Sign up for our e-mail list for updates and socially responsible job listings.

Student Pugwash USA
1015 18th St. NW
Suite 704
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202 429-8900
Fax: 202 429-8905

Alumni, stay in touch - Send us your info


2003: Current International Security

Jessica Tuchman Mathews

I think this will resonate with those of you who are scientists, and maybe less so with those of you who are not. I started out here as an advisor in Congress, and then went to the White House. What has always really struck me in the interaction between scientists and policy makers as the really key difficulty is that scientists think differently about uncertainty than non-scientists, and in particular more than lawyers.

Most of those people that you meet in Washington or any other capital doing public policy are trained as lawyers. And what lawyers are trained to do is to stamp out uncertainty. Juries get to say "guilty" or "not guilty," and "not guilty with an 85 percent confidence limit." And scientists, on the other hand, are only really doing science when they are in the presence of uncertainty. The only way you know that you are on the frontier between what is known and what is not known is if you are in the presence of uncertainty. So scientists not only are comfortable with uncertainty, they welcome it. If they are not in the presence of uncertainty, they are not doing their thing.

They also have ways of measuring it, so that for scientists, uncertainty is not a measure of what you do not know--it is a way of quantifying what you do know. This is something that I have discovered, over the years, just does not translate for nonscientists at all, and in particular for lawyers.

On Capitol Hill, you could pick any given day and go wander around and listen to some hearing, and hear frustrated congressmen prod scientists for a straight answer, unadorned with caveats and uncertainties and air measurements. And the more that scientists find that their uncertainty measures do not translate, the more they retreat into their own world.
And the non-communication is a daily problem. It is really at the core, I think, of one of the key difficulties in applying science in the public arena. But by emphasizing the fact that scientists have ways to quantify risk and uncertainty, I do not mean to suggest that all you have to do is quantify it, and then you are home free, because that is obviously and emphatically not the case.

I was in the White House during Three Mile Island, and although I was on the National Security Council staff, it fell within my portfolio. The governor of Pennsylvania was the one who had the legal authority and the legal responsibility of deciding whether or not to order an evacuation, but he did not have the staff to tell him what to do. So, he turned to President Carter for help and asked for his advice on whether or not to order this evacuation.
By this point we had discovered that what we did not know about what was going on inside the reactor far outweighed what we did know. And several things that we thought were the case had turned out already not to be. We were getting readings from different radiation monitors inside the containment stuff that were wildly different, and no one had a clue really what was going on.

In particular, some of you who have read about this may remember there was a great scare about a hydrogen bubble, because there had been hydrolysis of the cladding on the fuel rods. Two or three nights into the accident we convened a group of chemical engineers and nuclear experts to analyze this hydrogen bubble, which they were scared was going to explode.
One of the amazing things is that these experts, in the grip of the fear of this accident, forgot what you learned in 8th grade chemistry, which is that all reactions have two arrows that go in opposite directions. They thought about hydrolysis and made all these calculations as though there was no back reaction--these were distinguished professors, heads of their own departments--and literally, together in a large group, made an 8th grade chemistry mistake.
As it turns out, the bubble was not nearly as big as people had thought, and even though there were sparks inside from broken wires, the reactor did not blow up. We did not know any of this at the time. And on Sunday afternoon several of us got called in--it was a group of about six of us--and were asked to meet and make a recommendation on whether or not the Governor should order an evacuation.

I can remember sitting there thinking, for the first time in my three years in the White House, what I say now is really going to make a difference in somebody's life, in a really irretrievable way. It was clear to all of us that if we ordered an evacuation, nuclear power would probably never have any future in the United States. On the other hand, if we did not, and the reactor blew, well, we would have a pretty hard time living with that for the rest of our lives. The wind was very light, and it was changing directions all the time.

We knew that if we ordered an evacuation, we had to order a circular one, which meant zillions of people. And people always get killed during evacuations, for hurricanes and such-- people in prisons, people in hospitals, people in day care centers--it is a mess. It is a dangerous thing. At any rate, we ended up recommending that we not order a general evacuation. As it turned out, it was the right thing to do.

