Article originally appeared in YES! Magazine.

George Shultz was there when nuclear disarmament slipped through our fingers. Today, he says, action is even more urgent. Sarah van Gelder interviews George Shultz, former Secretary of State.

Twenty years ago, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came within a hair’s breadth of agreeing to phase out their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The encounter took place at Reykjavik, Iceland, and one of the people who was there was Secretary of State George Shultz. When the proposal came up, he is reported to have said, “Let’s do it!”

Today, from his office at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, he’s back on the case. In collaboration with former Senator Sam Nunn, William Perry, who was secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger, this veteran of the Cold War is taking on what may be the biggest threat to human security.

YES! executive editor Sarah van Gelder spoke to Secretary Shultz in March 2008, shortly after he returned from Oslo, where he led the third in a series of conferences on eliminating nuclear weapons—this one involving representatives of all the countries of the world that have nuclear weapons.

Sarah: Can the United States be secure without its nuclear stockpile?
Shultz: You’re going to be more secure if there are no nuclear weapons in the world, because if you achieve this goal, you won’t be risking having nuclear weapons blow up in one of our cities.

At the conferences abroad I’ve been attending, it was certainly borne in on me that the notion of a two-tiered world—where some countries can have nuclear weapons and others can’t—is getting less and less acceptable.

The Nonproliferation Treaty in Article 6 says that those who don’t have nuclear weapons will have access to nuclear power technology and they won’t try to get nuclear weapons, and those who do have nuclear weapons will phase down their importance eventually to zero. People are looking for governments to live up to that treaty.

Sarah: Is it possible to verify that nuclear weapons have been eliminated?
Shultz: That’s one of the main subjects to be worked on. The British government has volunteered to take on verification—to try to think through how you work it out.

We have the START Treaty between the United States and Russia that includes the best verification procedures of anything that’s been developed. It expires in December of 2009, so we’re suggesting that the treaty be extended so as not to lose those verification provisions.

Sarah: How would it affect our relative power in the world if nuclear weapons were eliminated?
Shultz: At a meeting in Washington, DC, about a year ago, Henry Kissinger said, “The thing that I lost sleep over, and that I agonized about more than anything else when I was in office, was what would I say if the president ever asked my advice on whether to use a nuclear weapon, knowing that a hundred thousand or maybe more would be killed, and if there were a nuclear exchange, it would be in the billions.”

Now that we know so much about these weapons and their power, they’re almost weapons that we wouldn’t use. So I think we’re better off without them.

Of course the United States has such awesome conventional power, I think probably that on the relative balance we would be well off.

Sarah: Do you think there can be nuclear energy without proliferation?
Shultz: If you get the nuclear fuel cycle under control, yes. But I listen to people talk about nuclear power plants, and they hardly ever mention the issue. I don’t think people are alert to this problem.

In terms of the nuclear fuel cycle, there is just as strong a feeling that you don’t want to have another two-tiered system, in which some countries are allowed to enrich uranium and others aren’t. I think there’s going to have to be an international regime on that.

Sarah: Why is the reaction today so different from the reaction to President Reagan’s proposal at Reykjavik to eliminate nuclear weapons?
Shultz: After Reykjavik, you may remember, the reaction was very negative. Margaret Thatcher came over, practically summoned me to the British ambassador’s residence, and she read me out: How could I possibly take part in such a discussion?

I think it has dawned on people that we’ve gone to sleep on this subject. The proliferation problems are growing, and the amount of nuclear fissile material around is large, and some of it isn’t well safeguarded. We have a terrorist phenomenon, and the non-proliferation treaty is fraying at the edges. So maybe we should do something a little different.

Sarah: You just returned from a conference in Norway on the abolition of nuclear weapons. What happened there?
Shultz: Sam Nunn and I went. Henry Kissinger and Bill Perry were not able to go. Twenty nine countries were represented—all the countries with nuclear weapons, including Israel. The people there had their doubts, but they were intrigued; they can see there is a danger—a tipping point problem.

We’re getting to the point where proliferation could get out of control. If a terrorist group gets a nuclear weapon or the fissile material from which they can make one, they aren’t getting it for deterrence. They are getting it to use it.

The Doctrine of Deterrence justified nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The deterrent impact of Mutual Assured Destruction kept an uneasy peace, although if you were involved, you knew that there were more close calls than you were comfortable with.

At the end of the Cold War, more countries were acquiring nuclear weapons, and others were aspiring to have them.

The Gulf states all want nuclear power plants, and if you enrich your own uranium—as the Iranians aspire to do—you can enrich it for a weapon. When the fuel is spent, it can be reprocessed into plutonium. If nuclear power spreads—as the people who are worried about global warming are pushing for—then the problem of the nuclear fuel cycle emerges. All of these things together give you that uneasy feeling.

Sarah: Have you had a response from the leading presidential contenders?
Shultz: I haven’t seen anything from Senator McCain. Senator Obama has made a statement supporting what we’re doing. Senator Clinton has been a little less forthcoming than Senator Obama, but has indicated interest.

I hope that I, or Henry, or someone can get a chance to talk to Senator McCain before long.

Sarah: Is there active opposition to your initiative to eliminate nuclear weapons?
Shultz: There are people who think that the idea is not a good idea and that it will never happen. Mostly, however, they say that they are in favor of the steps that we’ve identified. So we say, OK, let’s get going on the steps that we can do today that will make the world safer.

Sarah: What response have you had from the Russians to this proposal?
Shultz: No formal response. But, at our meeting in London, two former Russian foreign ministers were there, one of whom, I understand, is close to the current regime. When he finished speaking, I said, “Igor, will you let me translate what you said? It is that as far as Russia is concerned, the door is open.” He said, “That’s a fair translation. We’re ready to think about it.”

That’s as good as you can get.

Sarah: What is the first thing you would like the next president to do to move this process forward?
Shultz: I’m not trying to prescribe for the next president. We’re trying to get the building blocks ready. We’ve talked to people from some other countries, and they’re interested enough so that if the United States, working with Russia, were to take this initiative and get other people to join, it might be pretty exciting. And it might once again put us in the role of doing something that people feel good about.

There is quite a list of people—large numbers of former secretaries of state, defense, and national security advisors—who have publicly stated their support. So we’d be in a position to say to a new president, “If you decide to go this way, here are a bunch of people from both sides of the aisle who are willing to stand up behind you and applaud.”

Sarah van Gelder interviewed George Shultz as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is Executive Editor of YES! Magazine.