David KriegerNuclear weapons do not and cannot protect their possessors. They can only be used to threaten or carry out massive retaliation. Retaliation does not constitute protection. It constitutes retribution of the worst sort, killing large numbers of innocent people. Further, when powerful states continue to rely upon nuclear arsenals for their security, they create an incentive to nuclear proliferation. When nuclear weapons proliferate to other countries, the chances are increased that they will end up in the hands of terrorist organizations that are suicidal, not locatable, and thus not subject to being deterred.

A major goal of the next president of the United States should be to achieve a clear path to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. This will require making a commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world; bringing US policy in line with this commitment; and convening negotiations with the other nuclear weapon states to achieve this goal.

Both leading presidential candidates have articulated a commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. Senator Obama has said, “A world without nuclear weapons is profoundly in America’s interest and the world’s interest. It is our responsibility to make the commitment, and to do the hard work to make this vision a reality. That’s what I’ve done as a Senator and a candidate, and that’s what I’ll do as President.”

On another occasion, Senator Obama stated, “Here’s what I’ll say as President: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons. We will not pursue unilateral disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist, we’ll retain a strong nuclear deterrent. But we’ll keep our commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on the long road towards eliminating nuclear weapons.” For the United States to keep its commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty would mean that it would enter into “good faith” negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament. Senator Obama asserts that this will be a “long road,” but with the requisite leadership and political will, it need not be so long a road as he now perceives.

Senator Obama elaborated, “We’ll work with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert, and to dramatically reduce the stockpiles of our nuclear weapons and material. We’ll start by seeking a global ban on the production of fissile material for weapons. And we’ll set a goal to expand the US-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.”

Senator McCain has said, “A quarter of a century ago, President Ronald Reagan declared, ‘our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.’ That is my dream, too.” Having said this, however, Senator McCain made it clear that the goal was not close at hand. He referred to it as “a distant and difficult goal,” one that “we must proceed toward it prudently and pragmatically, and with a focused concern for our security and the security of allies who depend on us.” Again, the requisite leadership and political will would make this a far less “distant and difficult goal.”

Senator McCain continued, “But the Cold War ended almost twenty years ago, and the time has come to take further measures to reduce dramatically the number of nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals. It is time for the United States to show the kind of leadership the world expects from us, in the tradition of American presidents who worked to reduce the nuclear threat to mankind. […] I believe we should reduce our nuclear forces to the lowest level we judge necessary, and we should be prepared to enter into a new arms control agreement with Russia reflecting the nuclear reductions I will seek.” Senator McCain’s goal is ambiguous when he talks about “the lowest level we judge necessary….” One might ask: Who is the “we” that judges and what is the criteria for “necessary”?

Bringing US policy into line with the commitment to obtain a nuclear weapons-free world requires a number of steps to dramatically reduce nuclear risks as well as the size of nuclear arsenals. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has proposed seven steps to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. These will be discussed below, along with the positions of the two major party candidates for US president on each of these steps.

  • De-alert. Remove all nuclear weapons from high-alert status, separating warheads from delivery vehicles. There remain some 3,000 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert in the arsenals of the US and Russia, elevating the risks of accidental launches.

Senator Obama states on his campaign website that he would “work with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert.” He has also said, “If we want the world to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia must lead by example. President Bush once said, ‘The United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status – another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation.’ Six years later, President Bush has not acted on this promise. I will. We cannot and should not accept the threat of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch.”

Senator McCain has not stated his position on de-alerting nuclear arsenals.

  • No First Use. Make legally binding commitments to No First Use of nuclear weapons and establish nuclear policies consistent with this commitment. Among the nuclear weapons states, only China and India currently have policies of No First Use. The other states, including the US, maintain the option of using nuclear weapons preemptively.

Neither candidate has taken a position specifically on No First Use of nuclear weapons. Senator Obama, however, has said that the US should lead an effort to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons.

Senator McCain has said, “It’s naïve to say that we will never use nuclear weapons.” If he believes it is naïve to say that nuclear weapons will never be used, it seems unlikely that he would be willing to rule out their first use.

