The U.S. election season now draws to a close, and as expected, not too much was made of nuclear weapons during the presidential race. The economy, and near the end of the campaign season the mega-storm in the northeast, overshadowed almost all other issues.
Still, both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, when they did discuss nuclear weapons, were drawn into debates that focused on the fears and threats around proliferation.
During the presidential debates, the two main nuclear-related issues that arose included Iran and Russia. Both leery of Iran’s plans for its nuclear program, neither candidate wanted to appear afraid of launching a military strike against the country, but neither candidate wanted to suggest that the United States was about to steep itself in another major war in the Middle East. They both said they would use diplomatic means and intensify economic sanctions to change Iranian actions in the way they see fit, but they seemed reluctant to discuss the details of diplomatic steps or propose how a positive scenario could realistically unfold.
Romney was clear that he sees Russia as the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe”, which was consistent with his opposition to the New START nuclear arms control treaty between Russia and the United States. Republicans have had an easy time criticizing Obama’s comments made to previous-President Dmitry Medvedev on how he would have more flexibility on missile defense after the election. Recent developments in Russian policies, including backing out of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, further challenge the relationship.
The likely outcome in the Senate elections means passing treaties will be even more difficult during the next presidential term. The Obama Administration’s Presidential Nuclear Guidance should formally conclude after the election. Both conditions will further constrain Obama or Romney. The themes emerging for possible actions in the nearer term on nuclear arms control include somehow making progress on a global fissile material agreement that has been held up by Pakistan and connected to its standoff with India; forging agreements, or at least reaching an understanding with Russia, that might not require another treaty but could lead to methods that enhance verification and badly needed trust; and also increasing engagement with China on the level of military-to-military relations. (Steven Pifer and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution have suggested a number of potentially useful options on nuclear arms control for the next President in their new book: The Opportunity.) Either leader will face challenges paying for the recapitalization of the nuclear Triad.
The frustrations that were apparent during the election season, a “fiscal cliff”, the challenges of adapting to a new economy and technologies, and managing a changing American fabric with diffuse interests, have affected the United States before, but the pace of change is more rapid and the number of people affected has increased and made more limited the real impact of certain decisions made in Washington. On nuclear weapons issues, while interests run across the country into the national labs and industry, nuclear complexes and military bases, the President and to a lesser extent Congressional leaders can still make or avoid decisions that will have a more palpable impact. Despite worries about a “rising China” or a “resurgent Russia”, the United States still holds by far the greatest level of strategic and economic power in the world. It will be up to these leaders in the next term, however, whether they want to take advantage of their leverage, rather than avoiding possible opportunities out of political fear.
These are the personal views of the author.