Trust, but Verify
A setback is transformed into an important clarifying moment
Thanks in large part to WBAI radio talk show host and all-around good guy Randy Credico, we called an audible following the cancellation of a speaking engagement months in the making at the Russian Samovar Restaurant in New York City and, in the span of a few days, flawlessly executed a “Plan B” at an alternative venue in midtown Manhattan. There, an overflow crowd (we expected 25, and got nearly 40) gathered for a fantastic lunch (thank you, “Pete the Greek”), great company and, if I may say so, one of the better public speaking performances I have delivered in a while.
While the constraints brought on by rampant Russophobia in America today had limited the scope of the presentation I had planned for the Russian Samovar to issues of disarmament related to my latest book, Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika, I was under no such restriction at the “Plan B” venue. However, out of respect for the original intent of the presentation, I opted to stick to the game plan and focused my talk on what was the heart and soul of the book—the implementation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, as seen through my eyes, and what that experience could teach us about moving forward regarding US-Russian relations today.
The reaction of the audience, most of whom were drawn to the event not so much by the topicality of the book but rather the desire to hear me talk about the current events in Ukraine and the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, was overwhelmingly positive. While I limited my presentation to the INF treaty and the importance of nuclear disarmament, I did entertain questions about the current situation in Ukraine. However, I found that most of the questions asked about the war in Ukraine focused on what would happen after the war ended. How would the US and Russia ever recover from an environment that was being defined by so much death and destruction? More specifically, how could Russia ever trust the United States to the extent necessary to ever again enter the kind of treaty relationship that I describe in my book?
Scott Ritter will discuss this article and answer audience questions on Episode 37 of Ask the Inspector.
The combination of my presentation and the interaction brought on by the question-and-answer exchanges led me to an answer which had eluded me up until that moment. Whether playing football in high School and college, or carrying out my assigned missions in the Marines, as a UN weapons inspector, or as a volunteer firefighter, I was always told that when the situation gets complicated, go back to the basics. This maxim held true when standing before the attendees at the “Plan B” event, confronted with the eternal question, “What are we to do?”
The answer came to me: Trust, but verify.
That was the old Russian aphorism that was repurposed by President Ronald Reagan as the foundational principle underpinning the American approach to arms control as manifested in the INF treaty, which for the first time in US-Soviet arms control history incorporated as the primary treaty compliance verification mechanism the concept of on-site inspections carried out by teams of trained personnel.
History has its lessons, and one of the critical lessons of the INF treaty was that by making on-site inspection the cornerstone of verification, the lack of trust that existed on the part of both the US and Soviets sides could be mitigated.
My main takeaway from my presentation was that if the US and Russia did not resume disarmament talks with the purpose of producing meaningful disarmament treaties, then the two sides would soon enter a nuclear arms race which, unconstrained by treaty relationships, would inevitably lead to a nuclear conflict and the end of humanity as we know it today.
And yet, the current state of relations between the US and Russia are such that there is no dialogue taking place about either preserving the sole remaining arms control treaty in existence today—the New START treaty, set to expire in 2026—or negotiating new treaties, such as a new INF treaty that could reduce the threat of nuclear war emanating from the extremely tense situation in Europe today.
Left to their own devices, I have little faith in either the US or Russian governments breaking the current impasse that exists regarding the lack of negotiations; the US is not receptive to real arms control, being instead focused on how any future negotiations could be used to further American strategic advantages, and while Russia is open to real negotiations, it is not inclined to keep banging its head against a closed, locked door.
During the Q&A at the “Plan B” event, a gentleman brought up the history of citizen involvement when it came to the issue of nuclear disarmament. On June 12, 1982, over one million people gathered in New York City’s Central Park to give voice to their demands for nuclear disarmament and an end to the Cold War arms race. This unprecedented level of civic engagement on such an important issue helped pave the way for the conservative administration of President Ronald Reagan to understand that there was domestic political support for nuclear disarmament despite the opposition to such by hardliners in the Reagan administration and the US Congress, thereby liberating them to consider policies that previously would have been dismissed out of hand as politically unviable.
Anyone who knows me, and my experiences with the so-called “anti-war” movement that existed in the lead-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, knows that I have little faith in the power of demonstrations, and even less faith in grassroots movements, when it comes to creating the conditions for fundamental change in American foreign policy.
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This stance appears to clash with my oft-repeated mantra of freedom of speech, and the related notions of debate, discussion and dialogue which give it relevance, as being one of the cornerstone principles of a viable democracy. If I encourage free speech, but have no faith in those who either engage in it or are its recipients to accomplish anything meaningful in the process, then why bother?
My critics, of course, are correct—if I’m not willing to walk the walk, then why bother talking the talk.
