Q&A: Stanford's Philip Taubman on an unlikely effort by a group of former statesmen to rid the world of nuclear weapons

In a new book, former New York Times reporter Philip Taubman, a consulting professor at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, tells the story of five famous men who have joined efforts to eliminate the ultimate weapon.

Rod Searcey Scott Sagan, Philip Taubman, George Shultz and Sidney Drell

Moderator Professor Scott Sagan appears with Philip Taubman, George Shultz, and Sidney Drell on a panel discussing the book The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb.

Five men who helped build, maintain and wield America's nuclear arsenal have emerged as an unlikely group trying to rid the world of those very weapons. Since declaring in a 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed article their commitment to eliminating the nuclear threat, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Sen. Sam Nunn, former Defense Secretary William Perry and Stanford physicist Sidney Drell have pressed governments to reduce their arms and better secure plutonium and other materials used to make nuclear weapons.

Their efforts are chronicled in The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb, a new book by Philip Taubman, a Stanford alumnus and now consulting professor at the university's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Stanford Report sat down with Taubman, who came to the university in 2008 after 30 years as a reporter and editor at the New York Times, to speak about the book and the men, three of whom are affiliated with the university. Here are excerpts from the interview.

What makes the group so compelling?

It's quite an improbable alliance on many levels. The most obvious is that you've got Democrats [Nunn and Perry] and Republicans [Shultz and Kissinger] working together. … It is somewhat improbable, too, because of the way they came to find common ground on this issue. They all started in different places with different backgrounds. And the book goes into great detail about their Cold War history and how each had an awakening, you could say, over the time they were in office, about the risks associated with nuclear weapons and the gravity of the problem. There's nothing like actually being involved in managing America's nuclear arsenal to have a sobering reckoning with the potential catastrophe associated with a nuclear war.


How would you define the men's relationship with each other?

The chemistry among the five of them is actually quite good. I've traveled with them on some trips abroad and you could see the kind of bonhomie among them, the joking around that goes on. They get along really well and seem to respect one another. … They all have played important roles in history. They all have healthy egos. I think maintaining the partnership has at times required some extra work.


Critics say it's not the right time to get rid of nuclear weapons when rogue states and terrorists are trying to obtain them. How do Shultz and the others respond?

They would make a couple of points: One, it's important as an aspirational goal. In order to get the short-term changes and actions that are necessary to reduce nuclear threats, the kinds of things that they've called for, you need to inspire people that you're driving toward a greater end. I think they all understand it's going to be very hard to get to zero but they think it's important to set it as a goal. Secondly, I think they feel that if we don't get there, it's going to be very hard to get other countries to give up their weapons as long as the United States and Russia still have thousands of warheads, which we do. … You get greater credibility in arguing with other countries if the United States is on a path to give up its nuclear weapons. The analogy of a chain smoker trying to persuade other smokers from giving up smoking is apt, I think. As long as the United States has all these weapons, it's hard to get all these other countries to talk about giving them up.


Critics also argue nuclear weapons have helped keep the world safer – that they're the ultimate deterrent.

There is truth to that. But what worries me and worries these men is that you've got the possibility that there could be some impulsive use of nuclear weapons. Or as long as you've got the weapons and the machinery to make them in dozens of countries around the world … there is the threat that some terror group will get its hands on some of that stuff.


Are terrorists with nuclear weapons the biggest security threat to the United States?

I think a lot of people feel that way. I certainly feel that way. My biggest concern is a nuclear 9/11. But I think there are other concerns as well. Concerns about accidental launches … or impulsive actions by countries that have these weapons.


What are the biggest obstacles to reducing, and eventually eliminating, nuclear weapons?

The main obstacle, I think, is that countries feel that when they get nuclear weapons they become impervious to attack. … Nuclear weapons bring a degree – perversely, but true nevertheless – of prestige. They certainly bring a degree of implied power, even if you're not using them. So joining the nuclear club remains a goal, at least for many nations.


So is the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons realistic?

At the end of the day, I think the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons is a very distant goal. I think it's a noble goal but I think it's certainly unlikely we're going to get there in my lifetime, maybe my children's lifetime. It's worth aspiring to but it's fraught with complications.


What role did Stanford play in the book and the partnership?

A lot of the book is placed at Stanford. Events I describe took place at Stanford; three of the five men [Shultz, Perry and Drell] are based at Stanford. So the university is really in the foreground of the book, not just the background. And, of course, I'm here, so it worked out very conveniently for me.

Philip Taubman, CISAC: (650) 723-1574, philip.taubman@stanford.edu

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, brooke.donald@stanford.edu