David Speedie Interviews Baroness Shirley Williams: A View from the United Kingdom on Transatlantic Relations

Oct 20, 2009

Full Video

Global Ethics Forum TV Show

In a wide-ranging conversation, Baroness Williams discusses the Obama administration's foreign policy; the situation in Afghanistan and in Iran; U.S. and British politics, including voter representation and corruption; and her work on nuclear disarmament.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, Director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York.

I'm delighted today to welcome as our guest Baroness Williams of Crosby, Shirley Williams, both an old friend and someone whom I have admired greatly over the years.

Shirley, welcome to New York and welcome to the Carnegie Council.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Thank you very much indeed, David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I will not take up all of our time, which I would have to do in even a reasonable distillation of your background. But let me just say that Baroness Williams was elected to the Parliament in London in 1964. She held cabinet positions in three separate Labour administrations.

In 1983 she left the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party, and then, in 1988, was instrumental in a merger with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in Parliament. She was elevated to the peerage, the House of Lords, in 1993, and was the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords from 2001 to 2004.

She has been a truly transatlantic citizen as it were, with numerous activities on both sides of the pond. In this country she's a member of the International Advisory Board of the Council on Foreign Relations. She's on the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, which we will assuredly raise later, and is also a Professor Emeritus at the Kennedy School at Harvard.

Once again, Shirley, welcome.

I will also add that you are the author of a new autobiography, which we'll also mention a little bit later. It is called Climbing the Bookshelves, a reference that becomes very obvious in this engaging first chapter.

Shirley, there's so much to talk about and so little time. But let's get to perhaps something topical.

We are the program on U.S. Global Engagement and we're interested primarily in how America does business with the world. Of course, President Obama—candidate Obama and then President Obama—have both emphasized the notion of engagement as really the cornerstone of foreign policy. So I was going to ask you, just for starters as it were, how do you think President Obama is doing? And then, of course, we get the news—the momentous news—from Oslo that he is being recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize. Can you work that in a little bit to your response as to how he's doing?

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I think so, yes, absolutely.

For the three years that I was leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, our main topic of debate was the war on Iraq. My party was the only major party in the United Kingdom that totally opposed the war.

I mention that because, obviously, most of our interactions had to be with the George Bush Administration in Washington. On the whole, we found that it was a very—how can I put it?—a not very thankful job to do.

We found it very hard to move American thinking, to try to influence them, for example, against adopting things like the national missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. We found a very strong commitment to unilateralism. We were, I think, rather shaken by the so-called U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, which gave India access to nuclear materials but without having to sign any of the stricter rules about inspection and about opening up nuclear installations.

Since President Obama has come in—and I should make it plain that I have no political personal axe to grind; I've never met him—there has been something close to a peaceful revolution.

We suddenly find that the United States is in a different part of the scene, that there she is battling for multilateralism, for a stronger United Nations, for a change in the pattern of the United Nations Security Council to bring in the big Asian powers like India and the big Latin American powers like Brazil.

We find there to be a very strong commitment towards peaceful outcomes, an attempt to try to arbitrate and discuss outcomes rather than just impose them. We have seen on North Korea and Iran there are patterns of trying to deal with the issues diplomatically, which might in other circumstances have led straight forward to war.

It has been an amazing change. I say that because against that background of change there were, of course, globally huge expectations, which by the nature of life could not be fully satisfied. And, rather surprisingly perhaps, President Obama has added to these international expectations a whole lot of domestic expectations, including a new health service and so on.

So my straightforward answer would be I think he makes an astonishing change in American politics. He has put America right back in the place where she can be admired as a multilateral and not just a national leader.

But the jury is out on how far he can actually bring any of these ships to harbor. And one has to raise a slight eyebrow about whether he has taken on so much that no human being could possibly deliver all the things that are expected of him. And that's going to be a worry.


The wording behind the Nobel Peace Prize award was essentially for the new spirit of hope that Obama brings, rather than, obviously, by definition, what has been achieved so far, after nine months in office.


