Perhaps the single most important responsibility of U.S. Presidents, and for what we should most closely hold them to account, is nuclear weapons. To those of us aware of the dangers of nuclear weapons, of the costs in both dollars and lives that they represent, the silence of our presidential candidates in this time, when national dialogue on nuclear weapons may be more important than ever, is troubling to say the least. A quick overview of the five remaining major party candidates reveals a disturbing trend of their having little to say on the matter and little of substance in what they do say.
Candidate Clinton has been cagey on her nuclear stance and has neither fully condoned nor sanctioned nuclear deterrence theory. Nor has she been clear with what restraint or in what contexts she would ever use a nuclear weapon. Likewise, although characterizing the particular proposed nuclear modernization plan as not “[making] sense,” she has not explained if she’s for modernization generally; nor has she spoken further on what she meant. That being said, she has stated that she is committed to peace and “a world without nuclear weapons,” and she has promised to build on nuclear reduction efforts with Russia and China and would seek to resolve the Iranian and North Korean nuclear dilemmas. In particular, she has supported reducing Russian and American stockpiles to 1,000 nuclear warheads – down from approximately 8,000 and 7,000 respectively.
Candidate Cruz also hasn’t said much with regards to nuclear weapons but he has emphasized that he strongly supports defense spending and otherwise strengthening U.S. military clout – although he does also believe in Reagan’s dream of “a world where there are no more nuclear weapons.” Nevertheless he clearly supports modernization of some sort, though it is unclear if he supports the current trillion-dollar triad modernization policy, saying, “I’m certainly committed, to ensuring that we provide the funding that is needed . . . for readiness that has been severely degraded under sequestration.”
Candidate Kasich has had the least to say about nuclear weapons of all the candidates. Declaring the nuclear modernization program “vital” to the nation’s defense and its nuclear program, candidate Kasich has clearly aligned himself with the rest of the Republican candidates in taking a hardline stance on nuclear weapons and militarism. That being said, he has offered little other insight into what the implications of this stance are beyond bringing more pressure to bear on North Korea and Iran for their nuclear programs and otherwise “restoring” our Navy and Army. In conjunction with these stances, the nonpartisan political website “On the Issues” reports Kasich believes that there is a “need to promote Western values to win the war of ideas,” which does not bode well for a policy of peace or cooperation.
Candidate Sanders, although saying very little on the subject, is the only mainstream candidate rhetorically committed to supporting nuclear abolition and the only one fully opposing modernization, saying “the goal is to move to get rid of nuclear weapons, not to get into an arms race. We have other, more important things to spend our money on.” In his terms, “we must heed what President Obama has called our ‘moral responsibility’ to lead the way toward reducing, and eventually eliminating, nuclear weapons.” Similarly, he promotes peace and diplomacy as general guideline policies for any presidential candidate, though he does still maintain force and war as last resorts and he has no clear policy on how he would reduce nuclear weapons. Nevertheless in a step hopefully towards greater commitment and articulation of his nuclear stance, Senator Sanders has recently added Joe Cirincione of the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund as an advisor. According to Cirincione – although debatable it may unfortunately be true – as it stands Mr. Sanders has “the most complete nuclear policy,” out of all the candidates.
Candidate Trump, unfortunately the most vociferous on the issue, has gone so far as to entertain the possibility of using nuclear weapons against ISIS or in Europe, going so far as to question Chris Matthews of MSNBC “Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?” Beyond proposing using our current weapons, however, he has also steadfastly maintained that the US must strengthen its current nuclear stockpile. Although he has said it is “very unlikely” he would ever use the bomb, he has also been one of the most outspoken candidates on nuclear weapons (although that’s not saying much) and has characterized himself as “the most militaristic person,” according to CBS. Indeed, this militarism extends beyond America’s borders and the candidate has even gone so far as to suggest a resurgence of nuclear proliferation internationally, starting with South Korea and Japan. He sums up this position by mildly commenting, according to The New York Times, that “we may very well be better off.”
Observing each of the candidates’ positions, it is utterly discouraging that by and large they barely even have positions on nuclear weapons. Even less encouraging, though, is the amount of time it takes to find out what their positions are. Indeed it is downright shocking to see how little thought they have put into one of the greatest responsibilities they would have as president. The threat of nuclear war is still with us nearly 25 years after the end of the Cold War but you wouldn’t know this by listening to our presidential candidates – even when the threat of nuclear proliferation is at its highest since 1991. None of the candidates even question where else that trillion dollars might be spent, and it is up to the American people to hold them responsible for these failings.
Beyond the relative silence of our candidates, though, the responsibility falls most heavily on the media. They are the supposed bastion of what is newsworthy and of importance. Yet listening to any mainstream news station, one could easily wonder if nuclear weapons, arguably the single most important issue when discussing presidential candidates, are a priority at all or indeed if they even exist anymore! In order to have meaningful dialogue on nuclear weapons and policy, our leaders, the media, and the American people need to bring prominence and sanity to this critical issue once more.
Grant Stanton is a Junior Fellow at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.