Dr. Gregory Kulacki is a senior analyst and the China Project Manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization of engineers and scientists identifying problems and developing solutions to planet-related issues. He has discussed nuclear arms control and space security with experts in China and the United States and consulted with NASA, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the U.S. House China Working Group. His work has been cited in major media outlets like NPR, the New York Times and the Washington Post. On Oct. 12, he spoke about the relationship between the United States and China in Highly Hall auditorium.
You’ve lived in China for roughly 20 years and are fluent in Mandarin Chinese. How would you describe a Chinese citizen’s perspective on the United States?
The average Chinese person doesn’t exist. You can get in a lot of trouble thinking things like that. I generally hear from friends, relatives, colleagues that they all have a favorable impression of the United States. Most of the children of the senior leadership of the Chinese Communist Party [study] in the United States. A large swath of their defense science people, who work on their space program and their missile program and their nuclear program, have all either been to the United States or studied in the United States. So I think there’s a lot of understanding about the U.S., and I don’t think there’s any overwhelming ill will. Of course, when you read things in the Chinese papers and speeches from the foreign ministry, there you can detect a certain degree of suspicion and anger at some of the things they perceive the United States is doing that they perceive is unfair. Even with all that, the same statements don’t carry what I would see as an equal level of hostility to some of the things that have been said about China in the U.S. presidential campaign by both candidates.
What’s one persistent rumor about the relationship between the U.S. and China you would like to debunk?
Oh, there’s too many. The most important on the nuclear issue is the idea that the Chinese are going to rush up and build a whole lot of nuclear weapons in a hurry if the United States decides to reduce. They call it the sprint to parity, and it’s a rumor that’s been around for decades.
Some experts have described our current political dynamics with Russia and China as approaching a new Cold War. Would you describe it that way?
Yes, I think it’s a fair description. Although the past doesn’t repeat itself, there are certain patterns in the relationship that are the same. On the nuclear level, the most important pattern that’s the same as the Cold War is that we’re guessing what each other is doing instead of talking to each other about it. That’s one of the reasons why we had an arms race in the first race. If we don’t fix that, we’ll end up having another arms race.
We talk a lot about this question of temperament — the person who is the “right” person to decide to launch a nuclear weapon. Do you think this is the right way to be talking about launching nuclear weapons?
The problem isn’t who has their finger on the button; the problem is the button itself. We shouldn’t have set things up so one person can end human civilization as we know it with a six-minute decision. It’s irresponsible, it’s immoral, it’s wrong no matter who that individual is.
Is there any information about nuclear weapons that you want college students specifically to know?
Well, my impression after doing eight talks on college campuses in this last couple weeks is that your generation doesn’t think a whole lot about nuclear weapons issues. Many of the questions I’m getting suggest that they don’t really think about how destructive nuclear weapons are. I don’t think there’s an awareness that life as you know it would be over. Things like running water would not be available anymore. It’s not just the inconvenience of not being about to get cash out ot the ATM or your television signals being down — civilization would be set back centuries if we had a nuclear war. Einstein had a famous saying: “I don’t know how World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.