DAVID SPEEDIE: But clearly, it was the issues of dealing with the Muslim world in a more positive way, in working with Russia in particular toward reducing the nuclear danger and nuclear arsenals, the bilateral arsenals, and, just generally, the cooperative engagement with the world.

You mentioned to me earlier that you've just come back from a globe-trotting tour that included Cairo. Now, obviously, the president gave a speech in Cairo. I remember some of the reaction that I heard, particularly from some in the Muslim world, was that when everyone applauded, and then when they stopped to think what exactly had been said in any great detail—can you give us any sense of that in Cairo this time?

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I read the speech and listened to some of the impact of it. What it did establish clearly was that the president respected Islam as a great civilization, respected it as a great religion, and knew quite a lot about it. I think that one has to say that earlier Western statesmen have all too often revealed their almost complete ignorance of Islam when they address it. So that was already a big plus.

He then talked about some of the problems in the region. Now, I suspect—I don't know for sure, but I suspect—that he thought he was going to get rather further with Israel than he did, so he would be able to say to moderate members of the Muslim world, like Egypt, like Jordan, and so on, "Look, we're getting somewhere. I'm taking a sensible, peaceful approach. I'm trying to say to the Israelis, 'You've got to give something as well as the Arab states have to give something.'"

He is, I would guess, a bit disappointed because, bluntly, the new Israeli prime minister—not the previous one, but the new one—Mr. Netanyahu has, of course, a pretty hard-line constituency in his own country. He's dependent upon people who want a very tough line indeed taken with the Arab world. The result of that has been that we've got almost nowhere.

President Obama has reiterated the need to stop settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, "No, not yet. We're going to finish the job that's at hand," which is some 250,000 new houses. President Obama has said, "You should take note of the so-called security wall between the Gaza and the West Bank in Israel," and he has had a fairly quick, brusque dismissal on that one.

So I think that now, in a way, President Obama is in a situation where he has to deliver something on the side of the Israeli-Arab peace talks if he is going to get any further with his whole approach from Cairo.

The hopeful thing there is that he's got in that some support from President Abdullah, and also from Jordan and Saudi Arabia in particular, towards trying to suggest that there would be a quid pro quo, that the Arab states would then throw their weight behind an attempt to build peace. That probably means, among other things, some financial help for the West Bank and Gaza, most of which are helped at the present time, oddly enough, by the European Union rather than by the Arab League.

Put it like this, the jury's out on that one. But it's going to be very difficult.

I'm a member of an international commission, nongovernmental, on nuclear disarmament and nuclear proliferation. That took me to Cairo.

It was pretty clear that there were fairly strong positions being taken, particularly by Israel on one hand, and, I guess it would be fair to say, among some of the Arab states also, in addition to Iran.

It's not going to be an easy one, but it's absolutely an essential one, because if we get nowhere with that—and we've gotten nowhere for the past 20 years; we've come awfully close, but we've never actually quite got there—it would make such a difference for the world's prospects of peace, such a difference, more than anything else.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This commission—I meant to mention in the introduction. You've done too much, you see. I can't cover everything.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Absolutely. Speed up, as your name suggests.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I did mean to mention the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, which was jointly convened by the Foreign Affairs in Australia and in Japan.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: By the governments actually, but it's not a government commission.

DAVID SPEEDIE: No, absolutely.

I'd like to do a quick tour d'horizon, some other spots—you mentioned the Middle East—all of these could easily take up all the time we have.

Afghanistan, for example, is clearly perhaps the most pressing challenge for the administration at the moment, for the Obama Administration, and then, by definition, in his interaction with NATO and other allies. So back to this global engagement question.

As native Brits, I suppose we are a bit more sensitive than most to the graveyard of foreign ambitions that has been Afghanistan. It was a liberal leader, one Gladstone, I remember, who spoke of the "irredeemable guilt of unnecessary war."

