Foreign Policy Blogs

Nuke Brain Drain in the Senate

Nuke Brain Drain in the SenateWith the retirement of Senator Jon Kyl and defeat of Senator Richard Lugar — of the unprecedented Nunn-Lugar initiative — Congress’s 113th session will see a significant lacunae in arms control and nuclear nonproliferation expertise.  While I am hard-pressed to call Kyl an “expert” — someone who repeatedly questioned the expertise of people with far more scientific and technical chops than he — the loss of Senator Lugar is indeed a significant one.  Additionally, the imminent nomination of Senator John Kerry to the Secretary of State post will further exacerbate the trend.

Quoting Council for a Livable World Executive Director John Isaacs, Rachel Oswald writes in Global Security Newswire, “Having a critical mass of senators who understand and appreciate the complexities of arms control makes it easier for presidents to find allies who can rally support among their Senate colleagues, argue the case, and guide the treaty through the ratification process.”

Arms control expertise does not come easily or quickly.  The roster of experts at the State Department who have been deeply involved in the negotiation of treaties, agreements and other pacts are, relatively speaking, “graybeards” who have honed their expertise sitting across the table from counterparts in Russia, India, China and elsewhere.   The technical expertise at State, where negotiators often held both law degrees and technical degrees, is also a thing of the past.  State has come to rely upon talent lent from technical agencies and universities.  Having well-informed colleagues in the Senate, where any treaty, arms control-related or not, goes through the ratification process before it enters into force, is critical to properly vetting them.

According to national security and U.S.-Russia specialist  Steven Pifer, “These looming changes are not academic. The Obama administration has signaled its desire for further nuclear arms reductions, ideally in tandem with Russia under a new accord that could cover both tactical and strategic weapons as well as deployed and reserve warheads. Should the White House open negotiations for a follow-up treaty to New START, the administration from the beginning should keep the Senate informed of details of the talks to smooth the way for eventual ratification,”

Compounding the problem is that arms control is simply not on the electorate’s radar screen.  Senator Lugar found this out the hard way:  The contention is that he lost his primary to Richard Mourdock partly because he has lost touch with his electorate in Indiana.  Up until recently, Lugar, along with his former Senate colleague Sam Nunn, had the luxury of pursuing an aggressive nuclear nonproliferation and arms control strategy at a time when the Soviet Union had fallen apart and the danger of theft of nuclear materials was high and the security of the Soviet nuclear weapons arsenal was in question.

One long-time arms control and national security expert explained it thusly: Most of the Members elected since the 1990s were not in public positions during the height of the Cold War, so their formative experience was the first Gulf War (where the bad guy got beaten and we used “effective missile defenses). Most staff are even younger, and, to them, nuclear war does not mean global nuclear destruction; it means we shoot first, and the bad guy probably doesn’t shoot back. Members and staff simply have no reason to understand nuclear weapons theology or history, and they don’t have the time and resources to get up to speed, unless they really choose to do so (and there are a few Members who have so chosen).  Its just a practical reality that Members have limited time and resources, so they focus on issues of concern to them, their districts, and their constituents.  One of they key problems with staff is that, with the internet, everyone now has easy access to their own experts, and most experts have an agenda. There is no longer a shared understanding of threats, risks, responses, etc, as there was during the Cold War when there was one overwhelming threat (and everything else was a lesser included case).

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that arms control will be on the minds of the electorate anytime soon, which means it will continue to be on the back-burner for most legislators.  Despite this, the challenges to reduce nuclear weapons arsenals, secure nuclear materials, and continue to pursue the arms control agenda will not go away anytime soon.  The key question is whether the Senate will have the expertise to navigate these issues in a clear, cogent and incisive way.




Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.