Interview with Ambassador Linton Brooks within «Oral History of Nuclear Nonproliferation» Project

May 18, 2023

Interview with Ambassador Linton Brooks (one of the US chief negotiators at START-I talks, Under Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Security from 2002 to 2007) within Oral History of Nuclear Nonproliferation Project

One of PIR Center’s core values has always been listening and respecting different views and stances on the international issues. While being in Geneva at the international conference Sixty years of the Cuban Missile Crisis: lessons for the 21st century held by GCSP, PIR Center and CNS in October 2022, we had a beautiful chance to meet two outstanding diplomats who were almost literally on the different sides of barricades and headed the Soviet and the American delegations relatively at the final stage of START-I talks – Ambassador Yuri Nazarkin [1] and Ambassador Linton Brooks. We asked them about the difficulties and twists at the talks, the art of the internal and bilateral diplomacy and more broadly – how finally they managed to bring to an end the negotiations on, surely, the most complex and longest arms control treaty – START-I. Today we want to share with you the American part of the story told by Ambassador Linton Brooks.

– You were involved in the negotiations on START-1, a treaty that is considered one of the most qualitative and thoroughly worked out disarmament treaties. What was the most difficult for you at that time? Were there any moments when you thought that the signing of the agreement would not take place?

Yes, but much of work had been done even before I got there. There were, actually, six chief negotiators on the US part and the negotiations lasted nine years. There were many difficult issues: some of them – old ones, which we no longer care about, some of them were about these which we still do. You remember that in the Cold War period the US were sure that the USSR would cheat on any agreement. One of my colleagues once said that Russians would cheat even if it was not in their interests – just out of principle. So, we had a great many provisions which were designed to prevent circumvention that almost certainly the Russians had no plans to do. For example, we limited the number of the static, displayed missiles, the number of silos that could be a test ranges. We feared that in some time the Soviets would declare a hundred missile test range and gain an advantage. We limited all sorts of things like that. One of the reasons why the New START is much shorter than START-I was that the US came to realize that none of these things finally happened, that Russians have no means to maintain forces they are allowed and that’s why they wanted to cut down further. But we didn’t know that back then.

In fact, you have to acknowledge that we both wanted to cheat out of their own objectives and our objectives were not completely consistent. For example, we had an enormously complex process for taking a missile which used to have three warheads and counting it for only one warhead because that was what we were going to do with one of our missiles.

Another problem was that, periodically, me and my counterpart went to our Foreign Ministries to fix the provisions we agreed on. And when we were coming back it used to turn out that the Russian version of what we agreed on and the American one differed. So, I started to practice that we would write everything down. It helped us to think in advance what the Ministries would agree on. If we didn’t think that the Ministry would agree on a thing, we wouldn’t write it down.

Me and my counterpart we managed to find ways to satisfy the hardliners on both sides. On my side that was the office of Secretary of Defense, on his side it was military-industrial commission. I think an important lesson from this experience was that it’s not a negotiator’s job to help to the other side but it is a negotiator’s job to understand what the other side needs to agree and figure out how to do it.

The end game was also very hard. The American and the Soviet sides had had a high-level meeting in Washington. And then the officials came out and said, “We agreed on all the major issues and the Treaty will be signed on July 31”. When they said this, I had 104 issues on which I was not authorized to reach agreement without Washington’s permission and here’s where you had to work very hard not only to negotiate with the Soviets but also with Washington. What I told them was that I would solve all these issues, tell you what I am doing but I would not consult with you on all the things. And most of those 104 issues we solved relevantly and easily with my counterpart. One of the techniques we used was to solve things in pairs – so that we solve one issue that was an American concern and at the same time – one that was a Soviet concern and send in package. It didn’t make any sense but it was easier for capitals to accept it.

So, it was a very complex and much huge treaty – I mean, there is not only the Treaty, but also several Appendices, a Memorandum of understanding, four compelling executive agreements signed by the Secretary of State, I think, ten consecutive agreements signed by me and my counterpart and there are many unilateral statements, many of which were issued to satisfy concerns of the other side. And there was a huge briefcase with the mastercopy of the Treaty. I remember myself standing once in front of the Soviet Embassy at 1 am with a huge suitcase marked Secret hoping that the State department will show up before the FBI did (laughing).

