Editor’s Note: The following article by CISAC's Siegfried S. Hecker is part of a multi-part symposium commissioned by the National Interest and Carnegie Corporation of New York. They asked some of the world’s leading experts about the future of U.S.-Russia relations under President-elect Donald Trump. You can find all of their answers here.
By Siegfried S. Hecker
Nuclear is different. Nuclear energy can electrify the world or destroy it. Cooperation is essential to maximize its benefits and to limit its dangers. President-elect Trump should move swiftly to reestablish U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation, which has been held hostage to political differences.
Whereas political relations between the United States and Russia have swung from confrontation during the Cold War, to cooperation in its aftermath, and now back to confrontation, combating nuclear risks has required dialogue and at least some modicum of cooperation. In spite of bitter ideological differences during the Cold War, U.S. and Russian leaders took cooperative measures to avoid nuclear confrontation, reduce nuclear stockpiles and limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the global nuclear threat—from potential annihilation of humankind by the enormous nuclear arsenal in the hands of the Soviet government, to the possibility that the new Russian government may lose control of its tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, over one million kilograms of fissile materials, a huge nuclear infrastructure, and the several hundred thousand nuclear experts and workers it had inherited from the Soviet Union.
The safety and security of Russia’s nuclear assets posed an unprecedented challenge for the world as well as for Russia. An equally unprecedented cooperation between Russia and the United States during the past twenty-five years has greatly enhanced the safety and security of Russia’s nuclear complex and helped avoid a nuclear catastrophe.
Although President Putin has reemphasized the role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s security and has suspended or terminated most nuclear cooperation with the United States, President-elect Trump must work with Russia to jointly develop an acceptable path to avoid nuclear confrontation and combat global nuclear dangers. The first order of business must be to develop mutually agreed conditions to ensure strategic stability and avoid a new nuclear arms race.
Whereas nuclear safety and security in Russia’s nuclear complex has improved greatly, these are never-ending quests that require continued collaboration—sharing best practices and lessons learned, cooperating on training, and assisting other countries. Likewise, cooperation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism is in the interest of both countries. The Iranian nuclear deal is a recent example of what the two countries can achieve by working hand in hand. North Korea is another case that warrants cooperation because interests converge.
The president-elect should also listen closely to Russia’s expressed desire to expand the benefits of the atom—particularly to collaborate on peaceful nuclear technologies and the safe global expansion of nuclear energy.
The U.S. election may have opened a window of opportunity to return U.S.-Russian relations to cooperation. There is no better place to start than with nuclear cooperation.