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Good for you. Nice quotation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Obviously, President Obama is in the middle of a long and deliberate process regarding Afghanistan. On the one hand, his own man, his own military man, McChrystal, is arguing for fairly rapid deployment of more troops.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: And a lot more troops.

DAVID SPEEDIE: A lot more troops.

Others, including Vice President Biden, are arguing for more of a focus on al-Qaeda and the Pakistani issue. I know you've also come back from Islamabad. So there is a wealth of issues that are going on.

What do you see as the prospects there?

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Well, I wonder. I had a long and interesting conversation with one or two of the senior foreign affairs ministers in Pakistan.

One of the things that one of them said to me—I'm not at liberty to say who, because it was a private conversation, but he was a very senior foreign office man in Pakistan—he said, and I have a lot of sympathy with it, "If you read the history of Afghanistan, which of course most people don't do, what you learn is that the only occasions when outside forces have had any really lasting impact in Afghanistan is when they recognize that this is not a centrally governed state and can't be."

I think we may—we, the Western world and NATO and so on—may have made the mistake from early on of believing that we could impose on Afghanistan a centralized rule, as clearly happened in Iraq. Iraq was already centralized, and we overthrew the existing government and we got another one.

In the case of Afghanistan, it's fairly clear that the rule of the central government doesn't run much beyond Kabul, and not even all of Kabul, that there are parts of Afghanistan which simply aren't going to be ruled from Kabul. That includes a lot of the border areas. And of course it extends on into places like Waziristan and Pakistan.

Maybe the sensible thing for us to seriously consider doing is not so much talking to the Taliban, which as a woman I would have considerable reservations about—their record is shocking on the education of girls and so forth—but rather with local leaders who had an interest in keeping their own areas at peace, making sure that we have a whole set of, as it were, bilateral discussions with them, and that we see the central government as being not much more than an administrative convenience for distributing certain things, like defense and aid and so forth.

I think the worry right now is that because the people of Afghanistan clearly do not have a great deal of faith in their newly elected, but dubiously elected, president—and we've got, in addition to that, of course, the fact that we have the quite striking testimony of Peter Galbraith, who was not prepared to keep quiet about the level of fraud—I mean everybody puts up a little fraud; this was a lot of fraud.

So there are always going to be questions about the legitimacy of Mr. Karzai. And there is always the problem with Afghanistan, since it's tribal, of how far you can only exert a tribal loyalty. So I think probably we ought to go back to the beginning and think not just about General McChrystal's additional troops, but about the whole issue of the relationship between Afghani civilians and the outside forces.

In that context, I think it's also true to say that ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] has not paid enough attention to the political repercussions of civilian deaths. It's quite clear that in Afghanistan that leaves behind a great sense of injustice and anger, and I think we pay a very heavy price for what is sometimes stupidly called "collateral damage," which actually means dying civilians.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Direct damage, absolutely.

I think the point about the illogical and overly heterogeneous linking of Iraq and Afghanistan is very much there. One issue that has come to the fore is the issue of recreating the—we won't go into the success or the nonsuccess of the surge in Iraq—but the idea of a surge in Afghanistan that would involve, among other things, essentially paying off tribal militias, which was part of the strategy of course in Iraq.

A scholar friend of ours who's at the Council, Kim Marten, at Barnard College at Columbia, wrote a marvelous op-ed a few weeks ago in the International Herald Tribune called "The Same Old Mistake," and it compared this to the British colonial army trying to make payoffs to the Pashtun areas in Pakistan in the late 19th century. So we're back to that history question again.


DAVID SPEEDIE: The dubious tactical immediate benefits of paying off the tribal interests vis-à-vis the long-term problems.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I've read that article. It's also rather nice that he, my Pakistani colleague, mentioned even earlier that in the late 18th century the British had got it right. They talked to local interests.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes, exactly.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I have one other thing to say on that, and that's quite important I think, and that is that what I'm saying doesn't mean that I think we can just scuttle. I wish I did think that, because politically it's increasingly difficult in the United States and in allies like the U.K. to actually get public opinion behind much longer staying in Afghanistan.

