President Bush and Senator Kerry agree that nuclear proliferation is the top national security threat facing the United States . Given this agreement, it is worth examining the solutions each candidate is offering to solve the problem.
The issue of Russian “loose nukes” has been at the forefront of the non-proliferation agenda since the end of the Cold War. A January 2001 Report Card on the Department of Energy’s Nonproliferation Programs with Russia concluded: “The most urgent, unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction of weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home.” This bipartisan report called for the US to develop and implement a ten-year $30 billion plan to bring Russian nuclear weapons and materials under control. The Bush administration has been spending at a rate of less than half this amount and has made little progress. Senator Kerry calls for completing the task in a four-year period.
In Northeast Asia, North Korea has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and claims to have nuclear weapons. Under the Bush administration, the US has been engaged in periodic six-party talks on security issues with North Korea , South Korea , Japan , China and Russia . These talks have made little progress. By initiating its war against Iraq on the basis of purported weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration has provided incentive to countries such as North Korea to develop nuclear deterrent forces against US attack. Adding to this, Bush has labeled North Korea as part of his “axis of evil” and referred to its leader as a “pygmy.” Senator Kerry has indicated that he would intensify the process of stopping North Korean nuclear proliferation by engaging in bilateral talks, as well as six-party talks, with the leaders of North Korea on the full range of issues of concern.
In the Middle East, the Bush administration has enraged Arab populations by initiating its war against Iraq on false pretenses. Further, President Bush branded both Iraq and Iran as part of his “axis of evil.” The administration has put pressure on Iran to cease its uranium enrichment, which Iran claims is for peaceful purposes, but thus far with little effect. The US is widely viewed in the region as hypocritical for failing to apply equal pressure on Israel to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. Senator Kerry has set forth a plan to create a consortium to supply Iran with the fuel it needs for peaceful purposes with the agreement that Iran would return the spent fuel to the consortium, thus eliminating the threat that this material would be converted to use for weapons.
In South Asia, both India and Pakistan have developed nuclear weapons capabilities. Following the nuclear tests by both countries in 1998, the US placed sanctions on them. However, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has largely removed the sanctions and has developed close ties with Pakistan . President Bush claims to have “busted” the network of A. Q. Khan that was supplying nuclear materials and technology around the world. In fact, Khan was pardoned by Pakistani President Musharraf and has never been questioned by US intelligence agents. Senator Kerry has promised to work multinationally to toughen export controls and strengthen law enforcement and intelligence sharing to prevent such non-proliferation breaches in the future. Further, he has called for working through the United Nations to make trade in nuclear and other technologies of mass destruction an international crime.
The United States has itself been engaged in a program to create new and more usable nuclear weapons, weapons for specific purposes such as “bunker busting,” and smaller nuclear weapons that are about one-third the size of the Hiroshima bomb. The Bush administration has supported this program, while Senator Kerry has said that he would end it because seeking to create new nuclear weapons sets the wrong example when we are trying to convince other nations not to develop nuclear arsenals.
Both candidates recognize the dangers of nuclear proliferation and of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. The Bush administration has set up the Proliferation Security Initiative that allows for boarding ships at sea to inspect for nuclear materials. Senator Kerry has pointed out that this initiative allows for inspecting on short notice only 15 percent of the 50,000 large cargo ships at sea and has less than 20 full participants. He plans a comprehensive approach that would not rely only on “coalitions of the willing,” but would create a broad international framework for preventing nuclear proliferation. Senator Kerry would also appoint a Presidential Coordinator to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism and make the issue a cabinet-level priority.
In evaluating the candidates in regard to their willingness and ability to deal with the threats of nuclear proliferation, we should consider also the commitments made in 2000 by the parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including the US , to achieving 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament. These steps include ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the strengthening of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the creation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, making nuclear disarmament irreversible, and an unequivocal undertaking to achieve the total elimination of nuclear arsenals. These steps are important not only because they are international obligations, but because the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the non-proliferation regime in general rests upon the nuclear weapons states as well as the non-nuclear weapons states fulfilling their obligations.
In nearly all respects President Bush has failed to meet these obligations. He has opposed ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, opposed verification of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, made nuclear disarmament entirely reversible under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty and, rather than demonstrating leadership toward the elimination of nuclear arsenals, has sought to create new nuclear weapons.
It is difficult to imagine any US president achieving so dismal a record on so critical an issue. It is time for presidential leadership that will restore US credibility in the world and not betray the national security interests of the American people.
David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and co-author of Nuclear Weapons and the World Court.