A Nuclear-Free World? Policymaking Elites and the Public Agree

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Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book, co-edited with Glen H. Stassen, is Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future (Paradigm Publishers).

On January 15, 2008, in an Op-Ed column entitled "Toward a Nuclear-Free World," four concerned American citizens called upon U.S. government and other governments to set "the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons" and to take substantial action toward this goal.  No, these Americans weren't leaders of Peace Action, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Physicians for Social Responsibility, or other major peace organizations.  Instead, they were George Shultz (secretary of state under Ronald Reagan), William Perry (secretary of defense under Bill Clinton), Henry Kissinger (secretary of state under Richard Nixon), and Sam Nunn (a former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee).  And the newspaper where their column appeared was the Wall Street Journal.

"The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point," warned these former top power-wielders.  "The steps we are taking . . . are not adequate to the danger," and, consequently, "deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous." 

Having issued a similar warning in early 2007, Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn had received support for their anti-nuclear stance from numerous former U.S. national security officials.  And when they convened veterans of the past six administrations, along with other experts on nuclear issues, for a conference at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, "there was general agreement about the importance of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons as a guide to our thinking about nuclear policies, and about the importance of a series of steps that will pull us back from the nuclear precipice."  Naturally, as the United States and Russia possess "close to 95% of the world's nuclear warheads," they "have a special responsibility, obligation and experience to demonstrate leadership" in the process of nuclear disarmament.

One would find this position remarkable were it not for the fact that most people around the world already agree with it.  Polls over the last decade have found overwhelming support for a nuclear-free world.  Asked if Britain "should help to negotiate a global treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons," 87 percent of Britons responded affirmatively.  Queried as to whether all nuclear weapons should be eliminated, 78 percent of Japanese agreed.  When Germans were asked if the nuclear weapons states should "start getting rid of their own nuclear weapons as soon as possible," 87 percent backed the idea.  Asked if the nuclear weapons states should abolish their weapons, 61 percent of Russians expressed approval.  Even the citizens of supposedly nationalistic Third World nations have shown a strong aversion to nuclear weapons.  Asked if their country should produce nuclear bombs, 63 percent of Indians said "No."

For years, Americans have expressed much the same opinions.  In April 1997, a survey found that more than four out of five of U.S. respondents supported negotiating an international agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons.  Only four months ago, another poll reported that 73 percent of the American public favored nuclear abolition. 

In this context, what is remarkable is that relatively few of the politicians campaigning for president are willing to speak up for a nuclear-free world.  To be sure, among the front-running Democrats, Barack Obama and John Edwards have taken an abolitionist stand.  But, within the ranks of the Republican front-runners, there is nary a peep about nuclear abolition, nuclear disarmament, or even nuclear arms control.  If the presidential race boils down to Hillary Clinton versus John McCain (the current front-runners for the Democratic and Republican party nominations), the overwhelming popular sentiment for nuclear abolition will not find expression.

It's unfortunate that, in a world bristling with 27,000 nuclear weapons, our leading politicians are unwilling to stake out a position that—to policymaking elites and average citizens alike—is just common sense.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 1/19/2008

Let's not let the perfect get in the way of the good. Long-term concerted efforts can lower the number of nuclear weapons considerably and can discourage more nations from obtaining them.

Without such efforts, the number of nations having nukes surely will grow, and the more nations that have them, the more likely they will be used. If a nation uses one and profits from it, the more likely that more will use them. It is only rational to work at shifting the world toward fewer nuclear weapons--and nuclear weapon holders--as opposed to more.

One more thing, the effectiveness of deterrence--which is apparently the policy of choice of some of the posts here--depends in part on the rationality of enemies. But can we assume rationality?

Lawrence S. Wittner - 1/18/2008

Actually, Mr. Mullinax, the "people running the country" have fostered some degree of nuclear disarmament, and today the United States has fewer nuclear weapons than when George W. Bush became president. Furthermore, there are far fewer nuclear weapons in the world today (i.e. 27,000) than at the height of the Cold War (i.e. 70,000). Numerous countries have either cut back their nuclear arsenals (e.g. the United States and Russia) or eliminated them entirely.

Mr. Hughes suggests that we lie down (and presumably die through nuclear war) before considering the idea of getting rid of the world's remaining nuclear weaons. But it is heartening to see that most people -- including numerous former U.S. secretaries of state and defense -- don't agree with him and, instead, think that we would all be safer living in a nuclear-free world.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/18/2008

And who is going to give them up first, Israel? India? Pakistan? Russia? You might as well just lie down until this idea passes.

Bryan Mullinax - 1/17/2008

Which proves that 73 percent of the American people haven't really thought about this and its implications.

1. Are you willing to bet your life and lives of all your family and progeny that every single nuclear bomb everywhere in the world has been magically disappeared? If America disarms and can then be threatened with nuclear annihilation to which we can't respond, then what? We just fall to our knees and surrender to whoever is smart enough to keep the bomb?

2. In the whole history of mankind has any scientific fact been "unlearned"? Once we have the knowledge to do something has humanity ever, ever, ever turned its back on that knowledge and never been tempted to revisit it? We have lost some knowledge at different points, but its always been re-learned. Unless we can somehow eliminate the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons from every single person and place on the planet, there are always going to be nuclear weapons on the planet. Or until we invent something that is even more powerful than nuclear bombs. Humanity advances.

3. If its such a wonderful idea to not have any nuclear weapons, why don't we just unilaterally disarm? Aside from the true believers who will grovel on their knees to anyone and anything as long as they can keep breathing - would America support that proposal? I certainly don't think so - and that's why its never presented to the American public that way. Its the nice "can't we all just get along", "wouldn't you support the elimination of all nuclear weapons in the world" sort of polling proposition.

And the people actually running the country probably understand these truths deep down, which is why they aren't supporting any nuclear disarmament.