Addressing the Cold War’s Unfinished Business

This article, co-authored by Sen. Alan Cranston and Dr. Tad Daley, appeared as an OpEd in the LA Times on June 4, 2000.

A Bold Candidate Could Gain Votes By Pledging to Fulfill Our NPT Promise
– Reaffirmed in May 2000 –
“to Accomplish the Total Elimination of Nuclear Arsenals.”

A double opportunity awaits a presidential candidate this summer with the political imagination to seize it. An opportunity to take the lead in pursuing an achievement as important as any the 21st Century is likely to present. And an opportunity to capture the imagination of uninspired voters – in a race likely to end up a virtual dead heat. What is it? It is to keep a promise the U.S. made 30 years ago, by committing to set out to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us.

The promise was made by the U.S. government and ratified by the U.S. Senate in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, back when Richard Nixon was in the White House. The international community forged a grand bargain between the “nuclear haves” and the “nuclear have-nots” in the NPT. Over 100 non-nuclear weapon states (182 today) agreed never to develop or acquire nuclear arsenals on the understanding that the five states that then possessed nuclear weapons agreed, in the Treaty’s Article VI, to get rid of theirs.

Indeed, our government – along with those of the other four major nuclear states – formally recommitted itself to abolition at the NPT’s 30 Year Review Conference just this May. An increasingly influential group of middle powers known as the “New Agenda Coalition” (NAC) – Ireland, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden – acted forcibly in concert to pressure the nuclear states to take tangible steps toward fulfilling their Article VI obligations. It was widely reported that the group had the support of about 120 of the 155 non-nuclear states in attendance. In the Conference’s final statement, the nuclear five pledged “an unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” They also agreed to carry out several concrete actions toward that end before the next Review Conference in 2005.

The NPT regime reflects widespread international agreement about a fundamental nuclear age truth. The rest of the world will not forever forego nuclear weapons if we do not actually get rid of our nuclear weapons. “As long as these weapons exist in the arsenals of some,” said South Africa’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Minty during the Review Conference, “others will aspire to possess them.” Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy told his NATO ministerial colleagues just days later that: “In the NPT, we are confronted regularly with the argument that if nuclear weapons are good for NATO, then they are good for others too.”

Is it remotely plausible to envision the world in 2010 or 2025 or 2050 with today’s nuclear status quo in place? Humanity must soon choose between a world of zero nuclear weapon states or a world of many dozen nuclear weapon states. If we allow ourselves to be taken down that latter path, some kind of nuclear conflagration – perhaps an accidental or unauthorized launch, perhaps the act of a terrorist, perhaps an eventually inevitable political miscalculation in a crisis – will be only a matter of time. As Abraham Lincoln said about a nation half slave and half free, a world with a few “nuclear haves” and a great many “nuclear have-nots” cannot forever endure.

Both Al Gore and George W. Bush have indicated that they intend to reduce American nuclear stockpiles. But their nuclear weapon policy pronouncements are never conceptualized as steps on the road toward abolition. Neither candidate thus far has said one single word about the solemn commitment the U.S. made in May to “total elimination.”

Couldn’t a presidential candidate galvanize legions of apathetic voters by pledging to end the gravest danger ever to face humankind? A 1997 poll found that fully 87% of Americans support negotiating a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons altogether. Similar numbers turn up in poll after poll around the world. Surely the moment is ripe, more than a decade after the Cold War’s end, for a presidential candidate to turn to his opponent in a nationally televised debate, and say: “Governor/Mr. Vice-President? Will you join me in committing to fulfill our Non-Proliferation Treaty promise, and to commence negotiations toward the total elimination of all nuclear arsenals around the world? Will you join me in recognizing that a nuclear weapon free world would enhance our military superiority and increase our national security? Will you join me in committing to abolish these abominations?”

Most of the U.S. presidents of the nuclear age, including Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton, have declared that our goal is elimination. None did so more frequently and emphatically than Ronald Reagan. But no president, so far, has ever gotten around to initiating negotiations with other nations to fulfill the grand bargain of the NPT.

Imagine for a moment that our new president does so. Imagine that it’s the summer of 2008, and that every nation on Earth has signed a universal, verifiable, and enforceable Nuclear Weapon Elimination Convention – that requires the phased dismantling and destruction of every nuclear arsenal on Earth, imposes permanent controls on all nuclear materials, and prohibits nuclear warheads from ever being constructed again. Could any president aspire to a greater historic feat?

On December 31, 1999, TIME magazine named nuclear weapon theorist and nuclear weapon abolitionist Albert Einstein as its “Person of the Century.” If a presidential candidate today commits to the nuclear weapon destination that Einstein envisioned, he may generate enough passionate new voter enthusiasm – in a stroke – to win the November election. And he would immediately become the early favorite to grace TIME’s cover on December 31, 2099. The abolition of nuclear weapons, after all, may literally save the world.

Posted in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, Politics