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  • Writer's pictureTrack Two

Nuclear Threat Conference Report

May 18, 2021

In March and April 2021 Track Two held two conferences on the current state of the nuclear arms threat. Titled The Third Bomb, the first of these conferences was held online. Across three days and three 90-minute sessions, more than 130 people heard from nuclear experts who shared their opinions about the severity of the current threat of a nuclear event and what areas of the issue pose the greatest threat. Channels for non-governmental diplomacy were defined and several ideas for threat reduction raised. The follow-on conference held at Esalen in Big Sur in late April took the primary themes from the online conference and invited participants to explore more deeply the avenues for threat reduction. We invite you to watch the online conference sessions here.

Track Two is grateful to all who participated in these gatherings including: Jonathan Alter, Alexey Arbatov, Sarah Bidgood, Valerie Bishop, Antonina Bouis, Jean Claude Bouis, Jerry Brown, Anne Gust Brown, Elena Chernenko, Jack Gallagher, Lisa Goldman, Marian Goodell, Siegfried Hecker, Jim Hirst, Joichi Ito, Kei Ito, Mary Ellen Klee, Adlan Margoev, Evelyn Messinger, Tamar Miller, Carol Miskel, Dave Morin, Dulce Murphy, Michael Murphy, Hanna Notte, Jay Ogilvy, William Potter, Xiao Qiang, Ksenia Semenova, Kim Spencer, Rose Tenyotkin, Virginia Thomson, Anna Vassilieva and Cassandra Vieten. (Read More)

Professor William Potter, Former Governor Jerry Brown, Academician Alexey Arbatov, and Professor Siegfried Hecker address Track Two members on Day One of The Third Bomb conference (March 2021).

Following are key points that arose during the Conference. Track Two's intention in presenting this information is to help others in the field of international cooperation, nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear arms control, and peace building to better understand a high-risk circumstance in international competition that poses real planetary threats for humans and for all life. We also encourage all readers to consider the extraordinary thinking of the attendees regarding a way forward that can inspire and motivate new generations to end the nuclear arms race in favor of a more peaceful world.

Greatest Threats

As the largest nuclear powers Russia and the United States pose substantive threats to the security of the planet. Their arms can easily obliterate most of civilization. In the words of leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, however, there must never be a nuclear war. And yet current conditions in this key relationship are driving the risk associated with nuclear arms higher than it has ever been.

  • There is an astonishing lack of cooperation, civility and trust between leaders of the two nations today; this is echoed within the populace of both countries. Opportunities for cooperation have been squandered many times. Righteousness has led to the lack of trust but also empathy in the relationship. The danger of this lack of cooperation is a failure to act in the event of an accidental detonation, for example, that would trigger an aggressive response. Escalations involving accidents and miscalculations in an environment of no trust are the greatest threats.

  • From the US side, legislators are not interested in nuclear arms and in large part ignore them; there is a deep sense in the US that we are "right", Russia is wrong, followed by the misperception that the US is more powerful than it is! There is a serious lack of intent on arms control and very little interest in pursuing new and better practices. Complacency around peace building is palpable.

  • There is general disarray in International affairs as the US demonstrated an unwillingness to join international efforts to assure greater peace and a more optimistic future for the planet between 2016 and 2020. While this may change with the new administration, threads from the past exist and it will take time to effect change.

  • New "modernized" weapons are actually new weapons, often sporting interchangeable warheads. These make identification, counting and tracking difficult; and many are unsafe, developed under questionable procedures, making the accidental detonation threat even greater.

  • There appears to be high demand for nuclear materials from non-state as well as state players; and the mixing up of tactical, strategic and traditional nuclear weapons poses challenges for verification.

Image courtesy of the Arms Control Association

The intermediate nuclear powers also pose threats:

  • In the Middle East despite some progress towards greater cooperation represented through the Abraham Accord, the root of the security threat is ignored and the buildup of arms favored. This becomes a zero-sum game unless there is more work completed on understanding the roots of fear and need for control.

