your involvement there?

LYNN: Exactly. Actually, Rose Gottemoeller brought me into the State Department when she was the Assistant Secretary. They were looking to reconstitute some of the expertise and experience that had been lost over the last eight years or so where people who had been involved in this were no longer in the State Department. And so I ended up leading the inter-agency backstopping process that supported the negotiation – and actually doing policy development before we even got to the negotiations – and then also the process that provided all the substantive materials to support ratification, including the answers to 1,000 questions for the record.

JOE: Now I want to talk to you about New START and its future. But first tell me, well, I know the answer to this. So this is one of my setup questions. Tell me a little bit about the Nuclear Threat Initiative for people who don't know what it is.

LYNN: Sure. So the Nuclear Threat Initiative is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Washington that's dedicated to working internationally to reduce the risks of use and spread of what we call “weapons of mass destruction and disruption”. And the “disruption” part refers to cyber really. We are not a conventional think tank in that our primary product isn't reports and analysis, although we certainly do that, and we’re not really just an advocacy group either. We work on a model where we work both with governments and with nongovernmental entities. To some extent we're trying to work towards systemic change, or we try to incubate ideas and then hand them over. If you want one or two examples, an example is the International Fuel Bank in Kazakhstan. I mean, that was an idea that was partly-spawned at NTI and, with the generous support of Warren buffet, we put up $50 million challenged the IAEA and the US government to contribute to the idea to have what is an effective bank where countries that wants civilian nuclear power would have a reliable source without having to reprocess their own fuel. So it's a proliferation.

JOE: So you’ve grown. How many people work there?

LYNN: NTI has grown. I'm not sure, but maybe 50. We have grown –

JOE: And Ted Turner and Sam Nunn are the co-chairs of the board?

LYNN: Well, they're the founders and they are co-chairs now along with Ernest Moniz, who was the Secretary of Energy in the last administration, and he's now our CEO and one of three co-chairs.

JOE: Okay. How important are you there?

LYNN: Well no one's noticed that I'm spending an hour with you, so I don't know!

JOE: How many Vice Presidents do you have?

LYNN: I think we have five and they basically represent the leads of each program area.

JOE: And you all report to Joan Rohlfing?

LYNN: We all report to Joan Rohlfing, who is the President and Deborah Rosenbloom, who is the Executive Vice President.

JOE: Great. Thank you. So now let me get into the details of new START. And we were deeply involved here at Ploughshares Fund in supporting your efforts.  You were on the inside and we were helping with the outside game – which is the sort of role we think of ourselves in at Ploughshares – which turned out to be critical because it was a close call. There was fierce opposition to ratifying this relatively modest treaty. It didn't change a lot. It was extending the START agreement, the process that you had helped start when you were in the George H.W. Bush administration. We all thought this was going to be an easy push, but instead John Kyle took control of the opposition and dragged it out until the very last day of the Senate in December of 2010. And then it was only 71 votes and you need 67 votes to ratify the treaty. So this was a long slog.

LYNN: It really was. And I don't think any of us anticipated that when we negotiated the treaty and started to ratify it and there were definitely lessons learned there on a number of fronts. But the treaty is vitally important. I mean since 1972 we have had, by-and-large, a series of agreements between us and Russia, formerly the Soviet Union,   by which we mutually agreed to limit our our nuclear arms competition by putting, first, a cap on the number of systems, and then over time actually reducing them, to include provisions in some of these treaties that would try to encourage more stabilizing force structures on each side.

JOE: What does that mean?

LYNN: So that means you want to – basically it's all about reducing the risks that these things will ever be used. And so you want to reduce the incentive for one side to use a nuclear weapon.

JOE: To strike first?

LYNN: To strike first. But it's not just about the limits and it's not just about the force structure. I mean what's really critical is it provides verification and transparency. So each side can confirm that the other is complying – and both sides are complying with the New START treaty – and you get a lot of insight into what each side is doing. I mean each of us, each of our countries, can conduct 18 onsite inspections a year in the other country. I don't think people realize it's going on right now –

JOE: Right. Russians come here. We go there.

LYNN: That’s right. We literally go to bases. We single out a specific missile and said, “you said there's four warheads on top of that thing. Pull off the top and show me the bumps.” And by the way, that's an innovation that wasn't in the original START treaty.   And so not only does it give you confidence that the treaty itself is being complied with, but it gives you, if the treaty is of a certain duration, it gives you a long-term planning horizon on which we know what the other side's going to do. And so we can plan accordingly. We don't have to worry that they're going to deploy lots more weapons or do certain things that would then force us to react in negative ways.

