Presidential Candidates Diverge on Nuclear Weapons
(December 1, 2019) — One topic that’s gotten little attention during the presidential campaign is the high-stakes issue of nuclear weapons. That’s partly because campaigns tend to focus on bread-and-butter issues, like health care and taxes. They largely steer clear of foreign policy, especially an aspect that’s downright terrifying.
But it’s an issue that matters, to the nation and the world. And the candidates’ public statements, and responses to Chronicle queries, reveal divergent views.
One question that has surfaced is whether the United States, the only nation that has ever used atomic weapons, should reverse its policy and declare it would not strike the first nuclear blow in a future war.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has introduced legislation that would establish “no first use” of nuclear weapons as binding law. Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent-Vt., is a co-sponsor. Former Vice President Joe Biden told a public gathering in June that “I supported it 20 years before she introduced it.” Several other presidential hopefuls — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; entrepreneur Andrew Yang; spirituality author Marianne Williamson; billionaire Tom Steyer — have endorsed the concept.
The only Democratic candidate with a contrary view is Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who said in the second presidential debate in July that “I wouldn’t want to take that (first use) off the table.”
But others — Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and former US Housing Secretary Julián Castro — have told interviewers in recent months that they hadn’t reviewed Warren’s proposal and weren’t ready to take a position on it. The interviewers were from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which favors nuclear de-escalation and sent young people to campaign events to question the candidates.
One prominent candidate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, appears to have come down on both sides.
“Pete does not see any realistic example where we would want to use nuclear weapons first,” a spokeswoman said in response to questions The Chronicle sent to the candidates’ campaign organizations. “The only acceptable role for US nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks against us or our allies.”
But in a July interview with a Union of Concerned Scientists representative, Buttigieg said there was “a possibility” that “no first use could actually lead to more proliferation” of nuclear weapons. If the United States disavows a nuclear first strike, he said, “our allies will believe us but our adversaries won’t.”
Moderator Jake Tapper of CNN offered the same perspective when he briefly raised the issue during the July presidential debate, asking Warren why she wanted the United States to “tie its own hands.”
“Because it makes the world safer,” Warren replied. “It reduces the likelihood someone miscalculates or misunderstands.”
Former President Barack Obama considered such a policy in 2016 but was persuaded not to adopt it by some US allies and Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
Obama announced some limitations, saying the US wouldn’t use nuclear weapons against nations that didn’t have them and refrained from seeking or acquiring them, under the terms of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. President Trump’s administration has continued that policy.
Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, in part for what the Nobel Committee called his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” But he has a mixed legacy on the issue, which has implications for Biden’s presidential campaign.
The former vice president has called for “a world without nuclear weapons” and declared that “Barack and I brought down the total number of nuclear weapons that exist in the (US) arsenal, significantly.” While it is true that Obama reduced the existing nuclear arsenal, he also approved a long-term enhancement of US nuclear weaponry, including new intercontinental missiles, bombers and submarines, at a cost of $1.2 trillion over 30 years.
Besides no first use, The Chronicle asked candidates about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, signed by the United States in 1963 but never ratified by the Senate; the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a disarmament pact endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly and ratified by 33 nations so far, but not by the United States or any other nuclear powers; and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a 1988 agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States under President Ronald Reagan that banned land-based ballistic missiles with a range of up to 3,400 miles. The Trump administration withdrew from that treaty in February.
Some candidates did not respond, including Warren, Harris and Booker. Among those who did, Sanders, Williamson and Steyer took the firmest positions in support of the weapons treaties.
“Sen. Sanders believes we need to bring the United States and the rest of the world together to do everything we can to rid this world of nuclear weapons,” his campaign said about the pending nuclear disarmament treaty.
“Nuclear weapons are extremely dangerous and make us less safe,” Williamson said in a statement endorsing the treaties.
“Those who’ve created these weapons have a responsibility to get rid of them,” Steyer’s campaign said.
Buttigieg’s campaign said he would “renew the US commitment to arms control” but did not endorse any treaties, other than New START, a 2011 nuclear arms-reduction agreement between the US and Russia that is due to expire in 2021.
Biden also supported renewal of New START and said nuclear powers should, “over time, ultimately denuclearize,” without endorsing a treaty to do so. In a January 2017 speech while still vice president, he said he had worked hard to build support in Europe for Reagan’s 1988 missile treaty, and that “if we want a world without nuclear weapons, the United States must take the initiative to lead us there.”
Klobuchar’s campaign said she supported the 1988 missile treaty and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty but not the nuclear disarmament treaty. Klobuchar “believes the United States must maintain a modern nuclear deterrent while working through bilateral and multilateral agreements to reduce stockpiles of nuclear warheads,” the campaign said.
While Warren’s campaign did not reply to questions about the treaties, the senator has publicly opposed the nuclear buildup proposed by Obama and endorsed by Trump.
“No new nuclear weapons,” Warren said in a November 2018 speech on foreign policy. “We should not spend over a trillion dollars to modernize our nuclear arsenal, at a time when the president is doing everything he can to undermine generations of verified arms-control agreements.”
Perhaps some of those discussions will reach a public forum as the campaign continues.
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