Harold Palmer Smith Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Thinking about the 'Unthinkables' in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Harold Palmer Smith, Jr., Professor, Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley, January 26, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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National Security in Today's World

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a whole new set of tasks emerged, both for our national security, for the Pentagon, and for you in the sense that they became part of your agenda. Talk a little about that. In other words, once the wall fell and the Soviet Union was no more, what subset of problems emerged with regard to nuclear weapons that resulted in the Nunn-Lugar [Cooperative Threat Reduction Program]?

Well, it was one of the most wonderful revolutions that has ever taken place. Suddenly Russia and the United States had very common interests. We had nuclear arsenals that were way out of proportion and the Russians didn't have the economy to take care of them. The Nunn-Lugar bill was passed and it fell to me to implement that program. That was exciting because suddenly we, the Americans, were helping our former enemies who could have destroyed us to dismantle the very arsenal that could have destroyed us. It is rare in history that one ever gets that kind of opportunity.

As an example, the Ukraine had a lot of nuclear weapons, and we and the Russians had to work very hard -- hard negotiations, hard deals, hard technology -- to get those weapons, by agreement with the Ukraine, out of the Ukraine and to safe storage sites in Russia without any accidents and fully accounted. We did that. So, you might say we de-nuked the Ukraine. We also de-nuked Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Is this an example of reverse engineering, where something has been put in place and your knowledge on the technical side facilitates doing the reversal?

No, that's too grandiose. Believe me, it is much easier to destroy a missile than it is to build a missile. So, no, you don't want to push the metaphor too far.

Okay. Let's get very specific here. Nunn-Lugar put up the funding and created the program, which you were then asked to head, reporting directly to Secretary Perry. Now you're immediately in a jungle of American bureaucracy, American politics, Russian politics, Russian bureaucracy. Walk us through that. What did you suddenly confront in the way of obstacles on the American side for something that as a program, one would think everyone would agree with?

Good question. I will try to handle it on both sides, that is, an American dilemma and a Russian dilemma. The American dilemma: the Nunn-Lugar bill was passed in 1991, but it was only authorized. No money was appropriated, and therefore the Bush administration, if they wanted to implement the program which was authorized, had to find funds elsewhere. When the [Berlin] wall went down, the number of places where the Pentagon felt it should put its money were legion. So it was quite easy for the Bush administration, or Secretary [of Defense] Cheney, to not want to take this too seriously, and they didn't.

So, the program really didn't move until the Clinton administration arrived, and there Bill Perry was the Deputy Secretary. Secretary Perry made it very clear that he wanted this program to move, and he would find the funds. It was Bill Perry who took money from hither and yon to put into my budget for implementation of the program, and as I watched the skill with which he found those funds, I learned a lot.

I don't want to say that I reported to Secretary Perry. His interest was intense, and we met with him on at least a biweekly basis, but in between us was Undersecretary John Deutsch, also a good friend of mine, also MIT. John was very much a player in how we did these things, as was, on the policy side, Ashton Carter, now a professor at Harvard, who was the policy guide. We formed a tight-knit team. It says something about Secretary Perry that he began forming that team clearly twenty years ago, when he left the Carter administration, so that a lot of the bureaucratic jungle that you quite properly allude to had been cleared away by the fact that this was a hard-working team that had known each other for twenty years. We knew what we wanted to do, so that things weren't as bad as they should have been, given that there was only authorized money without real money being appropriated. That changed, of course, and we now have appropriated money for that.

What were the arguments within the bureaucracy, within the Congress, against the implementation of this program? That must have been something you had to deal with.

Let's take a good example: defense conversion. We wanted money -- in fact, we spent money. I spent money, I signed contracts to convert Russian arms makers to builders of commercial goods. And that's all well and good, that's a noble cause, and the Russian economy needed it -- very nice. But I had to testify before the Congress, and many of these Congressmen were in districts where their defense industries were not doing well, and they would say, "Dr. Smith, before you start spending money over there in Russia, I want to see our defense industries converted. And I'm not going to give you a penny until you do thus and so." And that would occur over and over again. In fact, we finally lost that one. We discontinued our defense conversion. But it was understandable parochial interests, primarily on the Hill, that made it difficult on the American side to carry out what we thought was a noble cause.

