While many Americans have viewed national security as a primary concern since Sept. 11, former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger told Yale students Tuesday that one of security’s important components has receded into the background.
In a Law School lecture on “National Security in the New Era,” Berger discussed the status of arms control — a topic he said no one has asked him about for over a year.
Berger served under President Bill Clinton during his second term. Yale Center for the Study of Globalization Director Strobe Talbott, who served with Berger in the Clinton administration as deputy secretary of state, introduced him as “by any reasonable standard — the most successful person ever to hold the position.”
Talbott said Berger’s job was to advise Clinton on the full range of options on national security issues, including arms control, making him particularly qualified to speak on the topic.
Berger said he had been hoping for a major public debate on arms control when the Sept. 11 attacks turned public concerns elsewhere.
“Before Sept. 11 we were on the verge of a national discussion,” he said. “Now, the focus is on the end of arms control as we have known it.”
But Berger said the issue remains important.
“It is true that the vitality around arms control in Washington has vanished,” Berger said. “I hope it is alive here in the academic and intellectual world.”
He mentioned some of the current opinions that seek to justify decreased attention to arms control, like a desire for U.S. freedom of action and the belief that, for a powerful nation, arms control is constraining.
“The view of many is that we’re in a unique position of power, we’re a dominant player in the world and can only be disadvantaged by constraints,” Berger said. “They think we’re better off in a race.”
But he said a position of dominance does not guarantee security.
“I do not believe that power alone solves all of our problems,” he said.
He said he disagreed with the argument that “friends don’t need arms control and adversaries don’t abide by it.”
“This is a placebo; it gives a false sense of security,” Berger said. “What’s a couple of thousand nuclear warheads among friends?”
Berger said another reason for the declining attention to arms control is the current administration’s preference for preemption over negotiation.
“The president is saying we will not wait until danger grows, we reserve the right to take action ourselves, we reserve the right preemptively to act,” he said.
During his talk, Berger said repeatedly that the relatively little attention in Washington to arms control makes it a field worthy of academic pursuit.
“The number of people in Washington who understand these issues has decreased by one-third,” Berger said. “It is a fertile area for writing, for ideas and new thinking.”