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Bold Initiatives to Reduce Nuclear Tensions – 50 Years Ago and Today

Matthew Bunn

Matthew Bunn

By Matthew Bunn

Today is the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s remarkable American University commencement address, in which he called for a new approach to easing tensions with the Soviet Union.  Kennedy announced a halt in U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing, which quickly led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT).  I have a piece in today’s Christian Science Monitor arguing that President Obama should take a similar approach to resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran – offering a substantial unilateral initiative to help break through the decades of mistrust and suspicion, with the promise of further conciliatory steps if Iran reciprocates in a substantial way.

In 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union had many conflicting interests – but they had common interests in avoiding nuclear war, limiting the costs of the arms race, and more.  Kennedy’s initiative was based on the recognition that the mistrust that distorted each side’s view of the actions and proposals of the other side was a major obstacle to pursuing the common interests. Kennedy was familiar with psychologist Charles Osgood’s book, An Alternative to War or Surrender, which had come out a year before, proposing a strategy Osgood called Graduated Reciprocation in Tension-Reduction (GRIT).    (Osgood had also pushed this idea in a number of papers, such as the one in this book.)

Osgood proposed taking unilateral conciliatory steps – each small and reversible enough that U.S. security would not be endangered, but large and indisputable enough to convince the adversary that a real change was happening.  If the adversary responded with a comparable conciliatory step, the United States could take a bigger step in response, and so on.  If the strategy worked, it could lead, in effect, to a tension-reduction race rather than the arms race.  If not, the conciliatory steps could be reversed at no major cost to U.S. security.

President Kennedy at American University, June 10, 1963.

President Kennedy speaks at American University, June 10, 1963.

In Kennedy’s case, it worked.  The reciprocal initiatives at the time included Kennedy’s nuclear testing halt (reciprocated by the Soviet Union, leading directly to the LTBT), but also reciprocal reductions in production of fissile materials for weapons; in defense budgets; and in troops at the front in Central Europe.  Amitai Etzioni wrote a piece in Western Political Quarterly at the time entitled “The Kennedy Experiment,” which analyzed some of these steps.  But Etzioni missed the continuing initiatives that took place in the Johnson administration, some of which my father George Bunn discussed in his much more obscure Columbia Law Review paper, “Missile Limitation: By Treaty or Otherwise?

Given the current political polarization in the U.S. Senate and the widespread international dissatisfaction with the current nuclear order that makes new global treaties difficult to reach, informal initiatives are likely to be a major part of the future of arms control and nonproliferation, as they have been since the Soviet Union collapsed.

The fundamental idea that conciliatory actions can help overcome mistrust and misperceptions is as applicable today as it was a half century ago.  And certainly the U.S.-Iranian standoff is one of many challenges desperately in need of an approach for beginning to roll back the distorted perceptions that make it so difficult to find whether any genuine common ground exists.

Matthew Bunn is associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and co-principal investigator of the Project on Managing the Atom in the school’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He worked in the White House during the Clinton Administration on nuclear security issues.

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  1. Subrata Ghoshroy #

    Thank you for this. It’s refreshing to hear that people are willing to think a bit outside the box in the context of Iran. Our policy, however, continues to be hobbled by our deference to Tel Aviv. It was incredulous to see that Samantha Power needed the Israeli Ambassador’s blessing just to stay in the game for her confirmation hearing for the UN position. Given the lopsided votes Congress is piling up on sanctions against Iran mostly at AIPAC’s behest, I do not see how unilateral gestures are possible anytime soon. That said, more voices like yours urging a saner policy on Iran are essential.

    June 11, 2013

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