By Ben Goddard - 01/27/10 11:46 PM EST
That would never be headline or column material were it not for the principal players in the film. Four Cold Warriors, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), made a bold, dramatic and — to some — unexpected statement with a film I was privileged to write and direct.
The danger is not the massive thermonuclear exchange we all feared during the Cold War, a threat we escaped through a combination of mutually assured destruction and “luck,” as the four describe it. Former Secretary Kissinger puts the danger this way: “The classical notion of deterrence was that there was some consequences before which aggressors and evildoers would recoil. In a world of suicide bombers, that calculation doesn’t operate in any comparable way.”
President Barack Obama, in a brief appearance in the film, says, “In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one.” Shultz points out the risk of some terrorist group succeeding in their goal: “And if you think of the people who are doing suicide attacks and people like that get a nuclear weapon, they are almost by definition not deterrable.”
What is the likelihood of a terrorist group getting or making a weapon? I don’t want to be an alarmist, but what I learned in the making of this film does keep me awake some nights. There is weapons-usable material, the engineering term for what it takes to make a bomb go boom, scattered throughout 40 countries of the world — often in places that are only lightly guarded. Plans to make a weapon can be found on the Internet. I couldn’t construct one, but a trained engineer could fashion a weapon using materials and tools readily available, many of them at places like Home Depot. As Nunn puts it in the film, making a weapon is “not a piece of cake, but doable.”
And just how much fissile material would it take to devastate a city like New York or Chicago or Denver? Not much. The fissile material used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima could have fit in a gallon milk jug. Kissinger describes the effects of a 20-kiloton weapon — “and that’s a very small weapon” — if used on an American city: “Most of the hospitals, most of the medical facilities, most of the power, most of the bridges, most of the communications would be gone.”
Perry adds, “100,000 casualties, economic losses in hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars. But beyond that, the political and social catastrophe is something that we cannot even really imagine today.”
So the threat is real. We are at a tipping point. What is to be done?
Once they’ve made the point that the only way to win what Nunn calls the “race between cooperation and catastrophe” is to eliminate the source of the danger, the four lay out a logical series of steps to achieve the goal of a nuclear-free world.
Theirs is not an ideological dream scenario. Rather, they enumerate a series of concrete actions that must be taken by all nuclear nations, led by the U.S., since we are the largest nuclear power. They range from simply eliminating short-range battlefield weapons developed for use by NATO forces against Soviet armies in the Cold War — “handy things for a terrorist to have,” as Shultz puts it — to halting the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons but creating a “fuel bank” where nations could easily get fuel for power plants that is not developed to the point it can make a weapon.
Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, it will take time. But viewing this film will, I believe, convince you we have no alternative.
(Shameless plug follows:) The hourlong documentary, which also includes a prologue by Gen. Colin Powell, appearances by Mikhail Gorbachev and narration by Michael Douglas, is available free from www.nucleartippingpoint.org.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org