You said about the practice of solving the issues in pairs. Can you give examples of such issues when the parties made mutual concessions?

Ambassador L. Brooks (U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Security from 2002 to 2007, first from left), R. M. Timerbaev (center). Meeting with L. Brooks, PIR Center, November 27, 2001. Source: PIR Center Photo Archive.

It was thirty years ago (laughing). But, generally, the US part was more concerned about verification procedures. For example, the Soviet side would agree on the number of inspections and we would agree on the restrictions on what the inspectors could do.

Our attitudes were also different. The Soviets were very strict about the precise language. For instance, we had an agreement that we could take a picture of systems once they deployed on displays. We wanted to take pictures left side, right side, forefront, back and overhead – five in total. But the Soviets said that it was too many and allowed us to take the picture of the left side only. They promised that we could take another four when we return after the Treaty comes into force. When we returned, they let us take four more pictures but again of the left side only – because that was said in the text. And there were many examples like that.

And did you manage to refute false allegations or remove suspicions thanks to the inspections under the Treaty?

Yes, for example, there was an American theory that there were tunnels where the Soviet Union might hide its missiles. In fact, the Soviet Union had 4 launch submarines tunnels designed in the middle of World War II and when we came there we realized that there are just holes in the ground and we have nothing to worry about.

How did you determine the parameters of future reductions?

The fundamentals of the Treaty, the principal limits were agreed on much higher levels. I knew what the warhead limit was going to be, what the missile limit was going to be… There were some disputes on the ICBM sublimit, which the USSR didn’t want. So, what I am driving at is that the negotiators’ job was to find common grounds on technical details, and the negotiation process was not so glamourous as one might thing. I was lucky with the people I worked with – both with my counterparts and my colleagues. I was not lucky though that I didn’t have Russian speakers in my team. All Soviet diplomats spoke excellent English but the Soviet military didn’t. One of the military spoke a bit of German and I remember we tried to discuss something in German with him.

It is commonly known that sometimes at the negotiations things are agreed more easily not at the negotiations table but during informal meetings, walks, etc. Can you remember examples of that during the START-1 talks?

Of course, sometimes we would come up with strategisms with my counterpart. He would say, “People in my delegation do not agree to give so many inspections as you ask. So why wouldn’t you ask for six and I would say two, and then we would compromise on four”. Of course, he was protecting his country and I protected mine but we were also dealing with the realities inside the negotiation groups.

– The initial position of the USSR was to connect the START treaty and the ABM Treaty. How did you manage to convince the Soviet side to change it?

Well, that happened well before I got there, but we agreed that there would be three separate negotiations: START, INF and what we call Defense and Space.

By the time I got there, INF was done, and technically, the Defense and Space negotiator worked for me, but practically his job was to have nothing to happen. I mean, I’m being very frank. And when the two governments decided they’d go ahead and sign START, and I think that President Gorbachev saw START as an important milestone for him and President Reagan. He saw it as part of being able to divert intellectual and financial resources away from military and into things that would help the Soviet economy. And so he agreed on splitting the baskets.

Because I know it in theory, when we all signed the treaty and got out of Geneva, in theory, we were going to come back and finish Defense and Space talks. Never happened. Never. So, the American negotiators were completely set and completely met all requirements which were in general to just talk forever.

– So, was there an understanding from both sides that the ABM is non-negotiable and It’s better to concentrate on strategic Arms reduction?

Well, that seems to be what happened. It looked like president Reagan was captivated by the Strategic Defense Initiative, the very elaborate plan which most American scientists didn’t think would work and many Russian scientists were afraid to work.

So, in Reykjavik what they actually talked about was eliminating all nuclear weapons or all offensive missiles. We cleaned up the story after the fact to make it sound like all offensive missiles, but I think his records clear. The president was willing to agree to the abolition of nuclear weapons and it was visible between our countries because nobody else really had a significant amount. But he was not willing to give up SDI.

And the Defense and space talks were really about Russia trying to find ways to limit SDI. Perhaps after Reykjavik Gorbachev decided he wasn’t going to get that, but he could get the START.

With the end of the Cold War, the American enthusiasm for SDI and all the high-tech ideas just went away.

