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Klaatu, Where Are You?

Klaatu, Where Are You?

Moscow is ending cooperation with the United States to secure nuclear material in Russia. But what about the aliens?

No, not the illegal aliens. The space aliens. You know, extraterrestrials? E.T.? ALF? Bear with me here for minute.

We’re Americans. We like to discuss really awkward or heavy topics using science fiction. And nuclear weapons are really depressing. Bertolt Brecht used the term Verfremdungseffekt, or “alienating effect,” to describe theatrical techniques that allow audiences to view events on stage with a certain critical remove. But he was German; we’re Americans. Our idea of critical remove is a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

The best sci-fi movie to tackle the subject of nuclear weapons was the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which an alien named Klaatu travels to Earth with a warning — eliminate war, or be eliminated. Since human beings had developed nuclear weapons and space rockets — basically, the technological capability to become interplanetary assholes — the rest of the universe had run out of patience with our barbarity.

Klaatu may have looked ridiculous, but he was a great device for understanding the idea that nuclear weapons pose a common danger to humanity. Think of him as a staged version of Albert Einstein’s famous remark about nuclear weapons having changed everything, save our modes of thinking. President Ronald Reagan used to comment — much to the embarrassment of certain advisors — that maybe it would take the arrival of aliens to cause human beings to unite and abolish nuclear weapons. (Sadly, I suspect there’d be plenty of alien collaborators, but let’s not ruin a nice allegory.) Anyway, Colin Powell always figured Reagan was thinking about The Day the Earth Stood Still when he made that comment.

I’ve always thought that nuclear-armed terrorists fill the same role as Klaatu — Osama bin Laden with the bomb illustrates our shared interest with the Russians in preventing nuclear war. Nuclear terrorism may be unlikely, but it’s far more plausible than Russian President Vladimir Putin waking up and thinking that today seems like a good day for a nuclear war. That recognition helps us see other shared interests, like preventing nuclear accidents and avoiding miscalculation by which we might stumble into Armageddon.

That’s why I was so bummed when I read Bryan Bender’s Boston Globe story, based on documents and first-person accounts, of a mid-December meeting in Moscow that signals the end of U.S.-Russia cooperation to secure vulnerable nuclear materials. We’re basically telling Klaatu: “Get out of here, and try not to let the space hatch hit your ass on the way out.”

The gradual ending of the programs created after the Cold War to help Russia deal with the legacy of the arms race has been a long time in the making. In June 2013, Moscow allowed the agreement covering Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) activities to expire, ending the well-known Nunn-Lugar effort to assist Russia in eliminating strategic nuclear and chemical weapons to meet its arms control obligations. The two countries replaced the umbrella agreement with a protocol to an environmental agreement, but it does not include the Russian Defense Ministry. This essentially ended CTR programs in Russia. That sucked, as I noted once the end was nigh.

But, the end of CTR still left in place a number of important programs between the U.S. Energy Department and the Russian nuclear complex (Rosatom) for working on securing nuclear materials. There was some hope that, even as the cooperation on eliminating strategic nuclear weapons ended, the shared interest in securing nuclear material against theft would prevail despite the chill between Washington and Moscow. I mean, we still agree we don’t want terrorists to get the bomb, right?

And then, last year, relations really went into the toilet. Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, became linked to the shoot-down of a civilian airliner, and pumped enough armor into eastern Ukraine to restage the Battle of Kursk. All of a sudden, our shared interest in keeping highly enriched uranium out of the hands of whatever terrorist group threatens us pales in comparison to our differences over Ukraine and the future of European security. Stuff a sock it in, Mork — we’ve got an arms race to run here.

Unsurprisingly, in April 2014 the U.S. Energy Department suspended a number of programs relating to cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, like fast-reactor research and nuking asteroids. (Don’t ask.) While the two parties continued programs to improve security at Russian nuclear facilities, it was pretty clear to many by August 2014 that things were in trouble. There were a pair of stories that month — one by the Boston Globe’s Bender and another by David Sanger and William Broad in the New York Times — that hinted at a possible end to all U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation. In retrospect, the stories were short on detail, but totally prescient about the direction things were headed.

