MUNICH — No nukes experience, knowledge or understanding.
Today’s generation of political leaders is unprepared to deal with the threat of nuclear weapons, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid told POLITICO in an interview at the Munich Security Conference.
With the unfolding demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, nonproliferation and disarmament issues are now back at the forefront of the international agenda, with perhaps the greatest focus since the end of the Cold War.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced early this month that he would pull out and begin dismantling the INF treaty, which banned all land-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Trump said Russian has been violating the accord for years. Moscow has level counter-allegations that it is the U.S. that broke the agreement.
Whoever is at fault, a new generation of world leaders is now confronting a collapse in the nonproliferation infrastructure that has been in place for decades, and that many of them had taken for granted throughout their careers.
“My generation of politicians has not had to deal with a discussion over nuclear security, how we control these risks because these treaties have always been there” — Kersti Kaljulaid
Kaljulaid said she attended a panel discussion on the issue at the conference on Saturday with a sense of urgency to study up.
“I went to learn,” Kaljulaid said, speaking at a corner table in the basement pub of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, where the security conference is being held. “My generation of politicians has not had to deal with a discussion over nuclear security, how we control these risks because these treaties have always been there.”
Kaljulaid, who is 49, said she was eager to learn from former elected leaders including the ex-Irish President Mary Robinson and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn.
“The generation of people like Mary Robinson or Sam Nunn, [former NATO chief] Javier Solana, they are still among us,” she said. “They still keep coming to these conferences and they remember the risk-analysis which propelled them to action and how the achievements of these treaties were got to.”
Former Irish President Mary Robinson during a visit to Sydney in 1992 | Patrick Riviere/Getty Images
But Kaljulaid said it was not clear others shared her keen sense of urgency.
“I went specifically to learn and I have to say the room was pretty empty,” she said. “I think we need to wake up and learn a lot.”
Kaljulaid said she was not particularly focused on the bickering between Russia and the U.S. over who was more to blame for collapse of the INF. Estonia, like other members of NATO, has declared Russia to be at fault for developing and deploying a new mid-range missile in clear abrogation of the agreement.
“It wasn’t for me the star moment,” she said of debate on who was to blame, “because I do know that there are very different opinions of who did what to the INF treaty. What struck me is exactly this: Politicians of 50 and even 60 years old are not well-versed in these debates as are the politicians 70 and 80 years old.”
“Even people my age — I am almost 50 — we need to learn and we need to get to the grips of these debates very quickly.
In a sign of how the nonproliferation issue is returning to prominence, a lunch in Munich on Saturday organized by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nongovernmental organization led by Nunn and former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz drew a packed crowd.
“How do we change to more multipolar thinking? This may be actually the key and opportunity” — Kersti Kaljulaid
NTI used the lunch to promote a recent statement issued by 40 experts calling for swift improvement in crisis management capabilities and other communication and dialogue. Nunn has said that risks of misunderstanding leading to a potential nuclear conflict have risen to “dangerous levels.”
In the interview with POLITICO, Kaljulaid said she also sensed an opportunity to shift the conversation from a bilateral discussion between Washington and Moscow to a multilateral discussion that would also include Europe’s nuclear powers: the U.K. and France.
“If you look now into the face of the situation, that was a treaty of which Europe was not a party,” she said of the INF. “We have nuclear powers and we have territory over which this treaty is supposed to provide a protective umbrella. How do we change to more multipolar thinking? This may be actually the key and opportunity. I don’t know. I’m not a specialist myself.”
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