  • No New Nuclear Weapons. Initiate a moratorium on the research and development of new nuclear weapons, such as the Reliable Replacement Warhead. The Bush administration has been pushing for new nuclear weapons, but Congress has wisely resisted this path.

Senator Obama has said, “We can maintain a strong nuclear deterrent to protect our security without rushing to produce a new generation of warheads. I do not support a premature decision to produce the RRW [Reliable Replacement Warhead].” He has also stated, “We can maintain a strong nuclear deterrent to protect our security without rushing to produce a new generation of warheads.”

Senator McCain has said, “I would only support the development of any new type of nuclear weapon that is absolutely essential for the viability of our deterrent that results in making possible further decreases in the size of our nuclear arsenal, and furthers our global nuclear security goals. I would cancel all further work on the so-called Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a weapon that does not make strategic or political sense.” McCain’s statement leaves a loophole by using language similar to that used by the proponents of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, that is, that the RRW is essential for the viability of the US deterrent and will make possible a decrease in the US nuclear arsenal.

  • Ban Nuclear Testing Forever. Ratify and bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In 1999, the Senate with a Republican majority voted along party lines against ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration has not resubmitted the treaty for further Senate consideration.

Senator Obama has stated, “I will make it my priority to build bipartisan consensus behind ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”

Senator McCain was among the Senators voting against ratification of the Treaty in 1999. He has indicated that he would reconsider his earlier decision, stating that he would take another look “to see what can be done to overcome the shortcomings that prevented it from entering into force.”

  • Control Nuclear Material. Create a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty with provisions to bring all weapons-grade nuclear material and the technologies to create such material under strict and effective international control. In a world with few or no nuclear weapons, it is essential to have strong international controls of nuclear materials that could be used for developing nuclear weapons.

Senator Obama has said, “I will work to negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material.” He has further stated, “I will secure all loose nuclear materials around the world in my first term.”

Senator McCain has stated that the US “should move quickly with other nations to negotiate a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to end production of the most dangerous nuclear materials.”

  • Nuclear Weapons Convention. The Non-Proliferation Treaty requires “good faith” negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament. Such good faith negotiations should be applied to reaching a multilateral international treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. This treaty would set forth a confidence-building roadmap to a world free of nuclear weapons.

Neither candidate has spoken about negotiating a new treaty for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, although both have talked about the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Both candidates have called for reductions in nuclear arsenals. While reductions can be taken unilaterally or bilaterally with the Russians, the critically important step of a Nuclear Weapons Convention will require multilateral negotiations with all of the world’s states.

Senator Obama’s website states that he will “seek dramatic reductions in US and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material.” He has also promised to “seek deep cuts in global nuclear arsenals.”

Senator McCain has said, “I believe we should reduce our nuclear forces to the lowest level we judge necessary, and we should be prepared to enter into a new arms control agreement with Russia reflecting the nuclear reductions I will seek.”

  • Resources for Peace. Reallocate resources from the tens of billions currently spent on nuclear arms to alleviating poverty, preventing and curing disease, eliminating hunger and expanding educational opportunities throughout the world. Plans should be made for reallocating the large sums of money currently used to maintain and improve nuclear arsenals.

Senator Obama has said that he will “cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending,” giving as an example that he will “cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.”

Senator McCain has not stated his position on reallocating resources from the defense budget in general or nuclear weapons programs in particular to meeting human needs.

The Candidates’ Positions on Other Key Issues Affecting Nuclear Disarmament

An important issue affecting the US ability to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons is the tension created between the US and Russia over US implementation of missile defenses, particularly in Eastern Europe. The US missile defense program has been viewed as a threat by Russia since the US unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. The Russians have viewed US missile defenses as threatening their deterrent capability despite US assurances to the contrary, and if this issue is not resolved it could be a deal breaker for further progress on nuclear disarmament. An important step in clearing the path with Russia for major reductions in nuclear weapons would be for the US to reverse course on deployment of missile defenses and open negotiations with the Russians to reinstate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Senator Obama has said, “I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.”

