THE BLOG
01/17/2008 06:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Democratic Presidential Candidates on Nuclear Weapons Elimination

By Joseph Cirincione and Alexandra Bell

Four veteran cold warriors this week reiterated their call for steep reductions in the nuclear arsenals with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons world-wide. A second Wall Street Journal op-ed from former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn builds on their revolutionary article from last year, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons."

In their new piece, they reveal that they have gathered an overwhelming majority of former top national security officials in support of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. It may take a while to get there, they say, but seven former secretaries of state, seven former national security advisors, and five former secretaries of defense have endorsed freeing the world of nuclear weapons, as well as progressive steps to realize this vision. They represent almost 70 percent of the men and women still living who have served in these top posts and are not currently serving in the administration.

Every one of these officials favored building and deploying thousands of nuclear weapons while in office. But they say today's global situation has radically changed. There is no longer a military justification for the almost 10,000 nuclear weapons that the United States fields and the estimated 15,000 held by Russia, many of them on hair-trigger alert ready to launch within 15 minutes. Together these two powers hold 95 percent of all the world's nuclear weapons, with the other seven nuclear-weapon states dividing up the remaining 1,000.

The growing list of supporters for a nuclear-free world includes 17 former cabinet members, as well as former generals, senior officials, non-proliferation scholars and politicians such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). "You have a big vision, a vision as big as humanity--to free the world of nuclear weapons," he told the group at their October conference at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, "Let me know how I can use my power and influence as governor to further your vision." Nancy Reagan also sent a letter of support.

And the support is bipartisan: 53 percent of the cabinet-level endorsers are Republicans and 47 percent are Democrats. Eighty-eight percent of all the living former secretaries of state have given their general support for the project, as have 70 percent of all former national security advisors and 62 percent of all former secretaries of defense. The only former secretary of state not endorsing is Alexander Haig; the only defense secretary hold-outs are James Schlesinger, Harold Brown and Donald Rumsfeld; and the only former national security advisors not signing up are Brent Scowcroft, William P. Clark and John Poindexter. (Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice are currently in office and are not counted.)

Shifting Presidential Politics

Thus, for the first time since the administration of President Harry Truman in the 1940s and of President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, a call for the elimination of nuclear weapons comes not from the left, but from the moderate middle. This opens up political space for others to embrace a more progressive security agenda.

The effect on the presidential campaigns is already apparent. While Republican candidates, campaigning for the support of the party's right-wing, have not yet moved beyond current policies, former Senator John Edwards (D.-NC), Governor Bill Richardson (D.-NM) and Senator Barack Obama (D.-IL) all promised to lead efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Senator Obama has the most developed plan, based in part on his work with Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) and a bill introduced with Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE). The Obama-Hagel legislation embodies the bipartisanship of the Hoover Institution initiative and codifies most of the group's recommendations, including securing all loose nuclear materials to the highest possible standards, dramatic reductions in nuclear stockpiles, a verifiable treaty to prevent nations form producing nuclear materials for weapons, beefed-up inspections and compliance capabilities; an international nuclear fuel bank to back up commercial fuel supplies, extending the warning and decision time for the launch of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, and starting a bipartisan effort to ratify the nuclear test ban.

Senator Hillary Clinton (D.-NY) promised similar presidential attention to preventing nuclear terror and shrinking global arsenals but stops short of endorsing their elimination. In a Foreign Affairs article at the end of the year, Senator Clinton lamented the failure to build upon the profound international unity created after the 9/11 attacks. She promised to seek Senate approval of the nuclear test ban by 2009, the tenth anniversary of the Senate's initial rejection of the treaty. Clinton cited the Hoover Institution initiative, but redefined it before endorsing what she says is a call "to 'rekindle the vision,' shared by every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton, of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons."

With the momentum created by these new endorsements, the chances of achieving many of these specific policy goals, such as ratifying the nuclear test ban, are greater than ever. Conservative icons Henry Kissinger, Melvin Laird, and Frank Carlucci all opposed ratification in 1999, but now seem to support it.

As the ranks of this nonproliferation movement continue to swell, a nuclear-free world begins to seem not only possible, but plausible.

A version of this article was originally published at the Center for American Progress