A few days later there was a train wreck in Canada that involved a whole lot of cyanide and a bunch of other bad chemicals. They had to evacuate 250,000 people. It was a one- day story, and what was so staggering to us was the contrast of what would have happened if we had ordered an evacuation in the context of Three Mile Island, versus an evacuation in the context of a train wreck, which people felt to be a relatively comfortable, familiar risk. They were two completely different things. So, never believe that numbers give you answers; they only sort of give you hints in the policy world. And risks and perceived risks are two very different things.
What I really wanted to talk to you about today is proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I just returned two weeks ago from Iraq, and I have been working on, in particular, the issue of WMD in Iraq for the last two years. So I wanted to share with you some thoughts about it.
These last couple years have been an extraordinary time. We have had, before the war, the issuance of the president's national security doctrine, postulating preventive war as a new strategic policy of the United States. Almost immediately, it got submerged into the debate over Iraq.

And so we have never had the debate that this issue should have had, that it demands and must have in coming time, because this is a radical departure from anything the U.S. has ever pursued either under Republican or Democratic presidents. It is an issue of enormous importance that has been far too little attended to for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is, of course, as we have seen in Iraq, in order to have preventive war you have to be damn sure of your intelligence. I do not think I need to probably say too much more about that.
The other big problem that has not been thought through is that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If we postulate the right to act preventively in the absence of an imminent threat, others will do the same. Already India has suggested that another attack from Pakistani, in their words "terrorists", would justify on India's part a preventive war between two nuclear-armed opponents whose capitals are literally about three minutes apart by missile.
There are all kinds of issues embedded in the Bush Administration's new strategic doctrine that desperately need attention and debate now, in the aftermath of the war. I think the administration has also postulated another shift that has not been appreciated and that is very dangerous, and that is the suggestion that it is not nuclear weapons, per se, that are so dangerous--it is nuclear weapons in the hands of bad guys that are dangerous. Hence, the "rogue state," the "axis of evil," et cetera.

There was even the suggestion by some last year, in the context of North Korea, that if North Korea went nuclear we ought to just "play the Japan card" and let Japan go nuclear. This would be a catastrophe for stability in Asia. But it has been discussed.
One of the problems with the notion that it is only nuclear weapons in the hands of bad guys that matters is that who is a bad guy and who is a good guy tends to change with time, and sometimes very, very, quickly. It was not that long ago, for example, that we considered Saddam Hussein to be a good guy, in the context of the Iran-Iraq conflict.

Indeed, in 1988 we actually intervened in the UN to block a motion of censure against Saddam Hussein for using chemical weapons in that war. Pakistan has, of course, gone back and forth between being a good guy and a bad guy many, many times. So this policy change also represents a radical departure from what we have believed before, and one that also needs attention.

We have just been engaged, my institution, in trying to pull together everything into one easily readable tight document--the whole story of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I wanted to give you a sense of what is emerging from it. We have looked separately at nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, missiles, and then the Iraq-terrorist link issues--five different categories.

What is clear is that first of all, there were genuine intelligence failures of methodology, analysis, et cetera that began in the mid 90's in the Clinton Administration and continued in the Bush Administration. But these are, so to speak, the good kind of intelligence failure that is straight intelligence by analysts, but done wrong.

There was also, beginning particularly in 2002, a different kind of intelligence failure. There was gross politicization of the intelligence agencies by the Bush Administration that came to a head in the production of something called an NIE, a National Intelligence Estimate, that was released in October 2002. NIEs are very important documents in the intelligence community. There are about seven different intelligence agencies--there is the CIA; the DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency; the NSA, National Security Agency, which does communications intelligence; and there are several others.

When an NIE is drafted, it is meant to represent the consensus view of all the intelligence agencies, so it is a very important document. They often take months, if not a year or more, to draft. This one was drafted in three weeks, and it is full of dissents, which is very rare, on key points--on the question of whether Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Niger; on the question of whether it had unmanned aerial vehicles; on the question of these mobile biological weapons laboratories that administration officials were claiming. There was a really egregious and gross politicization of the process of drawing up this NIE. And when you start to compare what has been released and made public on the pre-2002 intelligence and what was made public in the NIE, you see a radically different view.

