McCain vs. Obama Goes Nuclear

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation president analyzes the presidential candidates' positions on the controversial weaponry and energy.
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Nuclear Age Peace Foundation president analyzes the presidential candidates' positions on the controversial weaponry and energy.

Both leading U.S. presidential candidates have articulated a commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons — which is the raison d'etre for the organization I head, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

"A world without nuclear weapons is profoundly in America's interest and the world's interest," Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama has said. "It is our responsibility to make the commitment and to do the hard work to make this vision a reality. That's what I've done as a senator and a candidate, and that's what I'll do as president."

His Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain has sounded similar themes but stresses the labor involved. "A quarter of a century ago, President Ronald Reagan declared, 'Our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.' That is my dream, too." Having said this, McCain — who, in 2007, said, "It's naïve to say that we will never use nuclear weapons" — made it clear that the goal was not close at hand. He referred to it as "a distant and difficult goal. ... We must proceed toward it prudently and pragmatically and with a focused concern for our security and the security of allies who depend on us."

He continued, "But the Cold War ended almost 20 years ago, and the time has come to take further measures to reduce dramatically the number of nuclear weapons in the world's arsenals. It is time for the United States to show the kind of leadership the world expects from us, in the tradition of American presidents who worked to reduce the nuclear threat to mankind. ... I believe we should reduce our nuclear forces to the lowest level we judge necessary, and we should be prepared to enter into a new arms control agreement with Russia reflecting the nuclear reductions I will seek."

Obama, too has recognized that this will be a "long road."

"Here's what I'll say as president: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons. We will not pursue unilateral disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist, we'll retain a strong nuclear deterrent. But we'll keep our commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons." For the United States to keep its commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty would mean that it would enter into "good faith" negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament.

He elaborated, "We'll work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert and to dramatically reduce the stockpiles of our nuclear weapons and material. We'll start by seeking a global ban on the production of fissile material for weapons. And we'll set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global."

Seven Steps
Bringing U.S. policy into line with the commitment to obtain a nuclear weapons-free world requires a number of steps to dramatically reduce nuclear risks as well as the size of nuclear arsenals. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has proposed seven steps to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons, which will be discussed along with the candidates' positions.

* De-alert. Remove all nuclear weapons from high-alert status, separating warheads from delivery vehicles. There remain some 3,000 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, elevating the risks of accidental launches.

Obama states on his campaign Web site that he would "work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert." He has also said, "If we want the world to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia must lead by example. President Bush once said, 'The United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status — another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation.' Six years later, President Bush has not acted on this promise. I will. We cannot and should not accept the threat of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch."

McCain has not stated his position on de-alerting nuclear arsenals.

* No First Use. Make legally binding commitments to "no first use" of nuclear weapons and establish nuclear policies consistent with this commitment. Among the nuclear weapons states, only China and India currently have policies of No First Use. The other states, including the U.S., maintain the option of using nuclear weapons pre-emptively.

Neither candidate has taken a position specifically on "no first use" of nuclear weapons.

* No New Nuclear Weapons. Initiate a moratorium on the research and development of new nuclear weapons, such as the "reliable replacement warhead." The Bush administration has been pushing for new nuclear weapons.

