Rep. Adam Smith at Future of US Nuclear Policy

Rep. Adam Smith at Future of US Nuclear Policy

Watch his complete remarks at Ploughshares Fund's 2018 conference

Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) is poised to head the House Armed Services Committee when the new Congress convenes in January 2019. Rep. Smith is a champion of moving nuclear weapons policy in the right direction. Leaders such as Rep. Smith are critical in reversing the Trump administration's dangerous nuclear weapons policy, and in our efforts to create a safe, secure world free from the threat posed by these immoral weapons. He spoke at our conference, The Future of US Nuclear Policy, on November 14, 2018 at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, DC. Here is a transcript of his remarks. The video is above.

Thank you for inviting me, thank you for your leadership on this issue. Fundamentally, what I am hoping to do moving forward is reset our policy on nuclear weapons and how we avoid nuclear war. A lot has happened since the end of the Cold War – and I really think we’ve lost track of some of the basic policies we had put in place to try to avoid stumbling into a nuclear war, but also to slowly reduce the likelihood that a nuclear conflict would occur. There was a bipartisan effort to do that – but as the Cold War ended, the threat of terrorism rose, as Russia rebuilt itself under Putin, I don’t think we have a clear policy right now on nuclear weapons that puts us on the right path.  And I think there are some basic principles we should put in place for us to get there. 

Number one  on the Nuclear Posture Review: we cannot afford what they are talking about. Let’s put aside for a moment whether or not it is wise – when you look at the needs we have in national security, the needs we have in the country, and the $22 trillion debt, what they are talking about in terms of totally rebuilding our nuclear weapons capacity, in all pieces of the Triad, is way beyond what we can afford – and keep in mind that is what they are estimating.  How many times has a projected defense expenditure come in under budget? I can’t think of one, to be honest. When you’re talking about $1.2 trillion – you can only imagine how much further up it is going to go from there.

So is this really the right path? 

Now one, we have to understand why we are going down that path: and we are going down that path because of all these nightmare scenarios about, well, “if Russia launches first and takes out all these weapons… then we’re going need this many…” – you can get into this escalating notion of how many nuclear weapons you need. I think that is the wrong philosophy; I am very much in agreement with General Cartwright, who looks at it the way China looks at it: have enough nuclear weapons to be a solid, credible deterrent – and that works. You don’t need to have thousands of them, as we do. So, I think we need to fundamentally rebuild our nuclear strategy, and to use it as a deterrent, not as this overwhelming force. At the end of the day, the reason we have as many weapons as we have is based on plans that were contemplating how to win a nuclear war – but you can’t win a nuclear war – a lesson we certainly should have learned a long time ago. So, basing our strategy on that premise is wrong. So totally re-do the nuclear posture review is #1.

#2 is the importance of multi-lateral arms deals, and this is where the White House is so dangerous right now. They are opposed to multilateralism just based on principle – that is John Bolton’s approach – that he doesn’t want to negotiate with the rest of the world, almost regardless of what it is that we negotiate. But where nuclear weapons are concerned, the cost of miscalculation is entirely too high. We need to be in communication with the other major nuclear powers – with Russia, with China, and yes I’ll even say it, one of the few positive things that Donald Trump has done is open a dialogue with North Korea – I think that dialogue is necessary when you have nuclear powers going forward.

So we need more multilateralism – we should work with China and Russia to redo an INF treaty. We should certainly ensure that we maintain New START. Multilaterally negotiated agreements to try to contain the amount of nuclear weapons that there are in the world has been a core principle for a long time that we sort of lost. We need to get back to that and make sure that we take that approach. 

The other thing is to avoid the miscalculation of stumbling into a nuclear war; and this is where, I think, the No First Use bill that Ted Lieu first introduced – I have introduced a No First Use bill as well – is incredibly important: to send that message that we do not view nuclear weapons as a tool in warfare. They are one and only one thing: they are a deterrent to make sure nobody uses nuclear weapons. They cannot be thought of as a tool that can be used in a tactical way within a military conflict.  We need to make sure that we make this clear – with Russia, with China, with North Korea, and we must encourage and continue a dialogue with them about how to prevent stumbling into a nuclear war.  Now we do have some communications going on mill to mill with Russia – we must continue to do that, but we really need to have that discussion.

Lastly, it makes no sense for us to build low-yield nuclear weapons.  It brings us no advantage and it is dangerously escalating. It just begins a new nuclear arms race with people just building nuclear weapons all across the board in a way that I think places us at greater danger. I think we have an opportunity in this session to sort of, reset and say “what should our strategy be toward reducing nuclear weapons, preventing nuclear conflict, and building up greater alliances and strategic partnerships with other nuclear powers to make sure that we do that?”

