Fifty Years after Cuba Crisis, New Roles for S&T in Arms Control

ATLANTA, GEORGIA—Pierce Corden remembers well a mild night in late October 1962: President John F. Kennedy was addressing the nation, describing the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida, and warning of the potential for war. In the following days, a hush descended over the Georgetown University campus where Corden was a student. The fate of humanity seemed to hang in the balance. Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, retrospectives typically focus on how nuclear war was averted. But at a workshop cosponsored by AAAS, experts said the crisis also was an inflection point, leading to agreements to limit nuclear testing and curb proliferation and driving a cohort of scientists and engineers into the fields of arms control and science diplomacy. While the Cold War has receded, arms control remains a global priority, driven by fears of terrorism, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, and creeping tensions between the United States and Russia. Technological advances and science diplomacy will be crucial to a new generation of nuclear security, said experts gathered at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Crisis and hope. Almost a year after the Cuban missile crisis, in October 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. Other treaties and agreements followed in later years.
Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

“In terms of U.S. diplomacy, some of the greatest assets we have are not only in our government agencies, but in our foundations, science associations, and other areas,” said E. William Colglazier, science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We’re going to have to use all of our assets if we’re going to create a more peaceful world.”

The workshop, held 3 to 4 October, attracted two dozen nuclear arms and security experts from government and diplomacy, industry, academia, and non-governmental organizations for off-the-record discussions, followed by a presentation for about 150 Georgia Tech students and faculty members. The events were organized by the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

Corden, a physicist, has worked with U.S. and international arms control agencies for four decades; he’s currently a visiting scholar at the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. He detailed how the crisis propelled the United States and the Soviet Union into a limited ban on nuclear testing and then to a series of arms control agreements in ensuing years.

Today, however, the nature of nuclear threats is far different than 50 years ago, said Adam N. Stulberg, codirector of the center at Georgia Tech. There are more nuclear players with “different idiosyncracies,” Stulberg said. Nations or organizations that might have crude arsenals or “that don’t subscribe to the established rules and norms” present different challenges to arms control verification, monitoring, and diplomacy.

In all, 183 nations have signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which seeks to prohibit all nuclear explosions, and 157 have ratified it. Ambassador Tibor Tóth, executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, said that with the exception of two nuclear tests by North Korea since 2006, the world has effectively frozen testing.

But, Tóth said, “we must put the genie of nuclear weapons tests back in the bottle, and we must seal the bottle.” Without that, the world risks a new era of proliferation and testing. The risk is especially high in an arc from the Middle East through South Asia to East Asia, he added, where a number of key nations have not signed or ratified the treaty.

Critical to the success of the treaty is an ever-growing array of advanced monitoring stations and sensors—337 facilities in 89 nations when complete—that provides nuclear test detection capabilities by reading even faint atmospheric, seismic, or acoustic signals.

Experts at the workshop suggested scientific evaluation of vast amounts of data from a wide range of sources will be a means of detecting clandestine nuclear weapons activity. One of the most intriguing ideas is to sift through masses of social media data for subtle patterns or indicators.

Indeed, data-sharing between nations could be an important focus for science diplomacy, said Vaughan C. Turekian, director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and editor of its quarterly online publication Science & Diplomacy.

For example, he suggested, Cuba and the United States could negotiate agreements to share data on climate and fish migration. Cooperation on such projects could, in time, build trust on security issues.

“The distance that almost caused nuclear catastrophe is also a distance where we share so many resources and interests,” Turekian said. “That’s where this whole issue of science and diplomacy, and how it can help lead to peace and prosperity, is really important.”