I came away from the “Plan B” experience reinvigorated. I have, for some time now, promoted Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika as more than simply a unique work of history, but also as a template of success that would bring hope to those who believed that the current state of US-Russian affairs was beyond repair. I would deliver that pitch, and then speak of the importance of engendering a national debate, dialogue and discussion on the importance of disarmament, before leaving the audience to wonder just how such a debate was going to come about.
I was taught early on as a Marine that if you’re going to identify a problem, you had better have a viable solution identified before you open your mouth. In short, don’t be the squeaky wheel, but rather the grease.
Here’s my “grease”: I am going to continue to speak out about the importance of disarmament by promoting the message of hope contained in my book.
But I am now going to do so much more. My book is currently being translated into Russian, after which it will hopefully be published in the Russian Federation. If this occurs, I will push for a Russian book tour. My goal would be to travel the length and width of Russia, bringing the same tale of hope to the Russian people that I try to deliver here in the United States.
One of the greatest roadblocks facing Americans today when it comes to generating broad-based support for nuclear disarmament is the fact that most have been poisoned by the incessant Russophobia promulgated by the mainstream media at the behest of the US government. This Russophobia takes hold because of the level of ignorance that exists amongst most Americans regarding the reality of Russia, both in terms of the nation, but especially its people. From ignorance comes fear, and it is this fear that fuels the current state of Russophobia in America today.
I believe that a tour of Russia built around themes derived from my book would engender a dialogue between myself and the Russian audience that would be eye-opening for most Americans, so much so that if they were to bear witness to such, they might become empowered with the kind of knowledge and information that could overcome the fear-based ignorance that currently serves as blinders about the real state of affairs.
We are led to believe that Russians hate America. I firmly believe that a book tour in Russia would provide ample evidence that this was not the case.
But this brings up the adage, “If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody hears it, did it actually fall?”
A book tour that simply reveals the truth about how ordinary Russians feel about Americans, and the issue of nuclear disarmament, that is only revealed to me and the Russians I have the privilege to interact with, is little more than a feel-good exercise that, in the end, changes nothing.
However, a book tour where the Russian reaction is captured on film, and that film is turned into a movie that can be shared with the American public, is now a weapon of truth.
If I am to undertake a book tour of Russia, I will be accompanied by a team that documents this experience on film. I will then work with specialists to turn this film into a movie that can be shared with as many Americans as possible, with the goal being to cut through the Russophobia that has gripped the United States by showing my fellow citizens the reality of Russia and the Russian people—that they are, in the end, just like us, and have no grander ambition than to live in peace, void of the fear of imminent nuclear conflict.
This is an ambitious project, one that will require the help of citizen organizations across the country. While in Russia, I hope to identify people and organizations who are, as citizens, willing to engage with their American citizen counterparts to create a grassroots movement in both nations designed to further the cause of nuclear disarmament.
I am confident that I will be able to produce a very informative and motivating documentary film derived from any book tour of Russia I might be able to arrange. I will need help in getting that film before as many American audiences as possible.
Back in 2007 I wrote a book, Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Anti-War Movement. The premise of the book was that the anti-war movement lacked the basic organizational principles that would enable it to “win”—that is, to prevent war.
The war in question was the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and unfortunately my lack of faith in the anti-war movement was borne out, not from a lack of effort, but rather a lack of focused, sustainable effort.
In short, the anti-war movement lacked the ability to win.
I am working with Jeff Norman, the founder of U.S. Tour of Duty and my partner in the Ask the Inspector podcast, to repurpose the message contained in that book, and create an updated playbook that could be used to help invigorate American activists with the means to achieve victory in their respective causes. Jeff and I have reached out to several individuals and organizations to help bring this new edition of the old message to life.
My cause is disarmament, and I will be working with Jeff to use the principles set forth in this new work to create an audience for the Russian book tour documentary that, after seeing the film, would be willing to reach out to their Russian counterparts and make the promise of a US-Russian citizen dialogue about nuclear disarmament a reality.
That’s my dream.
Trust, but verify. It is up to the governments of the United States and Russia to come up with jointly acceptable mechanisms of compliance verification for any future arms control treaty or treaties they might negotiate.
But is up to the people of the United States and Russia to rebuild the kind of trust that would enable their respective governments to once again engage in the difficult but essential task of disarmament.
I choose to be more than a squeaky wheel when it comes to the issue of nuclear disarmament.
I am the grease.
I will be reporting back as this project moves forward. And I will be reaching out for assistance, both in the United States and in Russia, in making this project not just a reality, but a success.
Who knows—maybe someday in the not-so-distant future, we can see a time where a million Americans fill streets of New York City, while a million Russians fill the streets of Moscow, united in the common cause of nuclear disarmament.
United in the cause of saving humanity.