Democratic stick handling and Nuclear Disarmament

Nobel Laureate Al Gore suggested to delegates to the UN climate change conference in Bali this week that they ought to emulate the play-making finesse of Bobby Hull or Wayne Gretzky – recalling Hull’s famous line: “I don’t pass the puck to where they are – I pass the puck to where they’re going to be.” Well, said Gore, “Over the next two years the United States is going to be somewhere it is not now. You must anticipate that.”

It is an obviously hopeful thought and is relevant to any number of US policy envelopes – not least nuclear disarmament. But is it as realistic as it is desirable? Can we count on the Democrats to take America, and therefore all of us, at least a bit closer to that better disarmament place the world deserves?

On the assumption that Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have the best chances of winning the Democratic Party nomination, and that with either of the them the Democrats stand a solid chance of regaining the White House, it’s worth taking a (very) brief look at their respective positions on four key issues – overall nuclear weapons reductions, management of the current inventory (RRW), a nuclear test ban (CTBT), and a ban on further production of fissile materials for weapons purposes (FissBan). A survey last summer by the Council for a Livable World is one good source for each of the candidates’ respective positions.[i]

Reductions

Democrats generally have aligned themselves[ii]with the by now well-known appeal by Henry Kissinger, and three others, for US leadership in taking the world “to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.”[iii]

Clinton advocates substantial reductions in the arsenals of all Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and calls for an increase in nuclear warning time to reduce dangers of accidental or unauthorized launch.

Obama similarly calls for reductions. Speaking to DePaul University in Chicago, he rejected unilateral disarmament and pledged to “retain a strong nuclear deterrent,” but promised to stay with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty “on the long road towards eliminating nuclear weapons.”[iv] He calls for a reduced role for nuclear weapons and for a scaling back from “outdated postures” of the Cold War.

RRW and Threat Reduction

The Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program of the Bush Administration has become controversial inasmuch it has shifted the focus from one of assuring the reliability of current warheads to the design and building of new warheads. That in turn generates new interest in testing in the US (hence the opposition in some quarters to the CTBT), which in turn threatens to embolden other nuclear weapon states to rebuild, refine, and test their own warhead inventories.[v]

Clinton has been critical of the RRW and says there is a need for a “considered assessment of what we need these weapons for or what the impact of building them would be on our effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.” She places high emphasis on the threat of nuclear terrorism, calling it “one of the greatest national security threats the United States faces today.” She has made this one of her top priorities in the Senate with actions that include support for redirecting funds from missile defence to Cooperative Threat Reduction and the introduction of a Bill (the Nuclear Terrorism Prevention Act) that would commit the US to working internationally to “establish and implement a stringent standard for nuclear safety at all facilities worldwide that hold weapons or weapons-usable fissile material.”

Obama’s position on RRW is similar: “Before we consider developing new nuclear weapons we must consider what the role of these weapons should be.” He says the RRW program undermines US leadership in de-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons. To maintain deterrence, he says, the US doesn’t need a new generation of warheads. He also emphasizes the need to secure all nuclear materials and bombs to prevent terrorist access to them. “As president, I will lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons and material at vulnerable sites within four years.” The Lugar-Obama initiative is designed to “help the United States and our allies detect and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction throughout the world.”

CTBT

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is a priority for both candidates.

Clinton pledges to pursue bi-partisan support for the CTBT and regards its ratification as an early priority. She also promises to maintain the testing moratorium in the meantime and charges that the Bush Administration’s policy on RRW and its refusal to ratify the CTBT have undermined US security. Obama also promises to make CTBT ratification a priority. In the meantime he says the US should pay its full share of the costs of the CTBT Organization, which is not now the case.

FissBan

The long-time objective of ending production of nuclear materials for weapons purposes is currently stymied, as it has been for a decade, in the Geneva Conference on Disarmament. Both Clinton and Obama call for negotiations toward a verifiable ban (the latter being a significant switch from the Bush policy which says that verification would not be possible).

It is of course far from certain that the Democrats will recapture the White House at the end of 2008. Furthermore, the gap between campaign rhetoric and administration action is as wide in the US as anywhere. But, even so, there is still plenty of reason to believe that almost any one of the Democratic contenders would improve on the attitude and energy that the US now brings to the nuclear disarmament table.


[i] Council for a Livable World, 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Responses to Seven Key National Security Questions, August 16, 2007 (http://www.clw.org/assets/pdfs/2008_presidential_candidates_questionnaire_responses.pdf).

[ii] Zachary Hosford, “News Analysis: The 2008 Presidential Primaries and Arms Control,” Arms Control Today, December 2007 (http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_12/NewsAnalysis.asp).

[iii] By George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn.”A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, January 4, 2007; Page A15. Available at (http://www.fcnl.org/issues/item.php?item_id=2252&issue_id=54).

[iv] Jeff Zeleny, “Obama Highlights His War Opposition,” The New York Times, October 2, 2007 (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/02/us/politics/02cnd-obama.html?adxnnl=1&ref=politics&adxnnlx=1197663073-rNS8Vbu34qn7a69asqr6JA).

[v] Robert W. Nelson, “If it Ain’t Broke: The Already Reliable U.S. Nuclear Arsenal,” Arms Control Today, April 2006 (http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_04/reliablefeature.asp).

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