For years, Republican leaders derided and mocked President Barack Obama’s widely-touted dream of a nuclear weapons-free world as hopelessly naive. But the president’s goal — which remains a distant reality — just got an unexpected and largely unnoticed endorsement from GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
“I think there should be a goal of — an aspirational goal, a Reagan-esque goal if you will — of elimination of all nuclear weapons in the world,” the former Florida governor said Wednesday night at a campaign stop in Keene, New Hampshire. “I think that is not a naive aspiration.”
Bush, prompted by a question at a town hall-style event, didn’t just leave it at that.
He said the threat of a global nuclear catastrophe has changed and in some cases, worsened, since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“The new threat that exists is not the old Soviet-U.S. mutually assured destruction threat,” he said. “The new threat is the proliferation of weapons in the hands of people who aren’t going to follow the international standards that exist.”
He ticked off the danger posed by the nuclear programs in Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, and said the U.S. “should be engaged in the world to lessen the potential for a nuclear holocaust.”
Bush’s remarks stand in contrast with more recent GOP opponents of denuclearization, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and top lawmakers in Congress, including House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Sen. Jim Inhofe, (R-Okla.) a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Last year, Cheney derided Obama’s nuclear pledge. “Obama keeps talking about getting rid of all nuclear weapons,” he said. “We’re dramatically reducing our own capabilities.”
Bush’s remarks excited anti-nuclear groups, who have faced an uphill battle in recent months against the Obama administration’s plans to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal.
“My first reaction was that it was great, sensible, and refreshing to hear a serious and realistic approach to a national security issue,” Matt Brown, co-founder of the non-proliferation group Global Zero, told Foreign Policy.
Nonproliferation advocates say Obama’s record on denuclearization is mixed. While they applaud him for securing a nuclear deal with Iran, which neutralizes Tehran’s nuclear threat for at least 10 years, they oppose new plans to build the first precision-guided atom bomb.
Obama swept into office in 2009 pledging to reduce the number of nuclear weapons held by the United States and countries around the world. In awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted his “vision and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”
After receiving the award, Obama made a major speech in Prague claiming the U.S. had a moral responsibility to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” he said.
On Wednesday, Bush said he opposed steps to “unilaterally” dismantle America’s nuclear arsenal, and proposed reducing the number of nuclear weapons “across the board.”
That has largely been the goal of Obama — and previous Republican presidents, said Brown.
“If you pull back and take a broader perspective, it was Ronald Reagan who first articulated the vision of eliminating all nuclear weapons and he began the deep cuts to the arsenal,” Brown said. “And if you look specifically at which presidents have made some of the biggest cuts in the arsenals, it’s George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.”