Even then we withdrew from the ABM Treaty in order to develop a much more limited system than Strategic Defense Initiative, which came to be called Star Wars in the United States.

And it was intended to be a pejorative term, although, as one of my colleagues said, it’s a great movie. The good guys won.

– But from your point of view, was the SDI justified? We know that it is really expensive. Was there any necessity for it?

Well, I think a small group of very smart technical zealots captured the imagination of Secretary of Defense Secretary Weinberger and the president.

I think we cannot defend against Russian ballistic missiles at any cost. And I don’t see us trying. The argument in the United States tends to be about China. The official national missile defense program is designed against North Korea.

That’s probably good, because we don’t think we understand North Korean decision-making well enough to completely depend on deterrence. And we think that their systems are crude enough so that we have a good chance of intercepting a significant number of them. And it’s a very small force.

There are those who would like us to establish a goal of defending against Chinese missiles. I just don’t see the political will to do that. I think for China, we depend on deterrence as well.

Now, if China were to attack us, of course we would try to shoot down their missiles. Even if Mars attacks us, we try to shoot down missiles. But I don’t think that we will build significantly larger forces.

That doesn’t bother me. I think deterrence, strategic stability depends on the possibility of mutual assured destruction. I don’t like relying on that, but it’s what we’ve got to rely on. I happen to believe that it has helped prevent war for most of my lifetime, and so I’m a big believer.

– And did you have worries that the Treaty might not be ratified by the Senate? As it was with START-II or SALT-II?

The main problem is that when you sign a treaty you never get everything you want. The only document when you get everything you want is a surrender document. I explained to the senators that yes, it could have been better but now you have a choice: to have a treaty which generally satisfies us or to have none. I was fortunate that 90 out of 100 senators voted for the ratification. START-II was a very different and odd story. The Treaty could not have been agreed six months earlier and could not have been agreed six months later. When we agreed on the START-I we thought that it was the maximum reductions we could allow. But then one US senior official did a thorough examination of how the US military were implementing the President’s guidance and concluded that they were doing it excessively. So, all of a sudden, we found out that we could do more reductions. The Russians also found that they were broke and it is better to reduce their weapons. We wanted to limit the ICBMs, which consist the base of the Russian SNF, to one warhead (instead of MIRVs that contained several warheads. – A.Z.) and we agreed on that.

The negotiations went in a different way, there were no formal delegations, I mean there were foreign ministers and chief negotiators and I was leading our group to Geneva. But in Geneva we worked almost as if in one delegation with Russians because it was a great period of euphoria over time. And what was particular about the Treaty was that every word of the Treaty was written after it was clear that George H.W. Bush lost the election. And it was signed after the President lost the election.

START-II was finally approved by both parties. For the United States it took three years. However, our Senate said we had to have freedom on ABM. The Federation Council said there can’t be any change in the position on ABM. So, the treaty never came into effect. It did, however, have some effect in the United States. The United States at that time had a very accurate ten warhead missile called Peacekeeper, also called MX. The Air Force was very forceful about how important it was. In fact, if you look at START-I you will find that new missile silos are allowed. And that was the US insistence because the Air Force was convinced that America would wake up and decide it needed more Peacekeepers than America ever made. And when we agreed in START-II that we would abolish it, the Air Force stopped doing maintenance on their system because there is no purpose for maintenance on something that’s going to be abolished in a few years. By the time of New START, START-II was officially declared dead. They couldn’t really afford to write it back. So, we retired the Peacekeeper system because of START-II, even though START-II was never implemented. I have no idea if there’s a Russian similar example. I don’t think so.

One of the central questions for the START-II treaty was the problem of the United States still had a “return potential” (they could return to combat readiness up to 50% of the weapons that the treaty limited). Don’t you think that it was an unfair provision and how was this discussed during the talks?

My understanding is that Russia decided that the overall treaty was in its interest. Since it was clear, we were not going to limit that, they stopped asking. It was an issue and it remains an issue for some.

