Nukes: The unmentionable Election Issue: Getting to Zero

Where are the Democrats?

Why isn’t the present nuclear danger front and center in the Democrats’ presidential debates? I can think of a few reasons.

First, Democrats always fear looking weak if they question the prevailing nuclear logic, let alone talk about a reduction of the nuclear stockpile.

Second, most of the candidates—Bernie Sanders may be the exception—are caught up in the “threat dialogue,” that is, embracing as gospel that Russia and China are near-term threats to national security, for which a large, diverse, and reliable nuclear arsenal is essential.

Third, the nuclear establishment is profitable for the companies that produce the weapons and the states in which production facilities reside.

Fourth, and most problematic, politicians think nuclear weapons are an existential problem, not a present danger, even in the hands of Donald Trump.

A few key Democrats have made reference to nuclear weapons. Joe Biden supports the New START treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms reduction agreement, which expires in 2021 and which Trump, if reelected, is unlikely to renew. Biden argues that “the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack” (Foreign Affairs, March-April 2020). Elizabeth Warren only mentions “a reinvestment in multilateral arms control and nonproliferation efforts” (Foreign Affairs, January-February 2019). Bernie Sanders, in his Foreign Affairs contribution, focused on ending endless wars and climate change but had not a word to say on nuclear weapons. (In a speech at Johns Hopkins University in October 2018, Sanders did refer to global spending of “a trillion dollars a year on weapons of destruction, while millions of children die of easily treatable diseases.”)

None of these people, it should be noted, tackled the important details about nuclear weapons, such as Trump’s finger on the nuclear trigger, the preferable size and purpose of US nuclear weapons (how many are enough?), the shortcomings of nuclear arms control, or the costs of perpetual modernization of the nuclear arsenal. Instead, there seems to be a consensus on the idea that nuclear weapons have deterrent value and therefore that thousands of them should be ready and available to retaliate for an opponent’s use. Leaving these issues untouched opens the field to those who say, we can never have enough, and we must be prepared to use them.

We’re less than two minutes—just 100 seconds—to midnight, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ famous Doomsday clock. Sam Nunn, the former senator from Georgia, and Ernest Moniz, formerly secretary of energy, wrote in Foreign Affairs (Sept.-Oct. 2019) about “the new nuclear arms race,” beginning their article with a hypothetical US-Russia confrontation that could quickly escalate to the nuclear level.

Their argument rests on the proposition that “Not since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has the risk of a US-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today. Yet unlike during the Cold War, both sides seem willfully blind to the peril.” As they recount, the combination of well-known US-Russia differences plus their withdrawals from the major arms control agreements add up to no checks on nuclear-weapon modernization and greater chances than ever for a nuclear accident or launch on warning.

At grave risk is what the specialists call strategic stability. There are too many unknowns, starting with the fragile logic of deterrence, to rely on nuclear weapons for national security. It only takes one false move to trigger a decision process that, as one expert lays out, puts a decision to use a nuclear weapon in a single person’s hands.

Even if that person were not Donald Trump—who, you will recall, said during his early campaign that he thought nuclear weapons should be used more—such a momentous and potentially catastrophic decision ought not be made in isolation. But today’s weapons, fewer in number but more “usable” than any in the past, increase the odds of actual use.

Banning Nuclear Weapons

One thing is clear: No candidate on the liberal side dares embrace the notion of nuclear abolition in preference to arms control agreements. To be sure, those agreements serve the purpose of moving the nuclear issue to the discussion table and somewhat improving strategic stability. But such agreements can never remove the powerful element of doubt between adversaries in a crisis situation. Nor can they eliminate the possibility of accidents and miscalculations in the fog of war. Nor, finally, can arms control substitute for the moral argument that no national leader has the right to launch a doomsday weapon, which would threaten the extinction of humankind.

There is another way: total nuclear disarmament, starting with a plan to “dismantle a Doomsday Machine,” as Daniel Ellsberg writes in The Doomsday Machine. Ellsberg offers such a plan for dismantling land-based ICBMs and other weapons systems targets in a staged way so as to eliminate the rationale for first use of a nuclear weapon or a launch-on-warning response to presumed attack. As these weapons systems are removed, at least the greatest danger to the planet—nuclear winter—is greatly reduced. But the US or any nuclear adversary would still retain some strategic forces for deterrence of attack, and that is where disarmament enters the picture.

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was introduced in the UN General Assembly in March 2017, thanks to the efforts of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. The treaty declares nuclear weapons illegal rather than, like arms control agreements, seeks to reduce their numbers, narrow delivery systems, or prevent testing while accepting their continued possession and potential use. Among other limitations, the TPNW bans acquisition, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, or threats to use nuclear weapons. The United States, along with all the other nuclear-weapon states, has rejected the treaty, and the Trump administration boycotted the negotiations on it. Sixty-nine governments have signed it as of 2019; thirty-five have ratified.

Will a Democratic candidate for president endorse the TPNW? Will someone at least call for congressional hearings on the nuclear danger?

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.