  • In China the ambiguity about nuclear arms intent is powerful and threatening and China is developing a nuclear triad that might, someday, pose more significant threats than is believed exists today. Further to China, the US poses an existential threat and there is no trust between the two nations, again escalating the risk in the event of an accidental detonation. And China is keeping a very close eye on its primary trade route, the South China Sea where tensions continue to rise between multiple players. China is now leading the US in certain arenas. Possibly the most worrisome is Artificial Intelligence.

  • Finally, India and Pakistan, in their arms competition and general hostility, are akin to the USSR-US during the Cold War. And the make-up of each country's arsenal poses great risks as tactical weapons, more random than the larger strategic weapons, are key to Pakistan's strategy in particular.

The Environment for Solutions

The complexity of finding solutions to intractable problems in international relations begs for confounding the outward conditioning that makes intrinsic rewards different for different people in vastly different societies. China's leadership is divided between two prevailing philosophies. One is referred to as legalism and the other as enlightenment. Legalists tend to lean on the historical notion of "Under the Heaven" where there is only one place under the heavens, one ruler and one way to rule. Enlightenment, represented by China's current "modernists" is a philosophy of governance that leans towards democracy. This latter is surviving and growing in China, but legalism and mass control continues to prevail. Xi Jing Pin has an elite political machine behind him who, far from sharing gains with the masses, continue to press for China's expansion, control of her people and the aggregation of funds by the elite! The Internet's free flow of information is seeding change but it is likely to be slow to evolve. China will respond to world activity on nuclear armament. But they will not be complacent. And again, in their world order, the US with its nuclear arsenal poses an existential threat.

In the US the nuclear threat has been under appreciated by State players, sector players and the public. Legislators are complacent and underinformed; media is reluctant to focus on what appears as "old news" and everyday people have no idea how serious the nuclear threat is today.

And in Russia new arms are dangerous, sentiment towards the West is bitter and arms strategists disagree with US strategists about arms control, monitoring practices and about each country's role in the Middle East!

And yet there is movement towards nuclear risk reduction!

  • Treaties are important tools and can mitigate the most pressing risk of inadvertent use.

  • Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national use and policy is a clear opportunity.

  • Limiting or eliminating use in the event of escalatory activities - border infringements, troop proximity in contested areas

  • Reinstituting the "Hotline" agreement that provided human warning of accidental detonations, false warnings, etc. and instigated immediate human-to-human, leader-to-leader discussion

  • Modification of the way nations conceive of or perceive of the use of nuclear arms - a unilateral approach to the general question regarding the senselessness of nuclear arms (Reagan/Gorbachev)

  • The planetary "realism" that has finally entered the Climate discourse pertains to the nuclear arms field as well. Nuclear arms pose an existential, planetary and humanitarian threat

  • Cybersystems complicate the nuclear threat and exacerbate it; tackling cyberthreats may help push technologies to solving rather than creating planetary threats.

Former California Governor Jerry Brown explores the potential for a U.S.-Russia summit (March 2021).

Former Governor Brown asked for support in preparing a list of near-term activities the Biden administration might engage in with Russia through a proposed upcoming Summit between Biden and Putin. These included:

  • Re-establishing the Open Skies Treaty of March 24, 1992, which was shut down by President Trump on November 20, 2020, and which Russia subsequently announced intentions to exit (on January 15, 2021).

  • Re-opening all appropriate US and Russian Consulates. These assure the vital conduct of state business and diplomatic events at regional levels, as well as providing the means to bring Russians and Americans together through cultural activities.

  • Organize a series of meetings among several tiers of Russian and America government staff, including:

    • the Military:

    • the Secret Services, National Security Advisors

    • several layers of staff to forward understanding and urge cooperation

  • Agree to new rounds of Arms Control negotiations, new treaties and engage arms experts in both nations to develop these.