But I think what we have to do is to phase our way out, if I can put it that way. That means leaving behind us a structure that will hold even if we go.

So I don't disagree with the idea of training Afghan police and Afghan soldiers, perhaps with a special emphasis on Afghan police. But I think it's not a quick job. It takes a long time. I think General McChrystal said it would take ten years. There's no reason why we shouldn't actually get on with the job of training without actually having to be there as a large military complex.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Switch focus briefly to Iran and then we'll get into a different area somewhat.

Clearly, on Iran also the notion—and this comes back into the engagement question that the president is clearly committing to—some of the president's statements are obviously geared toward the notion that there must be not just an American initiative here but that others must be "onboard."

Sam Nunn, with whom you work closely in Washington of course, talked about the importance in a recent interview of the U.S. not always being the one to say everything every time, that others must be here. He quoted the statements of President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Brown at the UN.

On the other hand, Nunn also spoke about "having to keep the military action on the stove," but if that happened, it would also have to be under UN auspices and "the rest of the world with us."

How do you see this? Is the rest of the world really with us on Iran at this point?

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Well, let's put two things on the table.

I was in Iran last year. It's of course the case—I have to say this—that the Europeans have interacted to some extent with Iran. People travel there as tourists, there are cultural events, and so on. Americans have been absent ever since 1980 by their own choice. In my view, that was a huge mistake. It can't be put right overnight.

America has a great deal of work to do to reestablish some kind of relationship with Iran. The sooner she gets on with it, the better. I think the reestablishment of diplomatic relations coming out of these first steps towards a diplomatic conversation—they can't happen tomorrow because it's too early. But I think the moment that one sees any serious effort by Iran to meet some of the issues raised by the International Atomic Energy Authority [IAEA], the sooner and the better the United States should resume full diplomatic relations.

Now, having said that, which is partly a response to my deeply respected colleague Sam, I would add two other things.

The first thing to add is that Iran is astonishingly sympathetic to America. It's a very young country. Half of it is under the age of 20.

When I was there, one of the things that's very striking if you're a visitor to Iran is how warm is the response of the ordinary people. You go into a restaurant, you go into a concert, you go into a mosque, and people rush up to you and say, "Who are you? Where are you from? Do you like Iran? Do you like us?" It's quite touching actually how warm the response is.

So this is not a country to write off as a hopeless case. It's a country to recognize as yearning to be part of the outside world and is somewhat prevented from doing so by the nature of its current clerical government, quite apart from the secular government.

The second thing to say, I think, is that in my view a lot of what Iran is doing is driven by an intense wish to be seen as a major regional power and not somebody who would just be wiped out. They have some reason to feel, I think, angry about that. We, and particularly the United States, behaved very badly in the Iraq-Iran war, supplying arms to Iraq to mow down thousands of young Iranian men. The story is a terrible story. It's rather like the First World War, young men dying in trenches and so on. So we have a lot of ground to make up.

But I think, in return, what's actually happening—and the religious leaders and also the government are very clever players—what they're essentially doing is to milk every last bit of space out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, of which they are signatories, so that there's almost no space left between what the NPT will allow and what Iran is doing.

My guess is that what Iran is doing is to get the nuclear weaponization program to the point where it could be ready maybe in a matter of weeks. But they have not actually specifically breached the NPT.

The only way to get round that is to bring them back into the regional community, to set them up as a serious country to discuss with. But then I think one has to hold them to having to give more reassurance to the United Nations and the IAEA than they have yet done that they are not bent on weaponization.

One can only say that the recent decision, just a couple of days ago, to send the enriched uranium to be further enriched outside the country by France and Russia is quite a long step in the right direction. It's the first bit of encouragement for some time.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Of course, enrichment, as you say, is not per se a breach of NPT. The issue here seems to be a predisposition, at least in certain quarters in this country—and, I hate to say, I think in a more broadly political spectrum than one would wish—for things not to work, the notion that verification with Iran is not possible, it's not on the table, we'll never get anywhere with this. Well, that's almost begging for things not to go well.

