The first US Presidential debate between senators John McCain and Barack Obama was supposed to be the big chance for the candidates to showcase their foreign policy visions and differences. Unfortunately, both candidates missed two opportunities within the debate to mention their vision for a world without nuclear weapons. It's actually one issue that both of them seem to agree on, at least in a general way. Moreover, large cuts in the US nuclear arsenal could reap economic and foreign policy benefits.
First missed opportunity: The growing financial crisis overtook the first part of the debate. When moderator Jim Lehrer repeatedly asked the candidates what policy priorities they would change in order for the nation to cover the $700 billion financial bailout, both sounded reluctant to put any of their existing plans on the chopping block.
The candidates could have mentioned their interest in cutting back the US nuclear arsenal and could have offered to eliminate plans for a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) to save money. Recent estimates put US spending on nuclear-related forces and activities at $54 billion annually. While we talk about coping with the billions lost in the current financial crisis and discuss ways to cut back government spending in the future, we should remember that from 1940 to 2005, the United States spent $7.5 trillion in developing, producing, deploying and maintaining its nuclear weapons (2006 dollars).
We don't want to go down that route again. Maybe we won't have another Cold War, but the next Administration could take on unnecessary financial burdens if it pursues a RRW program and forgoes the chance to make large reductions in the arsenal. For example, following a scenario put forward by Miriam Pemberton and Lawrence Korb, the United States could save $13.5 billion annually by reducing the nuclear arsenal to the minimum level needed for "a credible deterrent."
Second missed opportunity: Later in the debate, Mr Lehrer asked the candidates how they would handle the nuclear crisis over Iran. Both candidates responded with how they would manage negotiations and sanctions. They also mentioned, to a varying extent, their support for Cooperative Threat Reduction, and military options, including missile defense. Neither candidate, however, mentioned the connection between the large US arsenal and how its existence may actually encourage other countries to acquire nuclear weapons programs or further develop their arsenals. A Harris Interactive poll conducted in August found that two-thirds of adult Americans understand that the possession of nuclear weapons by some countries encourages other countries to obtain them.
If the United States were to further reduce the number and role of its nuclear weapons, it would improve efforts to restrain future proliferation. Reducing the nuclear arsenal will show that the United States is committed to Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is considered part of a "grand bargain" in which other countries forego nuclear weapons in exchange for the NPT nuclear weapons states to work toward nuclear disarmament.
So far, the regime has helped to keep the number of nuclear weapons states to fewer than 10. Therefore, the next President must work to strengthen the NPT. If more countries take on nuclear weapons, the opportunities for accidents or nuclear war will increase. Moreover, as the candidates clearly understand (as evidenced by their support for Cooperative Threat Reduction programs), the widespread proliferation of fissile material could increase the chances that it will fall into the hands of terrorists.
Senators McCain and Obama had to cover an incredible amount of policy ground in a short period of time, and the financial crisis has understandably grabbed everyone's attention for the moment. However, this should serve as a reminder how reductions in the US nuclear arsenal could help the next Administration save money and improve security.