Nunn on Lugar: The Nation Needs Him More Than Ever

Richard Lugar’s legacy could come undone as the world enters a nuclear hair-trigger period, his former Senate partner warns.

Sen. Richard Lugar speaks with reporters outside the Senate chamber in Washington on Dec. 15, 2010.
Sen. Richard Lugar speaks with reporters outside the Senate chamber in Washington on Dec. 15, 2010. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia, and former Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, developed one of the closest cross-aisle relationships in modern U.S. political history when they partnered in 1991 to pass a historic bill providing funds and expertise for the dismantling of nuclear, biological, and weapons stockpiles in the former Soviet Union. The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, popularly known as Nunn-Lugar, ultimately was responsible for decommissioning at least 7,500 warheads. In 2015, Nunn and Lugar also came out in favor of the Iran nuclear deal, from which President Donald Trump has since withdrawn. The two former senators continued to work together against nuclear proliferation almost up until Lugar’s death on Sunday at age 87, Nunn told Foreign Policy in an interview—meeting with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the White House in June 2018 to talk about ways of adapting Nunn-Lugar methods to North Korea’s nuclear program, in the event a disarmament agreement was struck. What follows are excerpts from that interview. 

Foreign Policy: Our condolences on the loss of your friend. How would you characterize Dick Lugar’s legacy?

Sam Nunn: I would say his legacy is one of treating every human being with dignity and respect, no matter what their walk of life. And injecting into every political debate and argument the civility that is so missing today in much of our political discourse. He took time to meet and understand the leaders of other nations and the problems of other nations. He was able to link various aspects of developments in the world in a way a lot of people really have difficulty with. I would say he was extremely effective voice for sensible American foreign policy.

FP: It wasn’t just you he worked with across the aisle. It was also Joe Biden, and Lugar was a mentor to Barack Obama when Obama first came to the Senate in early 2005. It was in great part thanks to Lugar that Obama made such a difference in nuclear nonproliferation when he was president, correct?

SN: It’s because people trusted Lugar. He was honest, and he was transparent, and he was knowledgeable. I think it’s also very accurate to say he had a big influence on President Obama and his focus on nuclear issues. Obama had four summit conferences just on protecting nuclear material with 40 to 50 heads of state, which is an enormous move forward. I think we moved from 40 countries that had weapons-usable material to like 22 or 23 during the Obama administration.

Lugar and President Obama traveled together. I remember that right after Obama was elected to the Senate, he asked me to come over and meet with him, and he was actually in his temporary office in the basement. He asked me what I would advise, and I remember one of the things I mentioned was to get close to Dick Lugar. I’m sure there were a lot of other people who said the same thing, but I’ll take at least a tiny sliver of credit for getting those two together.

FP: Lugar seems a man almost of a whole different era, when real bipartisanship was possible, and there was no better example of that than the Nunn-Lugar act. What happened to that idea?  

SN: Well, I hope it’s not gone forever. I hope it will come back, but right now the atmosphere is rather poisonous. But when Lugar and I were coming along, we traveled together. We had an arms control observer group. We trusted each other. Without that basic trust and respect, we never would have had the partnership to begin with. I went to him right after I got back from the Soviet Union when it was coming apart, and I had seen it firsthand. I conveyed to him my thoughts and observation. He already knew the subject, and he agreed with me. We asked ourselves, “What can we do together?” and that’s what launched the partnership.

FP: Talk about when you first got to know him leading up to the Nunn-Lugar Act.

SN: Dick came to the Senate in 1976. He had been mayor of Indianapolis. He had been identified by President Richard Nixon as his favorite mayor. When I first got to know him, it was through our mutual involvement in the arms control observer group. We were not on the same committees together, but he was such a leader on foreign relations and the overlap between armed services and foreign relations—we both acted on that more than most people on those two committees. So we were always in conversation. We were always comparing notes. Then I shared with Dick a number of my broad concerns about the security of the Soviet Union, arms control, and nuclear dangers. And then the arms control observer group crossed committee lines. It not only got committee chairs together and ranking members, but it also involved the two leaders, Robert Byrd and Bob Dole. It also was very coordinated with the State Department, notably George Shultz. Dick and I went together to a lot of meetings, and then we traveled together. And when you travel with people, you get to know them. All of that was the background music of trust that was essential for our partnership.

FP: Today, you have an administration that’s advocating the expansion of nuclear weapons arsenals, including battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons, and you obviously have a recalcitrant Russia. We also appear to be withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It seems it could not be more different from the situation you and Lugar tried to address in 1991.

SN: I would say it most reminds me of the mid-1980s, even like the early 1980s, when there was huge tension and the threat of misunderstanding and escalation from a regional confrontation to a nuclear exchange. Now you got two add-ons. One is much more the threat of catastrophic terrorism. And also cyberattacks on command and control and warning systems by either Russia or China or a direct adversary or a third-party group. It makes all the pre-existing nuclear dangers we’ve lived with for years and been fortunate to avoid much more dangerous, more risky. And the deterioration between the United States and Russia, the trust erosion between the two countries that have 90 percent of the nuclear weapons—and almost as important, nuclear materials—all of that means we need something like arms control observer groups, crossing committee chairs. Because we are clearly in much more of a danger zone than we’ve been in for a long time.

FP: Is it even more dangerous now than in the 1980s?

SN: I think there’s more danger of a blunder now. Or a catastrophic event precipitated by a terrorist group. Because the knowledge has proliferated about how to make a weapon if the material is available. And then cyber, false warnings, I think there’s more danger of that. So it’s a time where the leadership of the two countries need to be in dialogue. But right now there’s profound mistrust in Congress not only of Russia but of the Trump administration.

FP: Do you fear that much of your and Lugar’s legacy could be undone?

SN: I think it’s still going to continue with some momentum. I think there are a lot of people in the Defense Department and Department of Energy who still understand this. It hasn’t gotten the same emphasis from the current administration, but it has been broadly supportive.

FP: Lugar’s defeat to a Tea Party candidate in 2012 seemed to open the curtain on the current era. It even engendered a verb, to be “Lugared.” Does his death signal the end of civility?

SN: I think it says something. My guess is his courtesy and his civility and his decency probably were not assets given the mood of the electorate. I would say if we’re going to have a coherent domestic and foreign policy, it’s got to come back. Because the biggest problems we have in the country and the world are not going to be solved by one political party. Dick Lugar knew that his whole career. So when is it going to come back? I don’t know. Will it come back? In my opinion, it has to. We’ve got to have new young people who follow the role model of Dick Lugar.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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