Now we have a lot of conflicts: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran – a bunch of places. But I think we need to set aside nuclear policy and say ‘this is different’ – I mean, Ronald Reagan did that with the Soviet Union.  He was negotiating arms control deals with the Soviet Union even as he was talking about how they were an ‘evil empire’ that needed to be destroyed. We need to rebuild that – and it’s not that there aren’t a whole series of other issues, that we are going to have to deal with, where all of those countries are concerned. But we need to make sure we set aside a policy on nuclear weapons, understanding that it is the one thing that can truly destroy the planet, if we don’t carefully approach our relationships with other nuclear powers. I don’t think we are doing that right now, and it is one of my top goals as chairman of the Armed Services Committee to reset that, to start having a dialogue – and to have a nuclear weapons policy that reduces the number of weapons and reduces the likelihood of any sort of nuclear conflict. The issues I mentioned earlier are some of the steps toward getting there.

And the last thing I will say is: I’m going to need all of your help. We need to deliver this message broadly throughout Congress; throughout the House and the Senate. Because most members of Congress – it’s a very new Congress, we in the last 10, 12 years have elected more new members than at any 10 or 12 year period in a long time: they haven’t thought about nuclear weapons policy. Back in the 70s and 80s in the Cold War, it was one of the principal issues you thought about if you were running for Congress – it hasn’t been the case for the last 20 years. We need to restart, and we need to educate members about the importance of this policy. I intend to hopefully set the lead in the House Armed Services Committee in cooperation with a lot of great members who understand these issues – but we need to get out there and talk to members of Congress, whether they’re on Armed Services or Foreign Affairs or not – to educate them on what the right nuclear weapons policy is in the House and the Senate so we can set the right track and put us on a more peaceful path.



Question: When I look at our nuclear policy today, we have no measures that move to eliminate them – only reduce our stock.  How is this a solution? Are we going to keep them forever?

Answer: What I would like to do is reduce. Because I think if you set the goal as ‘let’s get rid of all of them now’ – that’s great – but what is more important is what steps are we taking to get there. In the city of Seattle, we boldly said about 15 years ago ‘we’re going to end homelessness in 12 years’ – it has about doubled. You can make whatever bold statement you want to make – let’s make slow, steady progress. What if I were to make a statement that we’ll get rid of nuclear weapons by 2050? What does that mean? If, on the other hand, we say, “we’re going to reduce the amount of warheads that we have from 5000 to 2000, we’re going to negotiate a deal with Russia where we both reduce the number, we’re going to stop the use of low-yield nuclear weapons” – you start working towards that very goal that you just described. But no, as I look at the world today, I would be unbelievably dishonest with you if I said ‘I have some vision, some plan to eliminate nuclear weapons.’ I don’t. It’s a big, complicated, difficult world and you tell me what’s going to get Russia, China, North Korea to walk away from them. And if you know, please don’t keep it to yourself. I’d like to hear about it. In the meantime, let’s make progress toward reducing the likelihood that we will ever have a nuclear conflict. 

Question from Tom Collina, PF Director of Policy: Public polling on nuclear weapons shows that the public is very concerned about the president, particularly his ability to launch (sole authority).  What are your thoughts on what Congress can do to curb this for the next two years? 

Answer: The No First Use bill is incredibly important.  If we were to enshrine that into policy, so that nuclear weapoins could only be used in response to a nuclear attack, then that greatly reduces the risk of what any president could do.

The second thing is – we need a different president. I know that’s not overwhelmingly helpful, but we can pass whatever legislation we want to pass – executive power is enormous. That’s why it matters so much who has that job. You look at executives going back 200 years, they have committed us to military conflict that the legislative branch in the country was opposed to. It’s a power that presidents have asserted for themselves that Congress after Congress after Congress has tried to figure out some way to take away and they’ve been unable to.

Having a president who is as temperamental as this one, gives us cause for greater concern. Other than a No First Use policy – the president is the president, he has an enormous amount of power. We need to exercise oversight, we need to try to put him in check as much as we possibly can – but again we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the reality of what it means to be president and the power comes with the job. 

Question from Christine Ahn, Women Cross DMZ: I just came back from Atlanta, where I just sat down with Jimmy Carter, and he seems to have a clear idea of how to get out of this situation with North Korea and try to get them to give up their nuclear weapons. We also have heard from Sig Hecker, the foremost scientist on nuclear weapons on North Korea, and that is: we need a security guarantee. What now, in this new era, with the Democrats leading the house, what are we offering in terms of a concrete plan, with key outlines, indicators for engagement with North Korea towards a security guarantee?

Answer: Yes, we could offer a security guarantee. What security guarantee is Kim Jong-un going to believe?

You understand this better than I do, that it is built into the DNA of North Koreans that we are coming to get them, that we are going to invade them – they believe that passionately. Whatever guarantee we give them, I doubt it is going to be enough to make them give up their nuclear weapons. I’m sorry, I know what we want to hear is there is some path forward. I think the best path forward with Kim Jong-un is dialogue to prevent the further escalation and the use of them. The reason he built the nuclear weapons he built was for regime security – a guarantee that nobody will come in and take us out the way they took out Muammar Gaddafi, the way they took out Saddam Hussein. I do not envision a scenario where Kim Jong-un gives up all of his nuclear weapons.

