The Bipartisan Appeal of Reducing Nuclear Dangers

The United States has a history of broad bipartisan consensus around nuclear issues. Though it’s easy to forget in 2020, the U.S. president arguably most closely associated with nuclear disarmament was Ronald Reagan, a Republican who defined his party’s priorities for at least a decade after his presidency. Optimism about the Soviet Union’s increasing openness and a growing public awareness of the dangers facing a nuclear-armed world both underlay the memorable statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1992.

Today that consensus remains, but it has shifted far in favor of hawkish policies that take for granted the need for more and more nuclear weapons to be maintained ready for use at any time. An amendment to the U.S. House of Representatives’ version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allocates U.S. taxpayer dollars to defense initiatives, blocking funding for new nuclear testing passed mostly on the strength of Democratic support. But representatives from both parties passed the NDAA with unprecedented levels of nuclear weapons spending, including for “low-yield” nuclear weapons and modernizing the existing force.

The benefits of a serious commitment to nuclear risk reduction should appeal to anyone, no matter their party affiliation, whose understanding of U.S. interests goes beyond the financial interests of the defense companies that stand to gain from commitment to expanding the nuclear arsenal. A few already existing policy initiatives could drastically reduce the risk that a nuclear weapon will be used, reducing spending on nuclear weapons at a time when the U.S. sorely needs to direct funding toward solving its housing, healthcare, and employment crises. Less money for nuclear weapons is a win for everyone from fiscal conservatives to progressives.

President Trump signing the 2020 NDAA.

First, Congress should commit to no new nuclear weapons testing. After the White House floated the idea of conducting a nuclear test for the first time in nearly 30 years, Republican House members attempted to include funding in the NDAA to make such a test easier. The Senate version currently includes $10 million to help resume nuclear testing. But any move toward testing, including reducing the time needed to conduct a nuclear test, would be seen by other countries as an escalation—even if no nuclear weapon is ever tested—and would make it much more likely that other countries would test nuclear weapons. A new era of nuclear testing would bring environmental, health, and potential escalatory consequences. U.S. leaders who take seriously the idea of the U.S. as a global leader must commit to not take the first step down that path.

Second, a No-First-Use policy would go further to improve U.S. security against a nuclear attack — especially if negotiated bi- or multilaterally with Russia and other nuclear-armed countries. Committing to never using nuclear weapons first in a conflict would lower the incentives to keep nuclear weapons ready to launch, reduce the risk of accidental nuclear use, and provide an opportunity to jump-start arms-control negotiations. During the Trump administration, No First Use has found a home at the progressive edge of Congress’ nuclear policy radar, and the Democrats have come close to endorsing it by adopting “sole purpose” into their convention platform. But there’s no good reason such a policy should not attract broad support from both parties—after all, it already has the support of their constituents.

Finally, there’s growing consensus among experts that it’s time to retire the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force. The U.S.’ 400 ICBMs can be launched less than a minute after a launch crew receives a verified order. Once an ICBM is launched, it cannot be recalled. This leaves the U.S. and Russia open to the very real risk of starting a nuclear war in response to a false alarm of an incoming attack, putting the whole world in danger. The ICBM force is due for a costly modernization, and many experts agree that it is unnecessary for deterrence. Collaborating with Russia to retire both countries’ ICBM force is an intuitive next step—after extending New START—toward making sure that nuclear weapons are never used again.

An ICBM silo near Cooperstown, North Dakota.

Polling data suggest that the U.S. public favors restraint when it comes to nuclear weapons. A world without these weapons — or, at the very least, a world where the risk of nuclear war has been sufficiently diminished to begin disarmament negotiations — would be a safer world for everyone.