By John Erath
That 2024 is an election year in the United States will come as no more of a surprise than the usual partisan bickering and the inevitable portrayals of the other side as dangerous to national security. As someone who served presidents of both parties for three decades, I want to offer an alternative to the usual tradition of using legitimate concerns about nuclear weapons issues as grist for the political mill in an attempt to gain votes. There are actually several critical nuclear issues on which both parties can and should agree.
Traditionally, U.S. foreign policy has been generally bipartisan and, despite the divisive political climate, returning to a situation in which national security interests take precedence over political considerations would make the United States — and the world — safer.
Subjects on which Democrats, Republicans and everyone else could find common ground include:
No Nuclear Arms Race
It seems obvious that more nuclear weapons equals a more dangerous world, yet a new nuclear arms race seems more likely now than at any time since the Cold War. The main drivers of this perception are China’s unconstrained buildup and Russia’s disregard for its international obligations. At the same time, the upcoming expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) adds to the danger.
Although relations between major powers are strained, there remain compelling reasons not to abandon arms control altogether and to keep it available as a tool to use when possible. From the U.S. point of view, this would involve not overreacting by and expanding U.S. nuclear forces automatically in response to Chinese increases or Russian bluster, but maintaining a necessary deterrent while offering off ramps to the escalatory cycle. It may be that an arms race will nevertheless occur, but both parties can see the benefits of not taking actions that would fuel one.
Nuclear Blackmail Should Not Be Normalized
Since renewing its aggression against Ukraine in 2022, Russia has made regular use of nuclear threats to compel governments supporting Ukraine to limit what assistance they provide. Russian leaders, especially Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former President Dmitry Medvedev, have commonly referred to the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons, including potentially against NATO, should the war not go Russia’s way.
It is clear that Russia has decided to use its nuclear weapons as political leverage to influence the behavior of other states. There is a clear danger should this be perceived as succeeding: if Russia can declare victory and attribute it at least in part to western governments’ unwillingness to risk nuclear war, nuclear weapons would gain a dangerous new currency and be perceived by governments like North Korea as highly useful instruments of suasion. Republicans and Democrats alike should be aware of this danger and avoid politicizing the need to continue to provide Ukraine with what it needs to maintain resistance.
It Is Not in the Interest of the United States for Iran to Have Nuclear Weapons
If there were any doubt, Iran’s recent encouragement of Hamas’ atrocities and use of proxies to attack U.S. forces demonstrate the danger of a nuclear-armed state that routinely makes use of terrorism as a policy tool. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have struggled with this issue and whether to scrap or revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as the Iran nuclear deal).
Iran has made the decision, however, not to seek a JCPOA renewal, but it has clearly not decided to build nuclear weapons, likely fearing the international backlash. That should give the next administration some room for engagement, but to reach a workable arrangement that verifies Iran’s non-nuclear status, it will be necessary to solve one problem. Iran has avoided serious talks by hiding behind the excuse that given the political divisions in Washington, the United States is not to be relied upon; one administration would be likely to undo any arrangement reached by a predecessor. Adopting a common line would do away with this excuse and force Iran to negotiate in good faith.
Nuclear Materials Must Be Secured
Despite Russian threats and Chinese opacity, the possibility that terrorists could obtain nuclear or radiological materials remains real, and with it the likelihood of use, given that such groups are by definition not constrained by the rules state actors are expected to follow. It is therefore in the interests of all governments to cooperate to maximize nuclear security.
In the past, administrations of both parties have supported such initiatives, but the tools to do so have fallen into disuse over the last decade. Given the ongoing threat posed by the successors to ISIS, the so-called “Islamic State,” it should be a priority for whomever wins in 2024 to re-energize the nuclear security process.
Manage the Challenge Posed by China
Over the past several decades, China has followed policies intended to remake the post-Cold War global order in terms advantageous to itself. Although it is now clear that the United States and its allies are involved in a competition with China, it would be a mistake to view the competition solely in military terms. Yes, China’s military, particularly nuclear, buildup threatens the stability of the Indo-Pacific region, but competitions in trade and especially in the area of democratic values remain at least as important. Overseeing the complex great power relationship with China will require a whole-of-government approach, and reducing it to a question of numbers of nuclear weapons oversimplifies the issue. Constructing a policy that manages U.S.-Chinese competition should not be a partisan issue and will require involvement of both sides of the aisle to get right.
In these five areas, it should be possible that candidates from both parties find common ground and support the national interest during an election year. Is it likely? Unfortunately not. Partisan divisions and zero-sum politics have overcome the relative consensus guiding U.S. foreign policy and threaten the interests of the country as a whole. But we should still try to achieve consensus and compromise when possible; our national security depends on it.