This is no time for either President Obama or the GOP to forget the threat of nuclear weapons.
In the decade since Osama bin Laden masterminded the 9/11 attacks, U.S. security policy has centered on al Qaeda and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — fueled by a deep and bipartisan concern that a terrorist group might acquire the means to strike again, this time perhaps with nuclear weapons.
Although al Qaeda, Iraq, and Afghanistan still present major challenges, their decade of dominance over U.S. security policy is at an end — broken by an increasingly successful effort to destroy al Qaeda’s ability to target the United States, the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, and the Obama administration’s commitment to turn security in Afghanistan over to the Afghan government by 2014. A new set of challenges is emerging to occupy the attention of U.S. policymakers: reducing instability in Pakistan; rebuilding the American and global economies; advancing the U.S.-China relationship; making progress on global energy and climate policy; enhancing cybersecurity; and most recently, managing the risks and opportunities presented by the Arab Spring.
As this new set of challenges unfolds over the next decade, American leaders must increase their focus on what remains a vital U.S. national interest: nuclear threat reduction. As the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign inevitably creates an increasingly acrid partisan atmosphere, it is incumbent on all leaders to maintain a nonpartisan approach to reducing nuclear dangers.
There have been bipartisan successes in combating nuclear threats under the past four U.S. presidents — two Democrats and two Republicans. Thousands of nuclear weapons, along with their missiles and launchers, were removed and dismantled from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was extended indefinitely; a comprehensive global ban on nuclear testing was concluded (though ratification by key states, including the United States, is still necessary for the treaty to enter into force); A.Q. Khan’s illicit trafficking in nuclear weapons designs, technologies, and materials was shut down; the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict trade in weapons of mass destruction was launched; and the United States and Russia enacted the New START agreement, which reduced nuclear stockpiles further.
Yet even with these important steps — along with the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan, the weakening of al Qaeda, and the drive to "reset" relations with Russia — the amount of nuclear tinder that remains in the world today could still ignite a calamity of historic proportions, one that would change our world forever. Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University expert on nuclear proliferation and terrorism, recently stated that a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb — somewhat smaller than the one dropped on Hiroshima — detonated in Midtown Manhattan could kill a half-million people and result in $1 trillion in direct economic damage.
The nuclear bottom line remains ominous. The spread of nuclear weapons and know-how continues in unstable regions where the potential for conflict is high — including Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East — and in countries like North Korea and Iran that threaten the United States and its friends and allies. Even with the Cold War now 20 years behind us, the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of strategic nuclear weapons on high alert and tactical nuclear weapons throughout Europe, unnecessarily heightening the risk of accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken nuclear use, and of terrorist groups acquiring a weapon or dangerous nuclear material.
During the last two U.S. presidential elections, both the Republican and Democratic nominees recognized the nuclear danger and agreed on the broad outlines of a response. In 2004, when asked during the first presidential debate to identify the most serious threat to U.S. security, both President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry were unequivocal: the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the possible use of these weapons by terrorists. In 2008, both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama embraced the policy framework outlined in two Wall Street Journal essays by national-security wise men George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn. These articles called for a global effort to pursue practical steps that would reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, prevent their spread into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately end them as a threat to the world.
Can this consensus hold during the 2012 presidential campaign? As non-incumbents in 2008, both McCain and Obama were able to lay claim to this new, nonpartisan, nuclear policy initiative by senior American statesmen. Now that Obama has adopted this approach, his eventual opponent will likely face pressure to differentiate himself or herself from the president by finding fault in his policies. One can already predict the political arguments that might be used against Obama — too accommodating to the Russians on New START and missile defense, too unrealistic to pursue steps toward a world free of nuclear arms.
A partisan political debate over nuclear threat reduction would not be without costs. If such a debate unfolds over the next 18 months, nuclear nonproliferation initiatives could be put on hold and the nonpartisan foundation built over the past four administrations could be dangerously eroded.
What will it take to avoid such an outcome? First, Obama must continue to lead — as only the president can. He will have the opportunity to do so when he meets with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this fall and when he hosts the NATO summit in Chicago next May. At those events, he can advance U.S. and NATO cooperation with Russia on missile defense, which represents a potential game-changer in Euro-Atlantic security. He can also press for a reduction of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, whose continued deployment provides more opportunities for terrorists than it does security for either Washington or Moscow.
Second, leaders in both parties should encourage their presidential candidates to underscore the continuing need for a nonpartisan approach to reducing nuclear threats. While it’s unreasonable to expect complete agreement on every point, the public deserves a debate whose goal is not to score political points, but to focus solely on reducing nuclear threats to the American people.
Too much to ask? Not if we expect to act with the urgency necessary to avoid what President John F. Kennedy once referred to as "the final failure."