As a president-elect tweets cryptic notions about nuclear weapons and appears to embrace a former adversary of the Cold War, tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans are discussing national security uncertainties in the global nuclear arena.
“We are entering uncharted territory,” said Sig Hecker, former Los Alamos National Laboratory director and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford. Hecker spoke in Santa Fe, Friday night to a knowledgeable audience at the annual dinner of the local chapter of the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management. He offered a number of insights into issues or trends that could go right or wrong and followed them with a hopeful, “We’ll just have to see.”
As he surveyed the current nuclear landscape, he said: “(North) Korea really worries me. In Russia, things have really gone bad. Future relations with China are very important to the U.S. India and Pakistan could flare up at any time.” Although he places Iran lowest among the challenges on his priority list at the moment, he was quick to add, “But if Trump follows through with his threats, it may very quickly look like the Korean situation.”
Hecker has been deeply involved in what is often referred to as track II diplomacy, in the role of observer and scientific relationship builder. He was a frequent visitor and had a front-row seat on visits to North Korea during the 2004-2010 periods. After North Korea had withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Hecker was granted liberal access to the country’s nuclear facilities, but has not been invited back as Kim Jong-Un has gone on to a series of nuclear tests and missile launches.
“They’ve gone from nothing in ’03 to having today enough materials for 20 to 25 weapons,” Hecker said. “They’ve just announced they’re ready for an ICBM test.”
President-elect Trump tweeted. “It’s not going to happen.”
“How is that not going to happen?” Hecker wondered.
The situation with Russia in terms of nuclear cooperation and disarmament has been in decline for a number of years, but Putin “put in the final stake,” as Hecker said, when the Russian President pulled the plug on a whole series of cooperative arrangements by suspending an agreement on disposing excess weapons plutonium a few months ago.
In recent weeks, Trump has offered seemingly contradictory tweets. On one hand, he has tweeted, “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” A few days later, he added, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” Then, just a few days ago, in the midst of Obama Administration reprisals over findings about Russian hacking and interference during the presidential election, Trump tweeted, “Having a good relationship with
Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!”
Hecker’s experience tells him an open window is better than a closed window for facilitating constructive relations between two countries; and he, too, was impressed by Putin’s ability to defuse the diplomatic crisis by announcing that there would be no reciprocity for the U.S. actions.
For his part, Hecker sees a positive sign in the fact that Sergei Kislyak, Russian Ambassador to the U.S. is listed as an invited speaker at an April conference of the American Physical Society, participating with a panel on “Physics Improves International Diplomacy.”
“This Trump-Putin relationship is actually going to provide some sort of opportunity,” Hecker supposes. “Where it’s going to go, I don’t know.”
Hecker said he would be talking much more about the Russian situation at a meeting at 7 p.m., Tuesday at Fuller Lodge, when he gives the Los Alamos Historical Society Monthly Lecture. He will tell the backstory of events that were going on during and after the activities narrated in his book “Doomed to Cooperation,” including material that didn’t make it into the book. “Doomed to Cooperation,” is a two volume set, published by the Los Alamos Historical Society, about cooperative efforts of US and Russian scientists as the Cold War came to an end.