What if the “madman” is us?

The following is the first in a series of guest posts from graduate students reflecting on the 25th anniversary of Rekyavik. 

October marked the 25th anniversary of the Reykjavik summit—an unprecedented event that many nuclear disarmament advocates claim brought us close to an agreement between the Cold War superpowers on the drastic disarmament and eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to scrap the U.S. strategic defense initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars,” is said to have been the nail in the coffin for such an agreement at Reykjavik.

Reagan famously said that SDI would act as the gas mask that people keep as insurance against an accident or a “madman.” If Reagan’s adherence to his SDI plans prevented a final agreement between him and then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on the complete abolition of all nuclear weapons on the planet by 1996, then the question must be asked: is the “madman” that Reagan spoke of actually us?

It seems increasingly likely that the answer is “yes.” A quarter of a century after the Reykjavik summit ended without an agreement, Star Wars has not come to fruition. Indeed, U.S. missile defense plans are increasingly concentrated on addressing tactical threats from “rogue states” like North Korea and Iran—neither of which pose anything close to the kind of threat that the U.S.S.R. did during the Cold War. Still, it seems that we are stuck in an outmoded Cold War logic.

In their Wall Street Journal Op-ed entitled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” the four elder statesmen—George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn—pointed to rogue states and terrorists as the primary nuclear threats to U.S. national security today. This sentiment has been echoed by numerous American leaders, including President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, among many others.

Despite this clear-eyed view of the current nuclear threat environment and despite the fact that our current president shares Reagan’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, we maintain a nuclear weapons doctrine that necessitates the maintenance of a massive nuclear deterrent. In its time, the notion of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) was a terrifying prospect that meant a thermo-nuclear war between the United States and the USSR would not only result in the destruction of the two nations, but also of the entire human race. Yet the madness continues.

It is madness to continue practices that undermine the overarching and clearly stated policy—annunciated at President Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague—of global nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, the United States and Russia maintain nuclear postures that were designed for a bygone era when our respective ideologies did not countenance the existence of the other.

At the same time, in terms of preventing real nuclear war, rational minds have seemingly prevailed—we have succeeded in not destroying the world during these last six decades. One of America’s most revered nuclear policy commentators, Thomas Schelling, points to this as evidence that we are perhaps safer with (some) nuclear weapons than we would be under a regime of complete nuclear disarmament, but with a latent nuclear weapons capability that in itself would prove unstable or unsustainable.

Yet, as stewards of this world for upcoming and future generations, it is our responsibility to think beyond mere decades and consider what may occur in the centuries to come. How are we to know what future leaders will do with nuclear weapons if they inherit these world-destroying arsenals from predecessors who failed to prepare the way for a safer future? We may have held the delicate nuclear balance together for the last six decades, but one misstep could end us all. The same cannot be said for conventional warfare, no matter how destructive.

And therein lies the madness. Experienced commentators and nuclear weapons experts have illustrated sensible plans to achieve drastic arms reductions and to eventually reach complete nuclear disarmament. The time has come to follow their advice and take concrete steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

In so doing, we must be willing to let go of such things as destabilizing missile defense plans and counterforce nuclear doctrines that threaten to undermine progress toward disarmament. If we fail to do this, then we may indeed be the “madman” that Reagan spoke of.

Manuel Manriquez is a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service where he specializes in Northeast Asian security and nuclear weapons issues.