In November 2014, the New York Times’ Michael Gordon reported that Rosatom CEO Sergey Kirienko had told U.S. officials that in 2015, no new Russian-based projects are “envisioned.” Moscow was winding down cooperation on securing nuclear material, simply letting existing programs come to an end. Moscow then very publicly and harshly announced it would boycott preparations for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. Apparently, matters came to a head in mid-December when all the big players met to discuss the future of nuclear cooperation in Moscow. According to Bender, the three-day meeting went poorly, ending in a “terse, three-page” report that stops nuclear security cooperation between the United States and Russia (other than in a few limited areas such as removing highly enriched uranium from third countries that have Russian-origin material). Cooperation on securing nuclear materials at Russian sites is now dead.

A few people have noted that it was weird that the United States provided an increasingly wealthy Russia with financial assistance to maintain these programs. If you’ve encountered the increasingly obnoxious Russian tourists throwing money around European vacation spots the past few years, you might have turned a gimlet eye toward the budget for Second Line of Defense.

But funding Russian security upgrades, as my friend Nick Roth at Harvard University argues, wasn’t exactly a handout. If highly enriched uranium goes missing from a Russian facility, where do you think it blows up? (Probably not in Russia.) So, if you agree that we share the danger from loose nukes, then we also share the responsibility for fixing it. And picking up part of the tab entitled the United States to have input on decisions that matter tremendously to American security. Sure, everybody thinks the two parties could have done better to develop a more equal and reciprocal relationship, but that’s nitpicking when set against the giant interest we still share with the Russians — even today when they seem intent on being rat bastards in Ukraine.

Over the past year, there have been plenty of totally sensible recommendations for improving U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation, from a Secretary of Energy Advisory Board task force report on nuclear nonproliferation to this one by my old friends at the Stanley Foundation and Belfer Center. The problem isn’t figuring out how to make programs better – it’s finding a way to remind decision-makers in Moscow and Washington that the shared danger is still greater than our differences.

The Russians have said that they are perfectly capable of taking care of nuclear security by themselves, thank you very much. Well, perhaps. Then again, the Russian ruble is plunging along with oil prices, forcing Moscow to impose across-the-board budget cuts. Defense and national security are shielded — for now. But it’s not hard to imagine that Russia, suddenly short of cash, may begin to underfund nuclear security efforts. We seem to have forgotten how frightening the chaos of Russia’s immediate post-Soviet period was.

Security isn’t just about guns, guards, gates, and the money to purchase them. Security is about culture. Much of the U.S. assistance wasn’t simply financial. It was scientists and nuclear experts sharing know-how and learned lessons. It was gaining practical experience together and examining one another’s assumptions. And, most of all, it was about making security a priority. That hasn’t always been the case in Russia, in case you were wondering.

What is depressing about the current state of affairs is that policymakers seem to be losing the post-Cold War conviction that our shared interest in preventing nuclear accidents, miscalculation, and terrorism matters more than geopolitical differences.

There was real value in attempting to organize our respective nuclear complexes around shared interests, like preventing nuclear terrorism, instead of around a strategic arms competition. We never quite got there, but after decades of hostility and suspicion, Washington and Moscow at least seemed to realize that nuclear weapons are super-freaking scary. We might not have liked one another, but we finally started to act as if we understood the mortal danger that Robert Oppenheimer warned about when he compared the United States and the Soviet Union to scorpions in a bottle.

For the past decade or so, that spirit of cooperation — born of necessity and fear — continued. Sure, Klaatu didn’t land on the National Mall and tell us to get our collective act together, but Osama bin Laden was a pretty decent substitute. He was 10 times as scary as Gorbachev or Yeltsin, even when Boris was three sheets to the wind and thinking about pressing the button. Finally, after decades of hostility, it seemed to be dawning on Russian and American officials that nuclear weapons compel us to work together. We almost got it.

And then, we blew it. Simple as that.

DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images