On the Russian side, as you know, it was a helter-skelter time, and if the politics of Washington are difficult to understand, try the politics of Russia following the downfall of the Soviet Union. I was aided enormously there by a couple things. One, as a graduate student I have read an awful lot of Russian literature, and I had also listened to a lot of Russian music. In fact, our first child was named after the heroine of War and Peace, Natalya. Well, if you're in a difficult negotiation with the Russians and you have a first-class interpreter (which was one of the great benefits), my interpreter would say, "Dr. Smith, tell them about Natalya." I would explain why we named our daughter after Natalya Rostov, and you could see the tension falling.

In trying to find my way around the Russian bureaucracy to find out who could make decisions -- and to come back to one of your early themes -- that's where my business experience paid off. In business we're always looking for "Charlie Can-say" who could really make a deal. It wasn't easy, but eventually we figured out who could make a deal. So, it took a nice acceptance on the part of the Russians of my genuine interest in Russian culture. An able interpreter -- this was a woman who, on her way to Moscow, if I were doing dismantlement of chemical weapons, she would be up all night reading a chemical engineering dictionary just to make sure she had every possible word. Well, with that kind of support, and I had excellent support, as I said; a love of Russian culture; and a sense of where is Charlie Can-say, we eventually found the right people, wrote the right contracts, and carried out the right programs.

You mention in one of your talks a general on the other side, who was a key figure. He was head of --

The Twelfth Main Directorate. All nuclear weapons that were not on alert were his responsibility.

His name was ... ?

General Maslin. Truly a weltfolk in the German sense. He proved to be not only Charlie Can-say but a man of real courage who made decisions that must've been very difficult to defend to his superiors. We've gotten to know each other. He's a very forceful gentleman, and also very cultured. The Russians treated me to many things, a tour of the battlefield of Borodino because of its place in War and Peace. I responded by having General Maslin tour the French Impressionists gallery in the National Gallery in Washington, because as a young man he grew up in St. Petersburg and knew a lot about the Hermitage and happened to like French impressionists. It was very clear that General Maslin knew at least as much about French impressionist painting as the curator for French impressionists at the National Gallery -- and the curator himself was a good friend of mine. (We correspond; he was recently awarded the Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur, which game me another opportunity to remind him of this momentous evening when the conversation shifted from the curator leading the discussion to General Maslin leading the discussion.) When you find a man who has courage, who is well placed, who has the responsibility and willing to sign contracts, and happens to be a cultured gentleman besides ...

It works.

... it works.

You're making an interesting point about both the United States and the Soviet Union, one the superpower, the other the superpower become a great power, and you're saying that personality, in the case of Perry, for example, or in the case of this general, that smart men committed to a goal can move two very different systems. Is that fair?

That's exactly right. It is amazing that it comes down to just a few individuals. I can't say more than that.

But this work was embedded in structures that no matter how ideal the personalities were you were working with, created difficulties, concerns on the Russian side about intelligence, concerns about -- or not even knowing what the Russian law was, so a whole array of things, the whole problem of Russian pride, essentially being assisted by the winner in dismantling the source of your great power. So, all of these were there.

That's right, in spades. In fact, some of the good work we've done, you and I together, here on the Berkeley campus since returning, has been to show that the Russians could make a decision legally to consolidate how they store their nuclear weapons. We showed that, in fact, the prime minister could make that decision, and we happened to predict that he would, and he did. But that was another case of finding the right person in the right place with the necessary courage and power to make the right decision.

On my side, of course, it was much easier. It's a truism that what every official in government wants is simply a few words: the words are "the President wants." Then of course, if people believe you, things happen. Well, in the Pentagon I would say, "Secretary Perry wants ... " and the Secretary would always back me up, and they would see that I was always on the Secretary's calendar, so that any time I said I wanted something, people had to think twice before they'd say no, because who knows, maybe the Secretary really does want this done. So, the hierarchical nature, where the top of the hierarchy chooses to focus on certain areas, makes those areas much easier than anything else.

Next page: Thinking the Unthinkables

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