I’m not sure how big an issue it really is. Russian senior officials often mention it, but there have been several ideas for fixing that but they never seem to go anywhere. In fact, under our modernization program, that potential will be significantly reduced. First of all, the Minuteman Missile had three warheads and we reduced it to one. But when the Peacekeeper Missile was retired, we took the Peacekeeper warhead and put it on some of the Minutemen. Minuteman only carried one of the Peacekeeper warhead. It’s a warhead called W 87. And so we can’t really upload the Minutemen as much as people think. And then the Columbia class will have only 16 tubes, the Ohio class was built with 24 tubes and agreed to reduce to 20 tubes in and so what we’re going to have is we’re going to reduce the number of sea based ballistic missiles (SLBM).

So, the upload potential is less and less every year unless you count bombers. And bombers have always been hard. We had a consensus at that time that a bomber was advantageous to the United States. And the rule was basically that for each bomber, we would just assign a number for the warheads. It was not an arbitrary number, but it was not related to anything specific. Our argument was bombers are not suitable for a first strike. And secondly, at the time, there was a very robust Soviet air defense. And so, bombers, unlike ballistic missiles, faced defenses. That was a self-serving argument, obviously, but the Russian Federation bought it. And in fact, the suggestion to count our non-cruise missile carrying bombers as one was made by the Marshall Sergey Akhromeyev and accepted instantly by us because it was a sensible solution. So, there were ideas. The verification ideas came largely from the United States. The ideas about specifics came from both sides.

But why wasn’t the USSR so concerned about the verification? Why was it the point?

Well, I think that the Soviet period was a period of great internal secrecy. I will give you a concrete example. My first counterpart, had been an arms control expert for 25 years. He had never seen a ballistic missile. He had never seen a bomber. He had never seen a SLBM.

In contrast, we took my delegation on a five-day trip where we went out, went down in siloes. We went to bomber bases. We went to a submarine base and went through the submarine. We went to the factory that made SLBMs so that we would understanding on how to verify them. Then a small subset of it was about the B2, which at the time was a very secretive program.

I think it’s just different. I consider, the United States is more open and it’s particularly less prone to secrecy than the Soviets. One of my counterparts was asked by a Soviet military officer to stop talking about a particular subject when the diplomats were in the room because the foreign ministry wasn’t authorized to know about it.

And so that was just the Soviet era. I think that cultures don’t change. I think that the Russian Federation has always been worried that inspections are gathering intelligence information. They aren’t. But I just think, I mean, I am not the expert on Russian culture. Russians are expert on Russian culture.

So, I think that was one of the things we had to understand, was the different cultural perspectives. We worked through it, but it’s an important difference and it comes up today in in all sorts of areas.

Do you think that while talking about the future of arms control, that we should then concentrate still on nuclear weapons? Or that the future negotiations should also consider some new types of them?

I think we can take the New START Treaty and add something about all weapons. I’m not sure if that can be more than confidence-building measures. We can add some things that will make it clear that we’re not going to go back to the Strategic Defense Initiative.

And there are several specific things which will be easy for us to say we won’t do because we have no plans to do. I think we could focus on space and cyber.

The real question on cyber is attempts to interfere with nuclear command control. I think most people in the United States think that’s a bad idea, but not all of them.

I think that I don’t understand space well enough. In the United States, space programs with military impact are quite heavily classified, so it’s very hard to have a serious discussion. One of my predecessors at the arms control agency found that when he was in government, he had thought that cyber would be one that he couldn’t discuss. But he found that the compartmentation in space programs was even greater. So, I am doubtful about space. Now, there are some things like fractional orbital bombardment. But I don’t think the next treaty is likely to get into either side’s concern in space.

I think that we’ve already seen the United States moratorium on debris causing ASAT tests, and thus far, and Chinese colleagues have not been in favor of that. But everything’s impossible until you figure out how to do it. So, if I figure out how to do it, I don’t know any obstacles.

If the Russians need a legally binding treaty that strictly limits all the parameters of missiles, I think that it is unlikely. I think it’s hard to believe that that can be ratified by the United States Senate.

I also believe that arms control is designed to allow us to maintain strategic stability without getting into large arms races. Now, I do think that in the next negotiation we’re going to have to do something to satisfy Russian concerns about missile defense, even though we think they are unwanted or ineffective. We have a couple of ideas but it’s a little early to roll out. If the Russians say they’ve taken our concerns, I can give them two or three ways that really do take their concerns into account.

[1] The interview with Ambassador Yuri Nazarkin (in Russian) can be found at the link:

Key words: Oral History; Arms Control