Thirdly, in addition to these intelligence failures, even above what was written in the NIE, there were some major misstatements of fact by administration officials.
I want to just give you one, because the one that has gotten all the attention, the 16 words in that State of the Union speech about Niger, is a classic Washington flap. That is to say, it is actually about nothing; it is about the cover up. And the longer you stay in Washington the longer you realize that in maybe 98 percent of all Washington scandals, all important things are not about the act--they are always about the cover up.

The important thing about the Niger thing, of course, is that even if it were true it would not have meant anything, because Saddam already had 500 tons of uranium sitting in Iraq, so what is a little more going to mean? And uranium ore is of no use to anybody; it is no threat to anybody; it is not militarily useful; it is not useful for dirty bombs for terrorists; it is not useful for anything unless you can enrich it. And we knew that Saddam's enrichment plant had been destroyed. So it was really not about anything, but some of the things that the president said and that others said were about a great deal. I want to give you an example, because I am going to come back to what I think are some of the lessons that we have learned out of this.
The UN inspectors reported to the Security Council that they had been unable to account for a certain amount of bacterial growth medium agar. Basically, and in trying to describe how much of it, they described it by saying that this material, if it had been used to grow Anthrax, "could have produced about three times as much Anthrax as Iraq had admitted to having."
The president said this--listen carefully--"The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount. This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for and is capable of killing millions."

Now, that is 35 words, not 16. But look at all that happens in those two sentences. First of all, possibility becomes likelihood, likelihood then becomes fact, rather subtly between the period and the next sentence, and a huge stockpile is created. Then a biological agent is transformed into weapons, and not just any weapons, but very sophisticated delivery systems, because you cannot kill millions of people with a biological weapon without extremely sophisticated delivery systems. So, there are about five or six errors in those 35 words. We have documented a dozen such things. They are not usually so compact--they usually take more explaining--but this is funny and it is awful because we went to war about this threat.

The fourth category of things that went wrong, of course, was the mischaracterization of what the UN inspecting teams had been able to do, first in the period from 1991 to 1998 when they were in Iraq, and then in the period from late November until the plug was pulled at the end of January last year by UNMOVIC [United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission].

So there are at least two very simple lessons that one can draw already. One is that the public needs to learn not to lump together biological, chemical and nuclear weapons threats, because they are so different in terms of the degree of the threat.

There are many military people who will tell you that the only real threat from chemical weapons is that it requires you to fight in chemical weapons protective gear. It is not a strategic threat at all. Now, of course, that is from the point of view the American military that knows it has the gear. If you do not happen to have the gear, you die. But at any rate, the point is still that chemical, biological and nuclear threats are drastically different in their degree of seriousness and their degree of difficulty in detection. Lumping them together in the phrase WMD, although it is hard to have the discussion without using it, is terribly dangerous and misled us gravely as a country in making this decision to go to war.

The other great, overriding mistake, and probably the one that was as close to the heart of this awful decision, in my view, as you can get, was conflating the threat from a state and the threat from terrorists. The administration's belief, said over and over again, is that deterrence is now dead. You cannot deter so-called "rogue states" because they might give weapons to terrorists, and you cannot deter terrorists.

Well, it is certainly true that you cannot deter terrorists. But the question is whether any state that has made the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction its absolute top priority--endured sanctions for it, given up an unbelievable amount of money for it, made everything else take second, or third, or fourth row in priority to it, so that these are the crown jewels--would ever give these things to a bunch of people that it cannot control. My own feeling is that this is a much, much, much smaller threat than we have believed. We have just assumed it to be, post-9/11, but I think it is highly unlikely that any state would ever do that. States hate to give anything to people they do not control. The notion that they would give weapons of mass destruction to people they do not control seems to me a subject that requires some really serious analysis, some really serious thinking, to define what that threat is.

So far, with the fear that has gripped us nationally post-9/11, that analysis has not happened. In this case, it is a particularly salient question, because Saddam Hussein was a secular ruler who persecuted Islamist fundamentalists, and Osama Bin Ladin was a radical Islamist fundamentalist who called Saddam Hussein an apostate.