McCain has said, "I would only support the development of any new type of nuclear weapon that is absolutely essential for the viability of our deterrent that results in making possible further decreases in the size of our nuclear arsenal and furthers our global nuclear security goals. I would cancel all further work on the so-called ‘robust nuclear earth penetrator,' a weapon that does not make strategic or political sense." Obama has said, "We can maintain a strong nuclear deterrent to protect our security without rushing to produce a new generation of warheads. I do not support a premature decision to produce the RRW." He has also stated, "We can maintain a strong nuclear deterrent to protect our security without rushing to produce a new generation of warheads." * Ban Nuclear Testing Forever. Ratify and bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In 1999, the Senate with a Republican majority voted along party lines against ratification of the treaty, and the Bush administration has not resubmitted it for further Senate consideration. Obama has stated, "I will make it my priority to build bipartisan consensus behind ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty." McCain was among the senators voting against ratification of the treaty in 1999. He has indicated that he would reconsider his earlier decision, stating that he would take another look "to see what can be done to overcome the shortcomings that prevented it from entering into force." * Control Nuclear Material. Create a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty with provisions to bring all weapons-grade nuclear material and the technologies to create such material under strict and effective international control. In a world with few or no nuclear weapons, it is essential to have strong international controls of nuclear materials that could be used for developing nuclear weapons. McCain has stated that the U.S. "should move quickly with other nations to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty to end production of the most dangerous nuclear materials." Obama has said, "I will work to negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material." He has further stated, "I will secure all loose nuclear materials around the world in my first term." * Nuclear Weapons Convention. The Non-Proliferation Treaty requires "good faith" negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament. Such good faith negotiations should be applied to reaching a multilateral international treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. This treaty would set forth a confidence-building roadmap to a world free of nuclear weapons. Neither candidate has spoken about negotiating a new treaty for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, although both have talked about the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Both candidates have called for reductions in nuclear arsenals. While reductions can be taken unilaterally or bilaterally with the Russians, the critically important step of a Nuclear Weapons Convention will require multilateral negotiations with all of the world's states. * Resources for Peace. Reallocate resources from the tens of billions currently spent on nuclear arms to alleviating poverty, preventing and curing disease, eliminating hunger and expanding educational opportunities throughout the world. Plans should be made for reallocating the large sums of money currently used to maintain and improve nuclear arsenals. Neither candidate has stated a position on reallocating resources from the defense budget in general or nuclear weapons programs in particular. Other Key Issues Affecting Disarmament Another important issue is the tension with Russia over U.S. implementation of missile defenses, particularly in Eastern Europe. The U.S. missile-defense program has been viewed as a threat by Russia since the U.S. unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. The Russians have viewed U.S. missile defenses as threatening their deterrent capability despite U.S. assurances to the contrary, and if this issue is not resolved, it could be a deal breaker for further progress on nuclear disarmament. Our foundation believes an important step in clearing the path with Russia for major reductions in nuclear weapons would be for the U.S. to reverse course on deployment of missile defenses and open negotiations with the Russians to reinstate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

That is not the path of the current administration or its party's standard-bearer in November. McCain voted yes on deploying National Missile Defense in 1999, and more recently stated, "The first thing I would do is make sure that we have a missile defense system in place in Czechoslovakia (sic) and Poland, and I don't care what his [Putin's] objections are to it."
Obama, on the other hand, has said, "I will cut investments in unproven missile-defense systems."

Another potential stumbling block is space weaponization. The Russians and the Chinese have both promoted a draft treaty to reserve outer space for peaceful purposes, including a ban on space weaponization. The U.S. has not been willing to even discuss such a ban, and was the only country in the United Nations to vote against such a ban in the 2007 General Assembly.

Obama has said flatly, "I will not weaponize space." McCain has stated, "Weapons in space are a bad idea. A treaty that increases space security is a good idea, but it is likely to take a long time to negotiate. There is a simpler and quicker way to go: a code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations. One key element of that code must include a prohibition against harmful interference against satellites."

What About Nuclear Power?
Another concern in bringing U.S. policy in line with a commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world is the control of the spread of nuclear power. While the promotion of nuclear power is a tenet of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it adds significantly to the complications of controlling nuclear materials and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

McCain, saying that "nuclear power, for all kinds of reasons, needs to be part of the solution," has sponsored legislation that would provide subsidies for the nuclear power industry. In a speech on the environment, McCain referred to nuclear energy as "a proven energy source that requires zero emissions." After referencing the plans of China, Russia and India to build new nuclear reactors, he asked, "And if they have the vision to set and carry out great goals in energy policy, then why don't we?" McCain is calling for the construction of 45 new nuclear reactors in the U.S. by the year 2030.

Obama has adopted a far more cautious approach to nuclear energy. In his energy plan on his Web site, it states, "Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table. However, there is no future for nuclear without first addressing four key issues: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage and proliferation."

There is much we still don't know about the candidates' positions. Both state in general terms that they favor the goal of nuclear disarmament. But take McCain's talk about "the lowest level we judge necessary...." One might ask: Who is the "we" that judges and what is the criteria for "necessary"?

Neither candidate has discussed seeking to achieve a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty that would set forth a roadmap for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.

Between the two candidates, McCain's positions seem more cautious and sketchy. He has defined the goal as "distant." He has also used language that could leave open the door to developing new nuclear weapons, if they meet certain criteria. A most serious obstacle to McCain achieving progress is his strong support for missile defenses, which have led the Russians to consider backtracking on nuclear disarmament by, for example, bolstering its offensive nuclear capabilities and pulling out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. Further, McCain has stated that it is "naïve to say that we will never use nuclear weapons," which seems to suggest that he would not support ruling out first use.

Obama has staked out a seemingly stronger position on achieving the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world than has McCain. Obama has said that he wants to be the president who leads the way to a nuclear weapons-free world, although he, too, sees it as a "long road." He has come out in favor of removing U.S. nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, not developing new nuclear weapons, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, achieving a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material and making deep cuts in global nuclear arsenals. He is also more cautious about nuclear energy, seeks to cut funds from unproven missile-defense systems and opposes the weaponization of space.

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