  • Support the No First Use Act recently introduced by Elizabeth Warren and Adam Smith.

  • Develop a new narrative around dialogue - conversation between leaders at various levels can be decriminalized to allow for new voices in rebuilding the US-Russia relationship.

  • Gather journalists from both countries including radicals, nationalists, progressives and centrists, to learn about and from one another.

A series of questions also emerged:

  • Can "trust" be put on the table and mechanisms enacted to build trust?

  • Are there immediate opportunities that can be acted upon quickly to inspire more positive activity? (see the list above for Gov. Brown)

  • Can we create a new story - a new "worldview" in which nuclear weapons simply have no role to play and the billions used to fund them is redistributed to other more needy arenas?

  • Can publics be engaged to help a new "worldview" become the prevailing reality?

Trust Building Possibilities


  1. Take steps to build confidence among players, particularly Russia and the US

  2. Hold a summit

  3. Examine the roots of poor decision-making and do not repeat blindly

  4. Explore shared values - i.e. no one ever wants a nuclear war to take place

State Players:

  1. Create a series of gatherings between State Players at different levels to share visions, obstacles and connection

  2. Break down the nuclear threat into digestible pieces that can each be addressed:

    1. No first use

    2. No immediate launch on impact

    3. No "dead hand"

  3. Link climate activity to nuclear arms activity

  4. Introduce the case for "ethics" in international relations as well as arms conflicts

Sector Players:

  1. Create opportunities for journalists from all perspectives to learn and discuss the issue together in gatherings - held in a variety of locations but bring together journalists across borders

  2. Share resources and ideas across the NGO community working to end the nuclear threat

    1. Support collaborations across sectors between Russians and Americans, particularly in humanitarian fields, the arts, the Space program and others

    2. Warren No First Use petition

    3. Conference summaries and sharing ideas

  3. Build on the educational programs already in place to develop empathy, understanding and awareness among students


  1. Decriminalize discourse with Russians

  2. Create Films for Peace - that pose a new narrative/worldview about our "enemies"

  3. Share opportunities to engage:

    1. Petitions

    2. Learnings from videos & podcasts

    3. Gaming collaborations

Members of Track Two's network convene at Esalen to explore creative solutions to the nuclear threat (April 2021).

Awareness Building Activities


  1. Share stories, revisit old films and reimagine truth in relationships through some targeted media efforts delivered by high level officials

State Players:

  1. Create a series of House of Representative presentations on the nuclear threat;

  2. Inform and educate legislators about risk levels through presentations, articles, story-telling in Washington; present these in the "new world view" framework - here is the vision, how do we get there?

  3. Create "pitches" for legislators to raise the issue that also offer immediate solutions and activities their constituents can engage in

Sector Players:

  1. Create information briefings for journalists

    1. Launch several social media campaigns through NGOs in the field to stimulate action and attention

    2. Support NGOs as they provide actions for activists to take

    3. Develop "memes" or messaging that pokes fun at what we don't "see" and can be employed in NGO, educational and journalistic networks

  2. Build on the educational programs already in place to develop empathy, understanding and awareness among students

  3. Create art installations that celebrate a new world view

  4. Share Cassandra Vieten's "Ecosystem of Change" with NGOs to inspire better approaches to raising awareness and ending nuclear proliferation.

Cassandra Vieten's Ecosystem of Change


  1. Games for Peace - invite young people to create their own future - without nuclear weapons

  2. Share opportunities to engage:

    1. Petitions

    2. Learnings from videos & podcasts

  3. Engage social influencers in the new narrative - vloggers, etc. with memes and animations

  4. Present art everywhere that "encourages discrepancy" in a world view too long held and upheld

  5. Discuss Ethics as a foundation for right action on a planetary level

  6. Link Nuclear to Climate threats and grow awareness more quickly

  7. Create or share Podcasts raising awareness and offering new narratives


More on The Third Bomb:

Download This Report:

Track Two Report on Nuclear Threats Conf
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