Although obviously Iran is not India—you mentioned earlier the deal we did with India—sitting in Tehran that must have looked a little bit troublesome, to say the least.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I think a double standard.


SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: What we have to do—I think you're quite right, David, and one of the things I want to say very loud and clear—is that we have got to learn the lessons of Iraq, because on Iraq the more we go back over the ground—and we've done a lot of inquiries in Britain about how we ever got into this war—one comes back time and again to the way in which intelligence was bent a bit, built up a bit, heightened up a bit, in a way that made it look far more definite that Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction when it turned out that she hadn't.

What we're now getting is intelligence services being, thank God, a great deal more cautious than they were back in 1999 through 2002. That's a lesson they've learned but we haven't.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I remember—you may or may not remember—sitting with you in London I think in late 2002, when you said to me, "David, America isn't really going to go to war on Iraq, is it?" I sat like a fish in a bowl. I couldn't answer the question. But I was pretty sure what the answer was.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Yes, your mouth opening and shutting as you went.

DAVID SPEEDIE: What could I say?

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Just to add one other thing, we should be very clear that an attack on Iran would be far, far more expensive than an attack on Iraq, putting it in hard terms, because Iran is everywhere and Shia Muslims are everywhere. And, like it or not, Iran, like Italy, is in a sense a semi-holy nation for the Shia Muslims in the way that Italy is a semi-holy nation for Roman Catholics—not just an ordinary nation, but one with an extra dimension of religious significance. That's very important. It means that people will throw themselves in to support her all over the Muslim world—not the Arab world, the Muslim world. We have to understand that.

It's a very dangerous road to go, if we can possibly avoid it.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I hope you're on the glass-half-full side of it not happening. Or is that like the question you asked me back in 2002?

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Well, put it this way. I'll be now more encouraging. The fact it hasn't happened up to now shows that some lessons have been learnt. I have some reason to think that the idea of Israel going it alone and pulling the United States behind it is much less likely now. They know they can't count on that.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let me, if I may, switch tracks a little bit here to talk more about politics. I wish we could get into the healthcare—maybe towards the end I'll ask you for that anecdote about the healthcare.

But before we do, there is this bitter partisan debate at the moment on the healthcare issue. But it's at the point where The Guardian did an article recently—it was after President Obama, perhaps ill-advisedly, went to Copenhagen.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Yes, he went to Copenhagen, but for the wrong event.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And in various think-tanks in Washington on the right there was wild cheering and jubilation when Chicago did not get the [Olympic] bid. I mean this idiotic, extreme partisan politics. It has led to, obviously, a disillusion with politics as usual here.

But, for example, I live in New Jersey, where there has been the usual—perhaps even more advanced stage—political corruption recently, profound discontent with the mud-slinging campaign between the Republican and the Democrat. There is a strong independent candidate, supported by among others the Sierra Club and so on and so forth, running at 5 percent in the polls.

Now, you are the living embodiment of the third way, if I may say. You founded the Social Democrats and then the Liberal Democrats. In this country we've had people like Ross Perot, and then of course Ralph Nader, regarded as, at best, quixotic underdogs.

Speak a little bit about how you did what you did.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: One should make a very clear distinction—if you're a third party in a democratic country, which has so-called "first past the post" as its basic voting system, the weights are stacked against you colossally.

For example, at the present time in the United Kingdom we are like the United States. We uphold the "first past the post" system for domestic parliamentary politics. You need something like four times as many Liberal Democrats to elect one MP as you need Conservatives of Labour.

The reason for that is quite simple: that the Liberal Democrats have, broadly speaking, a common level of support in poor constituencies and rich constituencies, north and south, Scotland and Cornwall, and the big parties are much more heavily lined up with one region of the country, as in the United States, or with one group or several income groups, one or two races, et cetera.

