Global Public Square

Republican presidents' efforts to reduce nuclear arms

Editor's NoteNickolas Roth is a policy fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. This post comes from Democracy Arsenal, a liberal foreign affairs blog.

By Nickolas Roth, Democracy Arsenal

President Obama was recently overheard saying to Russian President Medvedev that, assuming he prevails in the election this November, he would have more flexibility to negotiate on arms control issues. In response, some Congressional Republicans have implied that President Obama may have secret plans to aggressively pursue arms control in his second term.

Perhaps Republicans are concerned that the United States will cut its arsenal in half. Maybe they are concerned that President Obama will eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.  Or maybe they are concerned he would do something dramatic like try to negotiate the total elimination of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons. Well, if he were to accomplish any of these tasks, he would be in good company. These are all feats attempted by Republican Presidents in their second terms.  Every second term Republican President since the beginning of the nuclear age (i.e. Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush II) proposed drastic changes to the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Here's a review:

George W. Bush

Most recently, President George W. Bush made sweeping reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal during his second term. In 2007, President Bush approved a nearly 50 percent cut in the deployed nuclear stockpile and pledged to cut it by an additional 15% by 2012. Notably, the announcement of these reductions occurred while the Bush administration was simultaneously planning to cut 7,200 nuclear weapons-related jobs, arguing that the way in which the United States maintained its nuclear weapons was outdated and cost too much.

At the time, not a single prominent Republican attacked President Bush for pursuing such a policy. In fact, in 2004, Republican Chairman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, which is responsible for funding nuclear weapons programs at the Department of Energy, applauded President Bush's effort to reduce nuclear weapons, stating "it may not be to the degree of where he wants to get right now, but it's a lot better than where we are today" and "After years of maintaining a nuclear stockpile sized for the Cold War, we are finally bringing the numbers down to a more realistic and responsible level." In contrast, Republicans have relentlessly attacked President Obama, who has provided more money for nuclear weapons than any previous president and pursued extremely modest reductions by his predecessor's standards, because of perceived "underfunding" or lack of commitment to the nuclear stockpile.

Ronald Reagan

Arguably, President Reagan made more progress in reducing the threat of nuclear weapons in his second term than any other President, Democrat or Republican. While his eventual support for the abolition of nuclear weapons is widely known, his ambitious efforts to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons deserve more attention.

Following the 1983 incident in which Soviet leaders, interpreting a U.S. nuclear exercise as a first strike, prepared to launch nuclear weapons against the United States, President Reagan became more hands on in dealing with nuclear weapons policy. In a 1986 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev discussed a proposal for completely eliminating Soviet and U.S. nuclear weapons. Although they were not able to agree on terms, this marks the closest any President has ever come to abolishing nuclear weapons altogether.

In 1987, President Reagan signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces in Europe Treaty (INF). The INF required the United States and USSR to verifiably eliminate nuclear missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. Throughout this period, the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated to increase transparency and verification of nuclear testing and, despite being criticized by his own party, Reagan made significant progress in negotiating reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons. This negotiation process was completed by his successor, George H.W. Bush, in the form of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Richard Nixon

President Nixon's second term lasted slightly over a year and a half; yet, even he was able to make progress in reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. In 1973, Nixon signed the Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, helping to reinforce détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1974, he signed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited the United States and the Soviet Union from conducting nuclear tests greater than 150 kilotons, a precursor to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. During this time, Nixon also pursued further restrictions on US and Soviet nuclear arms, building on the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement (SALT I) between the Soviet Union and the United States negotiated during his first term. 

Dwight Eisenhower 

President Eisenhower was certainly no dove when it came to nuclear weapons, approving significant quantitative and qualitative increases in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. However, towards the end of his presidency, Eisenhower also began moving away from his hawkish nuclear ways. In his second term, Eisenhower began legitimate negotiations on a verifiable test ban, which included working with Khrushchev to draft a treaty.  In 1959, he was also the first President to establish a testing moratorium. While the moratorium expired in December 1959, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons again until 1961.

This brings us to Barack Obama, who of course has yet to win a second term, but has made no secret of his goals regarding reducing the threat from nuclear weapons. In a speech President Obama delivered on March 26 at Hankuk University in Seoul, Korea, President Obama renewed his pledge to further reduce the threat of nuclear weapons by "taking concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons." The speech outlined a number of goals the President first proposed in Prague in April 2009 and would seek during his second term, including ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and further reductions in all types of Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons. Contrary to arguments put forth by critics, these goals are the continuation of decades of work by Republican Presidents in their second terms.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Nickolas Roth.