1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

US-Europe Ties

Interview: Jan M. Schaefer (th)June 17, 2008

Former US Senator Sam Nunn spoke with Deutsche Welle about the foreign policy of both presidential candidates. He also called on the US to decrease its nuclear arsenal and increase its support for the United Nations.

US and EU flags touching as they fly next to each other
Will the US and the EU come closer together again next year?Image: AP

Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator, is often tipped for a leadership post should Barack Obama be elected president of the United States. Nunn, 59, honed his foreign and military policy expertise as the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Since leaving office in 1997, he has devoted himself to working to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons and currently serves as the CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Nunn was recently in Berlin, where he spoke with Deutsche Welle.

You have said that Germany can play an important role in bringing the United States, NATO and Russia closer to each other. What specific measures could this involve?

First, I think we have to decide and Russia has to decide whether we want Russia to be part of the Europe-Atlantic security arc. If so, then we and Russia need to start sitting down and talking about those issues: finding out what their problems are with security, trying to address those problems, giving each other reassurance, having military to military meetings. Now the NATO-Russian Council was set up for that purpose. It worked for awhile, but it clearly isn't working anymore. Winston Churchill once said: "No matter how beautiful your strategy at some point you need to look at the results." The results are the trajectory of NATO-Russia relationships – whether it's in energy security or overall security or missile defense – is not heading in a very constructive direction.

What role can Germany play in improving these ties and negotiations?

That's something that Germany will have to decide that for itself. I can only say that these are difficult questions and I believe the German people and the German government – with their close relationship with the United States, their leadership in NATO and the European community, their friendship with both Eastern Europe and Russia – that they are in a unique position to begin stimulating both sides to ask these questions and begin to answer them. I don't have all the answers but I think I do know what some of the questions are.

How would the foreign policy of an Obama's presidency differ from that of the current US administration?

I believe both Obama and McCain would both move in different directions than this administration. I'm very confident on the Obama side that he would listen to people in Europe, I'm certain that McCain would do likewise. I believe both of them would try a more multilateral approach. I believe Obama would reach out and look for new directions of partnership between the United States and Europe and I hope also with Russia and with other people around the globe.

Former Sen. Sam Nunn speaks on reducing nuclear and biological threats from terrorists
Nunn would like to see the US reduce its nuclear weapons arsenalImage: AP

You have brought up the argument regarding nuclear weapons that it's hard to convince others to quit smoking when you're a chain smoker yourself. Does the US need to reduce its nuclear arsenal?

I think we've got far too many nuclear weapons. I think the Russians have far too many nuclear weapons. I think all the nuclear powers need to look at how many they need. But I also think it's important to look at the operational status of those weapons. This means the way you posture your nuclear weapons, whether they're on quick alert, how rapidly they can be fired, the warning time, the decision time on both sides. All of that is enormously important and just as important as the numbers.

So what I would like to see is military-to-military, civilian-to-civilian top-level discussions on how we can give each other more warning time. The president of Russia or the president of the United States would have more than a few minutes to decide whether to fire the weapons if they get a warning, which could be a false warning.

I don't think anybody expects a first strike. We've moved away from confrontation. There's no more Warsaw pact, no more Soviet Union, no more massive tank armies. But we have not taken that into account in a significant way in the operational status of our forces.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a ceremony in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility
Iran is watching closely how other countries deal with the nuclear issueImage: AP

If we really are serious about trying to keep countries like Iran, North Korea and others from acquiring nuclear weapons, then we ought to de-emphasize their importance. We ought to make it clear to the world that we are not relying on those nuclear weapons for first strike unless we are struck ourselves with nuclear weapons. As long as we, Russia and other nuclear powers give nuclear weapons great prestige and we act as if they are essential for our own defense, it's enormously difficult to try and convince other countries not to acquire these weapons. And that's where we are right now.

Does this need for better cooperation between countries mean that the United States should become more involved in the United Nations?

On the nuclear side, certainly we ought to be more involved and we ought to get more behind IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that's the official arm of the UN in dealing with these questions. This enormously important organization won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago. They are going to be increasingly important. They need more funds, they need more help, they need more support. It's not just the United States, it's our friends, Germany and others, that need to understand that the IAEA is being given a job without sufficient resources today. So yes, we need to be more supportive in that regard.