Neglecting nuclear security in the 2016 election

By Jeff Murphy, Chris Kruckenberg | August 19, 2016

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once said, “[W]hen you’re asked what keeps you awake at night, it’s the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.”

He isn’t the only public servant to feel this way; nuclear threats have haunted US leaders since the United States used the first atomic weapons and realized others could do the same. These fears are not totally unfounded: A team from the Government Accountability Office recently succeeded in procuring ingredients for a dirty bomb within the United States, and would-be terrorists could possibly do the same. Recent administrations have focused on this issue, perhaps none more than that of Barack Obama. But are the 2016 presidential campaigns putting nuclear security on the back burner? Despite their public safety theme, Republican National Convention speakers never mentioned nuclear security issues outside of the Iran nuclear deal, and the party platform only indirectly touches on nonproliferation. Democratic National Convention speakers primarily focused on questioning the wisdom of giving the nuclear codes to the opposing candidate, but at least devoted a section of their party platform to nuclear nonproliferation.

This is disturbing to us. As nuclear security interns at the Stimson Center, we never thought our research would affect our vote in the 2016 presidential election. Like many interns in Washington, DC, we simply sought professional experience in hopes of pursuing careers in international affairs and living the American Dream. However, what we’ve seen during the campaign has raised questions for us about the future of nuclear security and whether the goal of a world without nuclear weapons is still possible. The troubling disconnect between the Republican and Democratic campaigns should be worrisome for everyone.

Past progress. Most of the goals related to nuclear security and nonproliferation in the 2008 Democratic platform have been acted on, but this notable progress desperately needs continued US leadership to be sustained. The Nuclear Security Summits convened by Obama, along with the parallel Nuclear Industry Summits, put nuclear security in the front of policy makers’ minds. The momentum from these gatherings persisted partly due to the Obama administration’s early and ongoing focus on the issue, embodied in the president’s famous 2009 Prague speech.

In that speech, Obama committed the United States to begin reducing its arsenal of nuclear weapons, although progress toward this goal over the past seven years has been mixed. While the nation’s nuclear stockpile has decreased in line with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a significant amount of the US budget is still geared toward maintaining a strong nuclear capability. According to the Congressional Budget Office, an estimated $348 billion will be invested in US nuclear forces from 2015 to 2024, an average of approximately $35 billion a year. This preparation for the long-term extension of the US nuclear arsenal contrasts with the administration’s public pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons, including the wise initiation of the Nuclear Security Summit series in 2010. Unfortunately, the last planned summit was held this year, and although Obama characterized nuclear security as a continuing issue, no presidential candidate has indicated strong support for these efforts into the future. Something needs to be done to lock in what progress has been made.

Looking ahead. Throughout the 2016 election season, there has been a disconcerting lack of discussion regarding the future of WMD nonproliferation. Republican candidate Donald Trump has already been on record expressing his comfort with allies—such as Japan and South Korea—developing their own nuclear arsenals, and while Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has declared nuclear proliferation to be one of the most important security threats to the United States, she has been mostly silent on whether she would continue specific Obama administration policies. Unfortunately, scandals and trivial politics have overshadowed policy in the 2016 campaign; bad hair and silly nicknames have trumped nuclear security.

This isn’t just a discussion for national and international leaders; individual citizens need to be involved as well. A populace educated about nuclear security issues will be more willing to demand that it be addressed—and there is an opportunity, especially during a political season, to become informed. Some things, like simply asking congressional representatives what they’re doing to assist nonproliferation efforts, can be done by anybody. This would force politicians to take proliferation more seriously: nuclear as well as chemical and biological. Younger people like us can get involved through efforts such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 International Student Essay Contest, which received almost 150 proposals on how to strengthen nonproliferation efforts.

Regardless of who the next president is, progress made on nuclear security under Obama needs to continue. Two interns should not be the only ones raising these questions; would-be leaders owe all of us some explanation as to how they would facilitate this process, especially those who would be president.

So, candidates: What keeps you up at night, and what are you going to do about it?


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