03/28/2012 10:20 am ET Updated May 28, 2012

Playing Politics With Nuclear Security

When a Republican president negotiates reductions in nuclear arsenals, it is statecraft; when a Democratic president does the same, it is treason. That, at least, is the position advanced this week by several leading Republican politicians and their political advisors.

In his remarks at Hankuk University in Seoul last weekend, President Barack Obama again stated his desire to modernize US national security and jettison outdated weapons and strategies. He said:

The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited to today's threats, including nuclear terrorism. I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal.

This is not a view unique to the president. It represents the broad, bipartisan consensus of America's national security establishment. Most military and defense leaders recognize that nuclear weapons serve little purpose in the 21st century other than deterring other nations from attacking us with nuclear weapons. That mission does not require the thousands of weapons currently deployed.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell explained two years ago the evolution in his thinking that tracks closely with the views of many senior security experts today:

I became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989 and I had 28,000 nuclear weapons under my supervision. Every morning I looked to see where the Russian submarines were off the coast of Virginia and how far away those missions were from Washington. I kept track where the Russian missiles were in Europe and in the Soviet Union.

The one thing that I convinced myself after all these years of exposure to the use of nuclear weapons is that they were useless. They could not be used.

If you can have deterrence with an even lower number of weapons, well then why stop there, why not continue on, why not get rid of them altogether...This is the moment when we have to move forward and all of us come together to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and eliminate them from the face of the earth.

This new security consensus, however, does not extend to the political sphere. Obama's efforts to modestly reduce the still-massive Cold War nuclear arsenal have provoked outraged cries of "reckless lunacy" and "dangerous fantasy." But these critics are playing with fire, undermining efforts to counter nuclear terrorism, stop new nuclear states and prevent nuclear war, intended or accidental. Obama is doing what Republican presidents have done routinely and with much praise ever since President Ronald Reagan paved the way with the first treaty to actually cut nuclear weapons.

Serial Bomb Killers

In fact, Republican presidents have slashed the nuclear arsenal substantially and repeatedly. President George H. W. Bush, building on Reagan's negotiations with the Soviet Union, cut the nuclear weapons stockpile by nearly 50 percent. President George W. Bush presided over another 50 percent cut. We went from over 22,000 nuclear weapons when Bush 41 took office to less than 5,200 weapons when Bush 43 left the White House.

Critics say that times are different now, that we can't cut the U.S. arsenal while other countries are modernizing or building up (claims which are greatly exaggerated). Global crises haven't stopped past presidents. For example, in 2006, China was thought to have about 200 nuclear weapons and building more. In February of that year, Iran restricted inspections of his nuclear facilities and pledged to ramp up its enrichment of uranium. There was talk of war. In October, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. These multiple crises required a firm hand on the nuclear tiller. But none of these major security challenges stopped President Bush from continuing to cut the nuclear arsenal. As then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at the time, "No one is going to keep weapons they don't need."

How Much is Enough?

Which raises a good point -- one I discussed with Neal Conan on the NPR show, Talk of the Nation, earlier this week. How many nuclear bombs do we need? Despite major wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and numerous near-war crises, we have not used a nuclear weapon in nearly 67 years. It is difficult to conceive of any military mission today that would require the use of even one nuclear bomb. Using ten nuclear weapons would be a catastrophe unprecedented in human history. Using one hundred is unthinkable. Yet, today we have an arsenal of 5,000 hydrogen bombs, each 10 to 80 times more destructive than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 1800 of these monsters are deployed on U.S. long-range missiles and bombers, ready to use in a moment's notice. It is an insane policy, one guaranteed to end the world, not save it.

President Obama and his Republican predecessors may have differed on many policies, but one thing they agreed on is that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is far too big for our national security needs. That is why every president since Reagan has cut the stockpile, cooperating with the Russians to achieve reciprocal and verified cuts in their equally massive arsenals. They have done so with the complete support of America's military leaders who would rather spend security budgets on programs they will actually use in the defense of the nation.

Trimming Cold War arsenals, bringing our nuclear strategy into the 21st century, makes sense. It makes sense for Republicans and Democrats. It makes sense for defense hawks and budget hawks. Politicians now trying to score cheap political points do so at the expense of our national security. Instead of supporting and joining the commander-in-chief as he traveled to Asia, the most dynamic region of the world today, to unite 50 world leaders in a joint effort to counter our number one security threat -- nuclear terrorism -- these politicians snipe and kibitz. They undercut American leadership when we need it most. They do the nation, their party and themselves a great disservice. It is a dangerous game that must end now.

This article is co-authored with Mary Kaszynski, a researcher at Ploughshares Fund.