In the run-up to the Iraq war, the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were exhaustively discussed by the politicians and the pundits. But, in the aftermath of that conflict, when no WMDs were to be found, they became an embarrassment to the war enthusiasts, who conveniently forgot about them. Certainly, the mass media, only recently filled with alarms about nuclear attacks, have said remarkably little about nuclear weapons over the past year.
This is unfortunate. Despite the nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties of the past, 30,000 nuclear weapons remain in existence, with the potential for annihilating civilization. Furthermore, a number of nations appear to be in the process of building them. And, finally, the two major party candidates for president George W. Bush and John Kerry have taken positions on nuclear weapons that diverge markedly.
Since becoming president, Bush has unilaterally withdrawn the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, refused to support ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (ratified at this point by 115 nations), and has developed guidelines that expand the possibilities for using nuclear weapons in a variety of situations, including "surprising military developments."
Furthermore, despite the Bush administration’s criticism of other nations for developing nuclear weapons, it has flouted U.S. commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968. In that treaty and in its periodic updates, the nuclear powers, including the United States, pledged to work toward divesting themselves of nuclear weapons. But there has been no move along these lines during the Bush administration. The only nuclear arms control measure negotiated by the president is the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, signed with Russia in May 2002. Although, ostensibly, this measure will reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads that are deployed on U.S. and Russian missiles, there is no deadline for the reduction, the deactivated warheads will simply be kept in storage, and the treaty will terminate in 2012, after which its provisions can be ignored or forgotten.
Rather than eliminate nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has chosen to build new ones. In the president’s 2005 budget, he requested $36.6 million for research on new nuclear weapons, including "mini-nukes" and the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (the so-called "bunker buster"). An uneasy Congress is still grappling with this proposal.
In this same budget, the president requested another $30 million to reduce the time necessary to resume U.S. nuclear testing. If new nuclear weapons are to be built, such testing is necessary. And the resumption of testing would also have some other important consequences. It would bring an end to the great power moratorium on nuclear testing that has been observed by Russia, China, Britain, and France since 1996. Some or all of these nations would then resume nuclear testing themselves, building new nuclear weapons and adding to the vast nuclear stockpiles that they (and terrorists) can draw upon.
Not surprisingly, the official web site of the Bush re-election campaign says nothing about nuclear arms control and disarmament, but lauds the administration’s leadership in building new kinds of weapons without, by the way, mentioning that a number of these new weapons are nuclear.
John Kerry has taken a stand that is much more in line with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as well as with the arms control and disarmament policies of past presidents, both Democratic and Republican. He has criticized the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and lauded the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). "The failure of the United States to ratify the CTBT," he declared, "will seriously undercut our ability to continue our critical leadership role in the global nuclear non-proliferation regime."
Kerry has also attacked the building of new U.S. nuclear weapons, stating: "What kind of message does it send when we’re asking other countries not to develop nuclear weapons but developing new ones ourselves?" Speaking in June 2003, he stated: "It is absurd to think the United States will start development on a new generation of nuclear weapons at the same moment we seek the world’s support in an effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and technology."
The official Kerry campaign website declares that the Democratic presidential candidate will work to "end production of new fissile material for nuclear weapons by negotiating a global ban on production of new material." On this site, Kerry also promises to strive to "reduce existing stocks of nuclear weapons and materials by ending development of the new generation of nuclear weapons" and by "accelerating reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals."
Unfortunately, most presidential campaign coverage in the mass media ignores these significant differences between the two candidates on nuclear weapons issues. But the differences are real. Voters should recognize that, in November 2004, they have an important choice to make when it comes to the future of nuclear weapons and perhaps their own future, as well.
September 16, 2004