So the paradox is that if you're a party of all seasons and all kinds of people, you will not do as well as if you're heavily concentrated on the areas which are most supportive of you.

Now, we knew that we were taking a great gamble on whether we could survive. I think what I would say, clearly, is we've survived for 35 years and we don't look as if we're going down the tubes. But something like 20 to 22 percent of the electorate, time after time, election after election, gives us less than 10 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. We have half as much representation as our voting power should give us.

In many ways, the question for us is whether we can hold on long enough to be able to argue for a serious change in the voting system—not necessarily all the way to proportional representation, as in Germany or as in France, but enough so that there's a recognition that all those millions of votes that are cast for us and lead to no MP being elected should count in an additional group.

Now, you're a Scot, and you will be aware that Scotland has adopted this. They have a part constituency and part regional election, which means that all parties in Scotland are closer to their real public support—they're not all the way, but they're half-way there—compared to parties in Westminster.

I think one of the reasons for the anger with—well, anger is too strong a word—but the apathy and disillusionment with Westminster flows from the fact that it doesn't represent what the public think they voted for.

There's also another factor. One has to be frank about this. You're quite right that corruption has always been a lurking hyena pursuing American politics. American politics is very expensive. It's hard to be a serious representative if you're a poor man.

That's not Britain's problem. We have a lot of people who are quite un-well-off, because we have very strict limits on what you can spend on elections, very strict limits. And, above all, we have no ability to buy private advertising for electoral purposes, not allowed. You can only have that share that your voting power dictates you should have. In other words, if a quarter of the people elected you in the last election, you'll get a quarter of the election broadcasts. If 10 percent did, you'll get 10 percent. What you won't get is as many as you can afford to buy, which is an American characteristic. Now, that's very bad.

But I have to admit that in Britain, on a much smaller scale, there is a feeling of great public outrage about the expenses that some MPs have claimed. We've seen a lot of coverage in the press. Now, by American standards it's small beer—you know, somebody gets dunned for spending $75,000 they shouldn't have spent on doing up their house. But, you know, corruption comes in all sizes and shapes. We've had a lot of problems with that. There has been a lot of public anger about MPs looking after themselves instead of their people. That's a common problem for both of us.

So yes, we do need modest constitutional change. We don't need a revolution, but we do need constitutional change.

A final point about that. It ain't just politicians. In your country, both your present country and your old country, and in mine, we see the same pattern of bankers doing very nicely for themselves, giving themselves huge bonuses, for what are actually very poor performances, even lousy performances. So we see great men leaving the scene, having been completely shown to have failed in their leadership. But the difference between them and a politician is that they carry away a couple of million dollars worth of settlements with which they can buy themselves a nice house in the Turks and Caicos Islands or somewhere like that.

You see the difference. That doesn't happen in the same way to politicians. If you're chucked out for corruption, you're chucked usually straight into prison or out of the whole scene.

DAVID SPEEDIE: If we had an audience, I think they would be applauding at this point.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I like to think so.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Tony Blair appeared on one of our late-night talk shows about a month ago. The loudest applause he got was when he mentioned that of course British election campaigns last for about six weeks.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Yes, of course.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Rapturous applause from the audience. Because, of course, then that campaign finance spending all comes into play with this.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: It's all one. You need them both.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes, exactly. But this ludicrously—obviously, we're a much bigger country. Six weeks—let's do six months of campaigning.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I think three would do.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'll go with you.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: You've got the Internet.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You've talked me into that.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I notice people are already starting on primaries for the next presidential election.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes. They're already going to Iowa. If I were the good people of Iowa, I'd say, "Go away and come back in—"

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Three years' time.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Exactly. It's quite ludicrous.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Completely crazy.

DAVID SPEEDIE: All right. Back to the hard stuff.

We did mention the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament. You're on the board of NTI [Nuclear Threat Initiative] in Washington, which is a great, terrific outfit.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: And it's really got somewhere.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Absolutely.

