Book - Puritan Press

Introduction to Epicenter of Peace


From Nursultan Nazarbayev's Epicenter of Peace

By Graham Allison

When the history of the nuclear age is written, Kazakhstan will merit a special chapter. Among states that had a modern, superpower nuclear arsenal within reach, if not their grasp, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus stand alone in having chosen to renounce nuclear weapons and join the community of nations as non-nuclear weapons states. Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, played the decisive role in assuring his nation this unique distinction.

While these three independent national decisions involved a host of factors from international economic incentives to political inducements to innovative American responses, such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative, the leaders of each of these three states held the ultimate power of decision. At significant costs and risks, any or all of these states could have decided to retain the weapons on their territory and thus completely realign the world's nuclear geography.

After the first test of nuclear weapons in 1945, seven nations sought to address their national security challenge by acquiring nuclear arsenals, the U.S. (1945), the Soviet Union (1949), the UK (1952), France (1960), China (1964), India (test 1974, overt 1998), and Pakistan (1998). An eighth, Israel, acquired nuclear weapons but refused to acknowledge the fact publicly.

Had Kazakhstan followed in these nations' footsteps, the history of the twentieth century could have changed dramatically. Kazakhstan's choice seems "inexplicable" to students of international relations who think of themselves as "realists." According to these theories of international relations, nations seek first their own survival and security. When threatened by long-standing adversaries, especially adversaries armed with superior military capabilities, given the opportunity, nations quite naturally seek nuclear weapons as a "great equalizer." So the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons to match the U.S. arsenal; China to defend itself against the Soviet Union; India to balance China; Pakistan to counter India.

Why not Kazakhstan? After a 1000 years of history in which Russia had dominated the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, these nations surely faced -- and felt -- a potential Russian threat to their security and survival.

This book, Epicenter of Peace, offers the personal reflections of one of these leaders, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, who clearly played the decisive role in his nation's decision to rid itself of nuclear weapons. Here he shares his own thoughts on how the decision was made for Kazakhstan in the context of historical and cultural factors that influenced this choice. He also reminds us clearly that the challenges of nuclear weapons and of proliferation did not end with these momentous decisions, but still hangs over us today as the greatest risk to mankind. He challenges us to look inside ourselves as the Kazakh people did in the early 1990s and consider the role of nuclear weapons with the kind of world we would like to build for those who follow us.

While only the reflections of one man, Nazarbayev speaks from a truly unique perspective. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan held on its territory the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal with far more weapons than France, the United Kingdom, or China combined. In addition, Kazakhstan had two other distinctions. It counts among its mineral wealth 25 percent of the world's natural uranium, and it is the site of the first Soviet nuclear test. Its territory had served as the location for much of the nuclear weapons development since 1949. In this latter role, Kazakhstan had experienced the contamination and devastation of hundreds of above ground and below ground nuclear detonations. Therefore, as President Nazarbayev comments, Kazakhstan had a unique knowledge of both the treasure and the threat presented by the weapons and the materials.

As assistant secretary of defense and a member of the Department of Defense leadership team in the early Clinton administration, I had the opportunity to observe President Nazarbayev making two critical decisions that contributed immeasurably to international security. The first was the December 1993 decision of the parliament of Kazakhstan to accede to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state. The second was the hectic series of events in 1994 which led up to "Operation Sapphire," the transfer of 1,320 pounds of weapons-grade uranium from Kazakhstan to the United States.

For the United States Government, the decision by Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus to transfer their nuclear weapons back to Russia, as a single custodian, was an essential step in reducing the risk of proliferation. Had the collapse of the Soviet Union led to three more heavily armed nuclear states, each with their own unique challenges in properly securing and maintaining these weapons and the associated materials, the likelihood of proliferation to Iran, Iraq, or even terrorist groups which are desperately seeking these weapons would have been far higher. I hasten to add that this is not because the states or their peoples were any less responsible or concerned than Russians, but only that in the midst of dramatic social transformations, each of these nations would have been severely stretched to recreate on a national basis all the measures and safeguards that the Russians had inherited from the Soviet Union.

The Kazakh decision of Operation Sapphire in many ways equally important. In retrospect, this is truly the stuff of a spine-tingling movie or novel. In brief, Kazak authorities discovered that in addition to the weapons and test facilities on their territory at the end of the Cold War, they had also inherited a cache of weapons-grade uranium sufficient for production of more than 100 additional nuclear weapons. On the world market to those seeking nuclear weapons, this certainly represented hundreds of millions of dollars to a state with severe economic challenges. Under President Nazarbayev, however, the Kazakh government in consultation with both Russia and the United States made the decision to safeguard the material by transferring it to storage in the United States.

The significance of both of these choices cannot be overestimated. The potential consequences of even a few of these weapons or a portion of the material falling into terrorist hands do not require great imagination. Had the truck parked outside the Oklahoma City Federal Office Building had only a softball size devise of nuclear material, it would have caused the city, rather than the building, to be totally destroyed. Similarly, had the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center had access to a few kilograms of HEU, lower Manhattan could have been devastated.

Counterfactuals -- "what might have beens" -- challenge the imagination of reflective historians. Had a Kazakh leader sought to wrest operational control of nuclear weapons from former Strategic Rocket Forces' troops whose chain of command continued to run to Moscow, would they have succeeded? Would Moscow have taken this as a casus belli and attacked these missile facilities or indeed Kazakhstan itself? Had a contest for control of the nuclear arsenals ensued, would some of these weapons have been fired? If so, since most of the warheads sat mounted on ICBM's that had been designed to hit and were targeted against the United States, millions of Americans could have suffered instant nuclear death.

But. But for what -- or whom? But for the statesmanly leadership of President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and President Kravchuk of Ukraine who declared from the earliest days of independence their nations' intentions to become nuclear weapons free. But for intelligent leadership in Yeltsin's Russia and Clinton's United States who worked with these governments to turn promises into reality. But for an inventive "Trilateral Agreement" reached in January of 1994 that established a contract and schedule for return of all weapons to Russia, Russian compensation for nuclear weapons received, and a U.S. guarantee to each of the parties of the other's performance.

The hope we all shared only a decade ago that the end of the Cold War would bring in an era of peace and stability has not been realized. I share President Nazarbayev's judgement that if mankind is unable to control nuclear weapons, it will be controlled by them. Today and for the foreseeable future, the prospect of "loose nukes" -- theft of weapons or weapons-usable material, sale to terrorists or rogue states, and use of such nuclear weapons to devastate modern states -- is the greatest single threat to international security.

While much of the story from the United States Government about denuclearization has been told by the participants who worked with Kazakhstan in those early days to encourage them on the path of becoming a nuclear weapons free state, there is much new that this book reveals. President Nazarbayev describes in fascinating detail factors in his own life and upbringing that led him to his own views on this controversial decision, as well as insights into the cultural and historic factors shaping values among the Kazaks that at the time we in the U.S. government too little understood or appreciated.

The pride that Kazakhs rightly feel in their responsible decisions about nuclear weapons, and the gratitude felt by the rest of us, should be adequate justification to appreciate this book. It is important, however, to realize that President Nazarbayev here offers us not only a celebration, but also a challenge. Despite the huge scientific achievements made in the last century, it will be remembered longest as the dawn of the nuclear age. As the history of a new century is being written, other national leaders face momentous decisions about nuclear weapons -- decisions that can be enlightened by reflections offered in this volume.

Nazarbayev's performance in this arena sets a standard to which all Kazakhs should aspire in building a modern state, market economy, and democracy that affords its citizens both prosperity and freedom.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham T.. Introduction to Epicenter of Peace. Hollis, NH: Puritan Press, .