“Historians should look back at what might have happened — but didn’t — thanks to Nunn-Lugar. The disintegration and discrediting of the power and ideology that commanded half the world for half a century passed peacefully, like evening into night, despite the fact that the Soviet empire’s writ ran over enough destructive power to end civilization as we know it. This is a major historic achievement for humankind, and historians not only decades but centuries from now will note the disaster that might have been — but which was averted through Nunn-Lugar.”
— Current Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, writing in 2005
Most Americans celebrated the breakup of the Soviet Union in late 1991, but Sens. Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn understood the rapid changes were producing danger as well as opportunity.
Thousands of nuclear weapons were spread across Russia as well as the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. With the collapse of central authority, how would they be controlled?
The answer came with the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, an innovative program in which, for over 20 years, the United States provided funding and expertise to dismantle nuclear weapons and secure dangerous materials in the former Soviet Union.
“It’s been estimated that the program was responsible for getting rid of at least 7,600 nuclear warheads,” Lugar said this week. “And, of course, they were powerful enough that any one or two of them could wipe a city the size of Indianapolis off the map.”
On Friday, Indiana University will mark the 25th anniversary of the program with a symposium at the Global and International Studies Building at IU Bloomington. Sponsored by the School of Global and International Studies and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, it will include a public panel discussion at 3:30 p.m. featuring Lugar, Sen. Joe Donnelly and Sen.-elect Todd Young.
“I’m so pleased that these two friends are going to be with me,” said Lugar, a Distinguished Scholar at the School of Global and International Studies. “They have great opportunities to offer leadership in the Senate.”
Lugar, who represented Indiana in the Senate from 1977 to 2013, traced the origins of the program to the mid-1980s, when President Ronald Reagan involved a bipartisan group of senators in discussions of possible arms control agreements with the Soviets.
Lugar, an Indiana Republican, and Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, had a common interest in mitigating the risk of nuclear wars or accidents, and they became acquainted with Soviet officials who shared their concern. When the Soviet Union was breaking apart, those officials visited Washington and took part in a meeting in Nunn’s office.
“They said, ‘You folks don’t know what trouble you’re in,'” Lugar recalled.
The Soviet economy was in a shambles, and military personnel weren’t getting paid. Guards who were supposed to be securing weapons arsenals and missile sites were deserting their posts. In some cases they were said to be stealing fissile materials to sell on the black market to support their families.
Aided by Ash Carter, then a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and now the U.S. secretary of defense, Lugar and Nunn put together and won support for legislation to create the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Approved first by the Senate and then by the House, the program provided about $500 million a year to destroy weapons, secure nuclear and other dangerous materials, and put weapons scientists to work in productive fields.
Lugar recalled that some U.S. leaders were skeptical of the program and reluctant to provide that much assistance to longtime American enemies. But in 1992, Lugar, Nunn and other officials traveled to the former Soviet states and observed the weapons facilities first-hand.
“We all literally got religion together,” Lugar said. “We saw how difficult the situation was in those countries with regard to the maintenance and safety of the facilities.”
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Distinguished Scholar at the School of Global and International Studies and professor of practice in the School of Public and International Affairs, was — like Lugar — a widely respected foreign policy leader when he represented Indiana in Congress from 1965 to 1999.
He recalled that U.S. leaders were optimistic the cooperation produced by the Nunn-Lugar program could lead to friendlier long-term relations with Russia.
“We had high hopes, after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said. “We thought there was a chance Russia would become more democratic and a cooperative power in the international arena.”
Those hopes were dashed after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 and began aggressive policies aimed at restoring Russian power and prestige. By 2013, Russian leaders had made clear they saw no point in continued assistance via the Nunn-Lugar program.
“The relationship today has deteriorated,” Hamilton said. “We were going to reset the relationship when Obama came into office, but that has not really been achieved.”
Hamilton and Lugar pointed to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, also signed by the United Kingdom, France, Germany and China, as an example of U.S.-Russian cooperation. But such examples have become unfortunately rare in recent years, they said.
“There has not been, in the last few years, a desire to sit down and see if we can reduce the number of weapons,” Lugar said. “I hope that time will come.”