JOE: Which is why the military historically has supported these agreements. It gives you predictability and gives you verification.

LYNN: And, frankly, it lets them spend money on the things that military planners think are more useful to them, which are the weapons that we actually, occasionally use in war.

JOE: Right. The U S has involved in seven wars right now. We have a lot of money that we're spending on those wars. If you don't have to spend money on redundant nuclear systems, why would you? And if a treaty lets you keep those expenses down that helps your military cause, that improves the security of the country.

LYNN: Absolutely.

JOE: The New START treaty, however, despite the obviously strong case you just laid out for it, is in jeopardy. This treaty expires. People don't realize it's about most arms control treaties. Most of arms control treaties have an expiration date. In this case, it's 2021.

LYNN: Most do, and in fact, I think the trend has been away treaties of indefinite duration to treaties with set durations in there. And there's reasons for that. And one is that you can't always anticipate the pace of technology and that kind of thing. So if you have a treaty for 10 or 15 or 20 years you can update. But yeah, so the new start was negotiated with the 10-year duration, which will expire in February of 2021, but it also includes a provision that says that the treaty can be extended for another five years by mutual agreement. And because the Senate and the Russian parliament ratified the treaty with those words in it, it means you don't have to go back to either parliament. It can just be done by the two Presidents.

JOE: Right. With the stroke of a pen – two pens – and it’s done.

LYNN: And it should be done. It should be done to preserve all the things we just talked about: the limits, the verification, the predictability. And there's no negotiations underway now.

JOE: And so why not? Why isn't this administration doing the obvious thing and just getting an agreement to extend the treaty? I think Vladimir Putin raised this in his very first phone call. A few days after Trump was inaugurated as President, Putin talked about extended the new START treaty. Trump blew them off. And we've danced around this issue.

LYNN: We have danced around this issue and lost time. The administration has said that it was studying the issue, but now it's leaning into – the National Security Advisor has made statements that although a decision hasn't been made, it's unlikely. And of course now you've seen statements, by the president and others, about bringing in other types of weapons and bringing in other countries like China. And I'll just say that most of those are unrealistic. First of all it won't be an extension of new START if you actually bring in types of weapons like non-strategic nuclear weapons that aren't covered under the treaty. And it's not an extension if you try to bring in other countries because then then you're into a new negotiation and a new ratification process. And we can talk about each of those elements differently. Some of them are either unrealistic now or certainly couldn't be done in the next year. And so there's every reason to extend New START, to extend all the benefits that I just talked about. And then if we were having a real, serious conversation first with Russia on strategic stability, on what a next phase of nuclear arms control agreements would look like. You can do that concurrently. And if even if you were successful in negotiating a treaty and getting it ratified, it could take the place of New START. But why would you remove the benefits of New START when there's nothing to put in its place? It makes no sense.

JOE: Why would you then? Why does John Bolton say what he’s saying? That he wants to include China? Or Tom Cotton [saying], “we’ve got to bring China in”. You know, China has 300 nuclear weapons. The New START treaty talks about thousands on each side. Why is he saying we have to bring China in? Is this all a ruse?

LYNN: I think there's clearly a worldview of some who think that the United States benefits more from a lack of constraint on ourselves than we do from accepting constraints on ourselves to have constraints on a country like Russia. I mean they just think we don't need it. I think it's very shortsighted. And there's also some internal inconsistency is because on the one hand the same people state concerns about some of the weapons developments that Russia is pursuing on the one hand. And yet they don't seem to see the benefit of keeping Russia in a treaty like New START. And specifically there are some new nuclear weapons that president Putin has talked about developing, one of which may be connected to this accident that just happened in Russia. First of all, most of those systems are so far out, in terms of their development, that they will not come into deployment during the life of the New START treaty, even if it's extended for five years. That's “Point 1”. And frankly, a test failure like that shows you it is a long way from being ready for deployment. Number 2: two of the systems that they're developing clearly would fall under New START without any discussion, including this new Sarmat Heavy ICBM, which will replace the old one – although that is slipping in its timeline for deployment – and the hypersonic system that's going to be on an SS-19. So the fact is the treaty itself will allow you to have some insight and they'll fall under the limits of the treaty for some of these systems. Some of them are unlikely to come into force and some of them really have nothing to do with strategic arms control and they should be a subject of discussion for future negotiation and also for the broader issue of just strategic stability.

JOE: If this administration does not take action to extend New START and a new President is elected in November, can she still save the treaty? Will there be enough time?