You're also an advisor to the prime minister.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Clearly, you've been in the forefront. We met actually, if I remember, when you were at Project Liberty at Harvard, right after the end of the Cold War. It goes back that far.


DAVID SPEEDIE: So you've always been on what we call here the cutting edge.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I'm always banging my head on good causes, not all of which ever get anywhere.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Continue to do so, please. But obviously, the nuclear question is taking up a lot of your time and energy and attention these days.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Yes, probably half my time.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Again, this gets into the proclaimed agenda of President Obama, the resolve to work with Russia on START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] and other things. There seems to be the recognition that some of us were vexed when it didn't seem to be in place that it's not so easy for the Russians to decouple the different parts of arms control—you know, START and missile defenses and so on and so forth—whereas certainly in the Bush Administration, to the extent they paid any attention at all, the notion was that we'd talk about this but it wouldn't be linked with that, and so on. There seems to be more of an openness. Do you see this?

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Yes. Also, it is quite clear, I find from work that I do, that you can't avoid linking. Let me give you one example, David.

There's a lot of—I'd almost call it anger, very strong irritation—among the non-nuclear-weapons powers about the failure of the weapons powers to disarm.

The non-nuclear-weapons powers, countries like Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and so on, feel that they have obeyed the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls upon them not to proliferate, they haven't proliferated. Obviously, Iran—well, we don't know about Iran—but certainly North Korea has. But they are relatively small exceptions to the rule.

Whereas the absolute responsibility of the nuclear-weapons powers, which was parallel, was for them to disarm. That was the price of nonproliferation. They didn't pay that price.

Britain has actually gone further than anywhere else among the nuclear powers by reducing it to almost the bare minimum—not quite, but nearly. My prime minister, whom I advise, has suggested he's taking one submarine out of the submarine delivery system, which would bring us back to reduction of 25 percent. We'd only have three submarines, and he's prepared to talk about them too if we can get further down the track to disarmament.

We're doing a huge amount of work on verification. And we've reduced since the Cold War ended by about 50 percent the nuclear presence of the United Kingdom. All right, we have to go further, but we've gone further than anybody else.

Now, the issue, therefore, is how we can get the big nuclear powers to move. Obama understood this issue and put your recent colleague Samore and other people into a position to bring it about.

What's so encouraging is that, not only on the American side, but on the Russian side, the proposal originally came forward for replacing the START I treaty, which was negotiated between George Bush the older, George Herbert Walker Bush, and at that time it would have been—not even President Putin, I guess—President Yeltsin for a major reduction, which happened, of strategic weapons. Then, after the change of government, nothing more happened. Ten years of wasted time.

The Russians themselves proposed that we should go back to seeing if we could find a successor to START I, and they are busily negotiating on that right now. I think—my guess would be—that the cuts they will suggest are more modest than most of us would like to see. Most scientists and experts believe that 500 nuclear weapons on each side would be more than enough. We probably won't get there, but we might get to 1,500, maximum 2,000. But given that the Russians have got something of the order of 13,000 nuclear weapons and we've got something like 9,000, a reduction even to 2,000 would be a big, big reduction. So that's the first thing to say.

The second thing to say is that in his gesture towards the Russians of ending the proposal for missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, Obama has recognized the fact that Russia is very sensitive to big military buildups on its borders—incidentally, we would be too. Imagine a nuclear missile set in Mexico and what the effect would be on Washington.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Mexico or Canada.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: So that's understandable, and it's a very sensible and brave thing to have done. That has created a very good atmosphere at the present time between Russia and the United States. I think it will mean that we get out of it probably at the beginning little cuts in arsenals.

The problem then becomes a much more American one, which is whether the second great step—the first great step being really serious reduction in arsenals—the next great step is ending the nuclear testing regime, because as long as you have a nuclear testing regime, you can get rid of one lot of weapons but you're building up another lot. It doesn't make any sense.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That's right.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: That comes down, of course, to the American Senate, and that's a much more difficult exercise, because you don't have to just carry the government—the government of Obama would be carried tomorrow morning—you have to carry the American Senate.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On CTBT [Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty].