What we have to do is we have to negotiate, to try to make sure that he doesn’t escalate, build more, build more missile capability, and give them that security agreement. Conceivably, and to this gentleman’s point, I can conceive of a point 10 to 20 years from now where enough trust is built up that you could get North Korea to agree to denuclearize. But in the short term, that’s not part of Kim Jong-un’s plan.

I admire President Carter in many ways, and I admire his optimism on this point. But to be honest with you about where I see Kim Jong-un being at, I don’t think he is giving up those nuclear weapons. There’s a lot of other things he can give up, but the in the short-term I think he sees them as his ticket to security, security in his existence.

Question from Stephen Schwartz, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: When people talk about the rebuilding of the Triad in particular, the assumption seems we need everything, therefore we have to re-build everything. There is an assumption that what we have was determined logically and rationally at some point in the past, when in fact that’s very much not the case. There’s been a number of factors over decades that have led to the nuclear force we have. I’m sure that you understand that, your staff understands that; I have less confidence that your counterparts in the Senate Armed Services Committee do. While I have no doubt that you will come up with wonderful policies on modernization and all the other things that you have discussed, what happens when you run into the bus of the Senate Armed Services Committee? What do you expect to come out of a conference that, I’m sure will be better than the last 2 years, but how do you push for what you really want to get in that process?

Answer: Well first of all, we have to make the argument you just made. Our Nuclear Posture Review is exactly as you just described it. It’s based on the fact that ‘we’ve always had this stuff, so we always should.’ Well, why do we have this stuff? Why is it necessary?

And the reason people think it is necessary is because they envision scenarios of surviving a first strike, surviving a second strike, and they you’ll need this and you’ll need that, etc. I still say that the most sensible nuclear policy in this situation that we live in, where we have nuclear weapons, where they are a fact of life, is to say that we will maintain a sufficient arsenal to inflict a maximum amount of pain on anyone who attacks us with nuclear weapons. China has 250 nuclear weapons and they consider that to be a sufficient deterrent – and it is.

We have 4,000. The rationale for the Triad, I don’t think exists anymore. The rationale for the numbers of nuclear weapons doesn’t exist anymore. Two things – one, the enormous amount of money that is saved. But also, the fewer nuclear weapons that you have, the closer you are to envisioning a policy of getting to zero. Start to reduce it, and you just made the single best argument in reducing it. The rationale for having the size of the nuclear arsenal that we have never made sense and certainly doesn’t make sense today.

How do I convince the Senate of this? Slowly, in all likelihood, and I don’t – we do. For all of the passion that various members of Congress have for nuclear weapons, they are also similarly concerned about the number of ships we have in the Navy, the number of planes to maintain air superiority. The best argument you can make to them is: you can have all these nuclear weapons which we don’t need, which are simply creating a greater risk, or you can have some of this stuff that you’ll want on the conventional side.  From a dollar standpoint – you cannot have both.  That’s how, I think, ultimately we convince the Senate and the White House to reduce. It’s a choice – you can’t have it all. Right now, they’re still kidding themselves into believing that they can have it all, as if we don;t have a $22 trillion debt. I think that is the argument that gives us the best chance to turn back on this nuclear posture review. 

Question from Roger Hale, Chair Emeritus of the PF Board of Directors: You mentioned the fact that there are many new members of Congress coming in, many of whom haven’t had to deal with nuclear weapons as a major issue. Will there be efforts to educate the new members?  Is there any organizational way that Congressional leadership can take on seminars or do things with new members to give them a basic education?

Answer: I’m known for my honesty, and you guys keep challenging that this morning. I will say this – educating new members [in Congress]; that’s not the way it will work. If I or any other member of Congress go out and say “Do you have two hours free in your afternoon? We want to come in and talk to you about a subject that doesn't have much relevance to your district or to your committees, do you think your boss would be willing to stop by?” That’s not the way Congress works. The broader Congress is not going to be responsive to my committee coming to them and saying, “here's a really critically important issue; we need to take some time to educate you on it.”

What does work is what you all are doing here. I’ll give you an example: Foreign aid, there is an organization called Results, they organize by district. The way they get members attention, is very simple: they send constituents in to tell that the issues are important to them.  Members of Congress care what our constituents think. Organizations that organize district by district, grassroots efforts to contact members of Congress. If you get 10-15 constituents from a member’s district, to go into their office, and say ‘this is an issue that matters to us – your constituents’ – that is how you educate members of Congress. It’s not just Ploughshares, PSR, a whole bunch of groups that are out there educating members of Congress on nuclear weapons policy.  The internet helps a lot with this.  So if you come up on the Hill for a day, with people from all over the country, go talk to Congress and say ‘this matters to us’ – that’s what is going to educate them.


Watch @RepAdamSmith on the future of US #nuclear policy at the 2018 #Ploughshares Fund conference.

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