LYNN: Well it's a pretty tight timeline, but in principle, yeah. Given a transition period too. Assuming if the current administration doesn't withdraw from New START, you could imagine a president-elect expressing an intention, or maybe it probably would have been part of a platform. And so it’s kind of a Hail Mary pass at the end, but you could envision a situation where it is at the last minute extended. I think we'd be in a far better position if this president did this on a bipartisan basis with the support of Congress. And I actually have no doubt in my mind; I think if the president and the administration signaled that it was going to extend New START, I don't think you'd have much opposition. I really don't. Because I think most people understand the logic of keeping this in place. Even if you think you can negotiate something better, grander, bigger, you don't take out the foundation before you have the bricks and mortar to build you build on it. So honestly, I wish the president were being given the advice that this the best path to start to right the relationship with Russia, which is, you know, seriously in a bad place and all indications are that the president of course has an impulse to improve that relationship. This will be a great place to start. And then he could start to negotiate something additional.

JOE: Well, he's not getting that advice from the National Security Advisor. And as a former National Security Council staffer, how do you view the security process at this point? Let me just signal what I hope your answer will be – I think it's broken; [I think] that John Bolton has broken the national security consultation process.

LYNN: Well, I think there's a lot of evidence that it really hasn't been functioning well since the beginning of the administration, so I'm not sure I'd put it just on [Bolton]. I mean, there really hasn't been a functioning inter-agency, national security process that kind of starts at the working levels and then goes through an orderly process where difficult decisions or sensitive decisions get elevated up through the Assistant Secretary level, through the Deputies, you know, and then ultimately to the President, and then a decision is made and its implementation is carried out in an orderly process. You know, there's some elements of that process that happens sometimes, but there are these huge disconnects. I mean, sometimes it seems like there's an inter-agency process, but it kind of stops at the West exec. avenue between the old executive office building within national security council staff is and the White House where the rest [is]. And it's not working in an orderly fashion. And I think that's not good for development or implementation of policy.

JOE: If a new president is elected, one of the jobs that she or he's going to have is going to be reconstructing a nuclear policy for the United States and fixing the damage that this administration has done. And I actually think this is one of our most urgent tasks. And to be able to do that, you have to really start now thinking about what those policies should be, at least the broad frameworks filling it out. So by the time a president is elected, there is not only a platform, but there's actually sort of a plan, you know, of how you're going to do this and who's going to do it. So one of the reasons I was so anxious to have you come on is to have you tell us about your experiences with the Obama administration and knowing what we know now, what should we do different? How should the next president prepare for new nuclear posture for the United States of America?

LYNN: Yeah, that's a good question. A lot of lessons learned. First of all, it's obviously helpful that for whatever a president-elect has, whatever positions they've taken and spoken about in the campaign in an area that's a policy – First of all, it should be a policy priority, right? I mean, nuclear policy is inherently presidential and so it's very important that any president put their stamp on this policy, direct it and make sure that the policy they want is created and implemented. So that really starts with the campaign. I hope all candidates should be explaining what their views and policies are in this area. And of course then whoever wins the election has some measure of support for the things they've started to articulate. [That’s] number one. Number two, it does matter the people that you select. I mean maybe before that I should say, as I said already the presidential priority and focus has to be clear. And then you need to have the right people, not only in the white house and the NSC, but also in key places in the agencies. And they need to understand what the president's priorities are.  

JOE: We had Ben Rhodes and Jon Wolfsthal on talking about this and that was high on their list of lessons learned; staffing, getting the right people in the right positions who could carry out the president's program, whether the president was watching them or not.

LYNN: Yeah, exactly. But the president and also does have to watch, or at least make clear that it's a priority. I do think process is important and being – I think it's real. I mean, I do have a lot of experience running inter-agency processes in this area and I think it's important to make sure that all the agencies in equities feel like they'd been voiced and understood and taken into account, especially in issues that are hard and sensitive and where, ultimately, there's going to be a decision by the president that takes in all that information and, ultimately, you know, they're going to be winners and –well, hopefully the country's a winner, but in terms of inter-agency politics and equities, there'll be winners and losers. But I do think it's a more effective policy and a more informed policy if you actually make sure you've heard all that and make everyone feel like they’ve participated in a process even if it didn't come out exactly the way they would have wanted. And that that goes to the discussion earlier about “what's the process now?” I also think you've just got to really keep an eye toward outside constituencies. Congress of course, is essential. Look, the way the Obama administration negotiated the Iran deal was really, very carefully and almost brilliantly executed in terms of the negotiation. I mean, I know not everyone agrees with that. I think it was an excellent deal.