They hated each other. They feared each other. Saddam Hussein persecuted Islamists brutally in his state, so the likelihood that this particular head of state would give anything to this particular terrorist group was extremely small. But this was the threat, unexamined by everybody, that led us into war. The existence of terrorism does change what we have to do about nonproliferation. And so, of course, does the fact that Iraq and North Korea and Iran have gotten so far along toward, or all the way to, a nuclear weapons capability as members of the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]. We are very close, in my view, to the collapse of this [global] regime into which we have put 40 years of work under both Republican and Democratic leadership.

I think there is a big agenda of work that needs to be done to rescue it. The first step is going to be making Iran and North Korea turn out right, because if Iran goes nuclear, I think it is over. Turkey and Syria and Egypt and Saudi Arabia will not sit around in a region dominated by nuclear-armed Iran. Proliferation always happens in clumps. China went nuclear, India went nuclear, Pakistan went nuclear; it always goes that way.

If Iran were to go [nuclear] in this region, I think the [NPT] regime would collapse, if a third country had gotten basically all the way to nuclear capability as a legal bona fide member of the NPT. The first step is getting Iran and North Korea right. The second step, and it is related to this one, will be to redo the core deal that is at the heart of the NPT.

I do not think that we are going to be able to renegotiate the treaty itself. I do not think we have the political will to do it. It has 186 members; it is the largest international treaty there is, which is a strength, but actually trying to renegotiate it just a few years after it became a permanent commitment would be, I think, impossible.

But, we now know that the core deal of the NPT was false. The core deal was that everybody can have all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, so long as they renounce nuclear weapons, and in exchange the nuclear states have to supply them with whatever they want and need. This deal was made in part because we believed at the time, 40 years ago, that plutonium that came out of nuclear reactors could not be used in a bomb.

This was a technical, and what turned out to be a terrible mistake, because it makes quite a nice bomb—not as nice as bomb grade plutonium, but just fine. What that means is that legally under the NPT, you can be a country, you can make plutonium, you can make highly enriched uranium, you can make the weapons, and you can get all the way up to the point of putting them together legally under the NPT.

Legally, a country can get to three weeks away from a bomb and then of course, legally, it can also announce that it is withdrawing from the NPT, and you have a new weapons state. We know now that it does not work, that this treaty, which is the central pillar of this enormous global regime, has this fatal flaw. I would call it fatal right down through its heart.

I think that instead, and this would be my third step, we are going to have to internationalize the front end and the back end. We are going to have to ask countries to give up the technologies that allow them to enrich uranium at the front end, which gives you highly enriched uranium, which is one weapons fuel; and [we are going to have to ask them to give up] the technologies of reprocessing, which allow you to separate plutonium, which is the other weapons fuel, at the back end. Internationalize those [technologies] so that any country, any member of the [UN] General Assembly that is in good standing of the NPT would own automatic guaranteed access to those services, but not under national control.

Fourth, we are going to have to make a major effort to secure these huge supplies of plutonium and highly enriched uranium that are sitting around the world, especially in Russia, much of it now very poorly guarded. These are the efforts that go under the name of the Nunn-Lugar program. We are going to have to also work on it in many other places, because getting access to fissile material is the rate-limiting step in making a bomb. It is the hardest step. We know now that Iraq could have made a nuclear weapon probably before the war, in a year or so we think, had they had access to fissile material; Iran also. This is the rate-limiting step. This is the bottleneck. This is what we have to do a much better job of doing.

Fifth, we need to rescue and resuscitate the Comprehensive Test Ban [Treaty]. The notion that we can ask other nations to give up forever nuclear weapons, at a time when the US is saying, by its refusal to sign a test ban, that it still needs new kinds of nuclear weapons—new kinds is fanciful, is nonsense. I mean, it just defies logic. And so, rescuing, resuscitating the Comprehensive Test Ban is, I think, one of the most important steps on the US agenda.

Sixth, we are going to have to do something serious about enforcement. This is one of the things that the Bush Administration is really right about, in its condemnation of arms control agreements, that the world has been much too lax about enforcing them. And in particular Europeans, who often view agreements as tantamount to solving problems, sort of forgetting that you still have implementation and enforcement to account for, are going to have to take finding ways to do enforcement really, really, seriously.