Senator McCain voted Yes on deploying National Missile Defense in 1999, and more recently stated, “The first thing I would do is make sure that we have a missile defense system in place in Czechoslovakia (sic) and Poland, and I don’t care what his [Putin’s] objections are to it.”

Another potential stumbling block is space weaponization. Russians and the Chinese have both promoted a draft treaty to reserve outer space for peaceful purposes, including a ban on space weaponization. The US has not been willing to even discuss such a ban, and was the only country in the United Nations to vote against such a ban in the 2007 UN General Assembly. The US should join with the other countries of the world in assuring that space is reserved for peaceful purposes only.

Senator Obama has said flatly, “I will not weaponize space.”

Senator McCain has stated, “Weapons in space are a bad idea. A treaty that increases space security is a good idea, but it is likely to take a long time to negotiate. There is a simpler and quicker way to go: a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations. One key element of that Code must include a prohibition against harmful interference against satellites.”

Another concern in bringing US policy in line with a commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world is the control of the spread of nuclear power. While the promotion of nuclear power is a tenet of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it adds significantly to the complications of controlling nuclear materials and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nuclear power and research reactors, as Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have demonstrated, are a pathway to nuclear weapons, and the US should shift its policy of promoting these nuclear materials factories. Even more dangerous are facilities to enrich uranium or separate plutonium, which could be used in weapons programs.

Senator McCain has sponsored legislation that would provide subsidies for the nuclear power industry. McCain has said that “nuclear power, for all kinds of reasons, needs to be part of the solution.” In a speech on the environment, Senator McCain referred to nuclear energy as “a proven energy source that requires zero emissions.” After referencing the plans of China, Russia and India to build new nuclear reactors, he asked, “And if they have the vision to set and carry out great goals in energy policy, then why don’t we?” McCain is calling for the construction of 45 new nuclear reactors in the US by the year 2030.

Senator Obama has adopted a far more cautious approach to nuclear energy. In his energy plan on his website, it states, “Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table. However, there is no future for nuclear without first addressing four key issues: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.” Although Senator Obama does not seem to have directly said so himself, Senator McCain has said that Senator Obama “doesn’t support new nuclear plants.” Possibly Senator McCain was extrapolating from the difficulty of the nuclear power industry providing satisfactory solutions to the four key issues that Senator Obama raised.


On the issue, so critical to humanity’s future, of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, there is much we still don’t know about the candidates’ positions. Both state in general terms that they favor the goal. Neither of them, however, has discussed seeking to achieve a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty that would set forth a roadmap for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.

Between the two candidates, Senator McCain’s positions seem more cautious. He has defined the goal as “distant.” He has also used language that could leave open the door to developing new nuclear weapons, if they meet certain criteria. A most serious obstacle to Senator McCain achieving progress is his strong support for missile defenses, which have led the Russians to consider backtracking on nuclear disarmament by, for example, bolstering its offensive nuclear capabilities and pulling out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. Further, McCain has stated that it is “naïve to say that we will never use nuclear weapons,” which seems to suggest that he would not support ruling out First Use of nuclear weapons.

Senator Obama has articulated a more detailed position on achieving the goal of a nuclear weapons free world than has Senator McCain. Senator Obama has said that he wants to be the President that leads the way to a nuclear weapons-free world, although he, too, sees it as a “long road.” He has come out in favor of removing US nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, not developing new nuclear weapons, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, achieving a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material and making deep cuts in global nuclear arsenals. He is also more cautious about nuclear energy, seeks to cut funds from unproven missile defense systems, and opposes the weaponization of space.

The World Set Free

In the seventh decade of the Nuclear Age, there is a glimmer of hope that new leadership in the United States may pave the way forward toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Such leadership would be a great gift to the people of the United States and to the world. If humans together can rid the world of its greatest human-created threat, we can also join together to accomplish other great feats – eliminating poverty, hunger and disease, protecting the environment and averting the potential disasters arising from climate change, and opening new channels of creativity and communication that can bind us all closer together in peace, justice and human dignity.

***This article is for educational purposes. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is a non-partisan organization and does not support particular candidates or political parties.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and a councilor of the World Future Council.