JOE: Most experts do. I mean in the international security community there's overwhelming support among the experts for this. It's really a small minority that disagrees with the quality –

LYNN: Oh, I don't think anybody does. You know, some people will not agree. But you know, the attention to the presidential focus, the discipline of the process, the constant communication with Congress, and of course it was an international diplomatic endeavor, and so there are the outside constituencies, too. I mean in terms of not just Congress but your allies, your other partners. I mean, all of that has to be factored in.

JOE: Yeah. So, okay, let me ask you about that. Let me interrupt you just second as you go through the rest of your list. But when you do that, when you do that kind of consulting and you talk about equities, you know, the trouble is a lot of the other people's equities go against your national security interests. For example, a lot of the States where they build ICBMs have equities in maintaining those bases, build and store them. And you ran up against this a New START, you must have. When the president wanted to set a number, the New START treaty limits both sides to 1,550 operationally deployed strategic systems, long range missiles and bombers. Got it. But if you went too low, he was going to cut into the support of key Senators whose vote he needed who had ICBMs based in their States. So that's being participatory, you're being inclusive, you're dealing with their equities. But don't those equities cut against the lower number that the Obama administration originally sought?

LYNN: I mean, there's no question that that kind of pork barrel politics and considerations is a huge problem. I mean, that's why we can't get another round of BRAC, of base realignment and closure, right?

JOE: States don't want to close bases.

LYNN: Even though the Pentagon desperately wants to rationalize their base structure and saved money. So it's clearly challenging. There's not a simple solution on that. One of the lessons of new start for me is I think the Obama administration thought we'd have a second bite at the apple. I mean, the idea was – and this goes back to the start too. There was great concern because the original START treaty had lapsed and so there was no verification. Right? And so there was a great desire to get new START in place quickly with the idea that you could then do another more ambitious treaty, you know, later in the president's term – optimistically hoping for two terms at that point. And that proved to be wrong because New START was so much more challenging than anyone ever thought to get ratified when it shouldn't have been because it actually is an important but fairly modest agreement in that it didn't really bring the levels of systems and weapons down that far, but it did extend really important verification. And so there's a lesson there, which is take your time and try to get the most ambitious agreement you want because you're probably only going to get one bite at the Apple and that comes at the beginning of the term. Another disadvantage of not extending New START now is you're more likely to create a situation in the future where there's kind of a rush to get something in place, rather than giving us time to get a better and more ambitious deal, whatever that is, whether it's additional weapon types. I don't think we can get China right now into agreement with US and Russia because the levels of our systems are so different, but you just end up putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.

JOE: So the new president has to understand this, they've got to have a game plan to understand what they're going to be up against and be thinking three, four moves ahead.

LYNN: Yeah, any president.

JOE: Yeah. Let me ask you one more question before we have to end this, which is your overall assessment of where we are right now in nuclear security? How dangerous is it and how optimistic are you about our ability to make it safer?

LYNN: So I think we're in a really dangerous moment because in some ways we're going in the wrong direction. First of all, the state of the bilateral relationship with Russia is really bad. We have very little dialogue. We have no serious dialogue on strategic stability. We're not really having a productive dialogue on arms control, be it extending New START and thinking more broadly about how are we going to start to address these new technologies and how they're affecting even the stability of deterrent. We have an administration whose policies are, instead of the steady movement toward reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security policy, seem to be going backward in time and actually expanding the potential uses for nuclear weapons. So that's a very unproductive and dangerous development. And meanwhile we've got things like cyber risks to nuclear command and control. We've got artificial intelligence. We've got things that call into question the reliability and the assumptions. I mean we count on everything going right, no one miscalculating, and nuclear weapons not being used, right? And instead we've got the speed of, of military things, like hypersonics, is increasing, the decision time is reduced, there is a lack of dialogue, there's a lack of understanding of what each side is doing and planning, and so it's a dangerous moment that's going in the wrong direction. And the United States is no longer leading – we need to be leading in terms of reducing the role of nuclear weapons, promoting non-proliferation, working with allies and partners around the world, not just on this, but just even more broadly in terms of our approach to international security and foreign policy.  I don't believe in the construct of a period of increasing great power competition. I don't think that's the right frame for our national security policy.

JOE: I couldn't agree more and there's a whole lot more I want to ask you about what you just said, including the NTI study that concluded that a cyber-attack could be a serious threat to US nuclear command and control, either compromising our ability to launch or compromising our ability to not launch, or compromising our intelligence to understand what the threat is. But we are out of time. So I want to thank you very much for coming in, Lynn, and sharing your expertise and I want to get you to promise to come back again so we can continue the conversation.

LYNN: Thank you, Joe. I look forward to it.

JOE: Great.

Lynn Rusten of @NTI_WMD talks with Joe @Cirincione on arms control and extending #NewSTART.

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