One of the things that I thought was so wrong about the Iraq war was the sending of the message to the rest of the world that if a threat like this developed, we would take care of it. We would send in the Marines, so to speak, literally. There are 186 countries that have signed the NPT. They own equally the responsibility for enforcing it. Like a manager who refuses to delegate responsibility to his staff and then complains that they do not show any initiative, if we take all the work on ourselves, we will indeed find that the rest of the world sits back and lets us do it. But the amount of political will in the world is not a fixed entity. It can be built, and one of our key jobs is to build it around enforcement of these arms control treaties.

Finally, I think we are going to need to look at a way to reach international agreement on the norms and conditions that would justify preventive war. What makes preventive war so destructive of international law is the notion of doing it unilaterally. If, however, we were to reach some kind of international understanding about the conditions under which it would be justified, in the case of say a terrorist threat, or a really true rogue state, to where you had confidence in your intelligence, then it is a different matter. But that would be a really major international undertaking, one that would really change international law in a very powerful way.

Let me just close with a word to you about where I think international relations are more broadly as you start your careers, because you are leaving school and beginning your careers at a time when this country is facing a brand new challenge. For the first time in its history, we have both global interests and overwhelming power that is unlimited by any peer competitor--by any peer.

Before, we have either had much narrower interests geographically, or much less power, or both; or we have faced a very serious threat in the shape of the former Soviet Union. What we have now is new for us, and history tells us that it is a very dangerous terrain. In a word, this challenge that I think will dominate your working lives is the challenge of managing dominance.
This has arisen very few times in history, at least in the last 350 years since nation states existed. There have been very few instances where countries attempted dominance. Britain ruled the seas, but it did not rule the world; it did not attempt to. We had the Hapsburgs try to do it, Louis the XIV tried to do it, Napoleon tried, Germany tried twice, and Japan tried. And of course if you think about it, the results were all very similar.

Now, of course there are differences from the past--the technology that is at our disposal, the size of our economy, and our numbers give us a much greater capacity to impose our will from a distance, and to a much greater degree than has ever been the case before. So in other words, we do not have to occupy a foreign land to have the same degree of influence over it that colonizers have in the past. On the other hand, there has never been a leveler of power like nuclear power before--an equalizer, either.

What has not changed, however, is human nature--its passions, its irrationality, its greed, its propensity to feel fear and envy and resentment, its capacity for prejudice and misunderstanding. All of that, I think, is hard-wired in us, and it will never changed. If human nature is the driving force of history, which it is, it would be wise to believe that no matter how powerful we are and feel at this moment, that our moment--the United States' moment--will be limited also, and that we should therefore approach it with a sense of limits, a sense of humility, rather than a feeling of triumph.

The best guide, I think, will be to ask ourselves what kind of a world order we would like if we [the US] were not in charge. Or think of it this way: what kind of a world order would we like to have in place when our moment of dominance ends? What kind of world order ought we to be trying to build towards, in that light?

This involves asking questions like how much international law you want, how much trust among nations, how much cooperation across borders, and what sort of alliances, of what sort of depth. Do we want strong international institutions, or do we want to just rely on ad hoc coalitions for when a big problem emerges? The difficulty of course with coalitions is it means that you are always dating—you are never in a permanent relationship—and those are obviously very different things.

My point is that on your watch, the United States is going to be making some decisions of immense consequence, and long-term consequence, for itself and for the world. It is unfamiliar terrain and, history tells us, very dangerous terrain. Moreover, we are not well prepared for the responsibility. Most Americans know less about the rest of the world than do most citizens of most other developed countries—much less—and of many developing countries as well.
We think that we are special in ways that are very good, that hold us to certain high standards, and in ways that are very bad, that tempt us to ignore political and cultural realities outside our borders and [ignore] other countries' interests. This is a pretty heavy burden on all of you. I do think it will, in many ways, shape your working lives and it is the sort of central challenge to which you will have to rise, and to which I hope you will rise.