Presidential debate should include nuclear weapons discussion
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Last May, I traveled to Japan to observe President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden hits new low in Gallup poll Biden's belated filibuster decision: A pretense of principle at work Obama, Springsteen releasing book based on their podcast MORE’s historic visit to Hiroshima. Obama stopped short of an apology for the use of atomic bombs that took the lives of 140,000 in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki, but he delivered a lengthier and more substantive speech than many predicted.

The President’s remarks highlighted the dangers of technology and the need for interdependence and strong institutions to promote cooperation and avoid conflict.


In August, I returned to Hiroshima the “Obama buzz” was still in the air as the president mulled a no-first-use policy for the U.S. But when that idea faded away, so did attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Now another grueling U.S. presidential campaign is passing by with scant mention of this life-and-death issue. Some may argue that the use of nuclear weapons is unlikely and there are more immediate concerns to be discussed, such as jobs and terrorism.

Yet, nuclear weapons are an expensive tax on the domestic economy and pose significant costs when managing global security. Even though the reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has slowed down under Obama, the US is expected to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years upgrading its arsenal.

Currently, nine nations possess approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons, 90% of which are held by the U.S. and Russia. North Korea has already conducted two nuclear weapons test this year and Iran’s nuclear ambitions have only recently been stalled.

U.S.-Russia relations have not been this frail since the Cold War and terrorism and proliferation are ever present dangers to the U.S. and global security. However, from the tone of this year’s presidential election, it seems neither candidate nor the public are particularly concerned about this threat.

Throughout the campaign, political commentary on the U.S. nuclear arsenal and global anti-proliferation measures has been almost non-existent. During the Republican Primary, nuclear weapons were only mentioned in relation to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE’s temperament and his lack of qualifications to be president.

Questioning Trump’s temperament is a valid concern, but there needs to be genuine discussion of whether anyone is qualified to use nuclear weapons. What specific qualifications does Clinton have that suggest she is prepared to use weapons that are hundreds of times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

In their first debate, Trump and Clinton were asked whether they supported Obama’s consideration of ending the U.S.’s long-standing policy on first use, and neither gave a comprehensive answer.

Trump stated that the U.S. was “not keeping up with other countries” and would “certainly not do for a strike,” but would not “take anything off the table” when it comes to first use. Clinton used her two minutes to assure U.S. allies that she would honor mutual defense treaties and said nothing concerning first use, non-proliferation, or the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

In the second presidential debate, Clinton briefly mentioned nuclear weapons when elaborating on her successes, such as negotiating treaties to reduce nuclear weapons and Iran’s nuclear program. Donald Trump countered by saying that the U.S. nuclear program had “fallen behind” and was “old” and “tired.”  

Clinton was not given a chance to respond and North Korea’s nuclear program was not mentioned once in the debate.

Clinton has largely been silent on non-proliferation, while Trump has been absolutely flippant on the prospects of using nuclear weapons. According to one report, during a meeting with a foreign policy expert Trump asked three times why the U.S. could not use nuclear weapons if it had them.

During one interview, Trump stated that he would consider using nuclear weapons against ISIS, the stateless terrorist entity with a footprint in several states. In another interview, Trump openly advocated for proliferation, suggesting that Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia acquire their own nuclear weapons.

Trump would undo decades of hard work in mere seconds. These answers are consistent with his general lack of knowledge on nuclear weapons, demonstrated back in the Republican Primary when he had no idea what the “nuclear triad” was. Clinton’s position is consistent with long standing U.S. policy, focus on horizontal proliferation and downplay vertical proliferation.

The U.S. inability to take a firm stance on proliferation worries non-nuclear states, weakens the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and halts any momentum for meaningful changes in how we thinkabout nuclear weapons. Seven decades of not using nuclear weapons may have led to us to forget how immediate and devastating a nuclear attack would be.

Nuclear weapons breed distrust in the international community and their production and maintenance cause immeasurable environmental damage. And the threat of increases with each passing day as the likelihood of use increases, whether due to terrorism, accidental launch or conflict. 

In Obama’s Hiroshima speech, he said, "We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”  

Critical examination cannot come only during momentous visits or anniversaries; it needs to be constant because nuclear weapons will always be a threat in the here and now. The mushroom cloud casts a long shadow and completely defined the way the U.S. conducts international relations.

In order to “do things differently to curb such suffering again”, we must urge our presidential candidates to have the intellectual honesty and the moral strength to make nuclear weapons a front and center issue of this election for the sake of lasting world peace. 

Le is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College whose research interests include Japanese security policy, militarism norms, military/security balance in East Asia and war memory and reconciliation. He was a Sasakawa Peace Foundation non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a Fulbright Fellow at Hiroshima City University.


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