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: On CTBT. And I have to say that it may not be recognized in the Senate, but we believe from the International Nuclear Commission that almost certainly if America were to sign the CTBT you would get—you've already got Indonesia saying she'll follow, the fourth biggest country in the world, and there's a lot of indications that China might well follow, which would make it very difficult for India not to come next. So you could get what one might call a kind of favorable momentum, which could end up with ending nuclear testing in all the big nuclear powers, whether or not they are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

That would bring in an era of standstill—we wouldn't go forward into yet more generations of nuclear weapons—while we work out how to cut arsenals and how to do the next big thing, the only other one I'll mention, which is the so-called Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, whereby you don't go on manufacturing plutonium and uranium for a whole new generation of nuclear weapons. That would mean that the world could take a deep breath and see that they had ahead of itself some years in which to build up structures of peace.

So these two are crucial building blocks. They require first an understanding by Russia and then an understanding by the United States. Without them we're just back to the arms race and it would be a matter of time.

Let me conclude this bit by saying that I think there's a very strong link between nuclear proliferation and the climate change issue. In both cases, we've probably got about 15 years. If we don't bring them under control within 15 years, to put it quite bluntly, we can say good-bye to the planet. It won't be possible to survive. That's something we've got to get into people's heads somehow. Otherwise they're betraying their children and grandchildren, because there won't be a planet for them to inherit.

DAVID SPEEDIE: More applause from the audience.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: No. It depends on the audience actually, David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes, it absolutely does.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Boos from some parts.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Not in the Carnegie Council.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: I guess not there.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We're getting close—the time has passed altogether—I knew it would, but it has passed even more quickly than I thought it would. Two other quick things.

First of all, it's not an entirely huge leap from what you've just said to this question about you. And again, back to Climbing the Bookshelves, available on Amazon.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: That's serious too.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In the small part I have read: "As a child, a free spirit who sought out and even courted adventure and at times danger." Are you still like that?

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: A bit, I suppose. Yes. I don't find myself very frightened going somewhere where it's supposed to be terrorism and so forth.

One of the things I really dislike about—it's a silly thing to say—terrorism is that it has deepened the gap between a protected elite and the people who are so angry about the world's injustices that they turn to violence. In the middle are millions upon millions of people who are neither the elite, because they're not wealthy enough or influential enough, and they're certainly not terrorists, because they care about their families and their kids and their country.

Somehow, these two are drifting further and further apart, because one lot are protected, the elite, and the other lot are not protected, and they are the ones that take the full weight of terrorism in their faces. They're the ones who lose their kids and lose their grandparents and lose their houses. We have to build to bring that back again, because otherwise we're going to have two sets of people in the world who don't know how to talk to one another and don't share the same problems.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On that note, it has been immensely enjoyable, as always.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: For me too, David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Very edifying.

Safe journeys. I know that you'll continue to have them. Knock your heads against those walls, but they're important walls.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: We'll try. Thank you very much.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm glad it's your head going against them. I feel better. Thank you so much.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: Thank you. All the best to you.

You may also like

APR 20, 2022 Podcast

The Doorstep: Defining the Role of the U.S. on the Global Stage

Global war, inflation, and a COVID-19 resurgence—the Biden/Harris team has been put on defense for first two quarters of 2022. This week, "Doorstep" co-hosts ...

APR 8, 2022 Article

A New Consensus for a New Era?

As we await the release of the National Security Strategy of the Biden/Harris administration, Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdvev shares an assessment of the birth ...

APR 7, 2022 Podcast

The Doorstep: Pakistan & the Populist World Order, with Atlantic Council's Uzair Younus

A leader asking his second in command to keep him in power. A parliament dissolved. A Supreme Court deciding the fate of a nation. Echoes ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation