US Presidential Hopefuls and Their Nuclear Weapons Policies

US Democratic Party candidates for the White House are beginning to tackle nuclear challenges in their election campaigns.

In 1999, 57% of the US population claimed that a candidate’s position on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would be a ‘very important’ factor in making their 2000 presidential election decision. In 2015, 60% of those who opposed the Iran nuclear deal found it ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important that the 2016 presidential winner held the same position, indicating yet again the apparent salience of nuclear issues in US presidential campaigns. But now, amidst the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and an impasse in US–North Korea nuclear diplomacy, what role will nuclear issues play in the forthcoming race for the White House? 

It is still too soon to tell. Nevertheless, with an ever-growing field of Democratic candidates set to challenge President Donald Trump – whose nuclear policies have attracted significant attention since his 2016 candidacy – and an array of nuclear challenges set to face a successful challenger (most pressingly the New START extension deadline just 16 days after the inauguration), nuclear weapons comprise a critical policy area of debate. So where do the Democratic candidates stand on the issues?       

Not all of the 18 hopefuls have made clear foreign – let alone nuclear – policy statements. It is particularly challenging to anticipate the positions of candidates like Pete Buttigieg, John Hickenlooper, and Marianne Williamson, who have not served in public office or held positions at the federal level and thus lack even previous records from which to glean their nuclear policy sentiments. Others like Julian Castro and Wayne Messam have made domestic issues the focal points of their campaigns, also making it difficult to assess their views on nuclear issues. The rest, though, have revealed their positions on key issues, providing some insight into what a newly elected Democratic administration’s nuclear weapons policy might look like after 2020.

On US–Russia Arms Control Efforts

Leading Democratic candidates have criticised President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Senator Elizabeth Warren, amidst her calls for a ‘Foreign Policy for All,’ expressed her disdain for the decision, citing it as ‘yet another example of the Trump Administration’s dangerous and costly embrace of nuclear weapons’. In November last year, she joined a group of senators in introducing the Prevention of Arms Race Act of 2018, aimed at prohibiting the funding of ground-launched intermediate-range missiles – weapons eliminated by the treaty – until the administration can meet restraining criteria. Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York senator running for the democratic nomination, also co-sponsored the act, calling the legislation ‘more important than ever’ after expressing her views in a joint letter to the president that scrapping the treaty ‘risks the United States sliding into another arms race with Russia and erod[ing] U.S. nonproliferation efforts around the world’. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not officially announced his candidacy but still leads in early primary polls, served in the Senate when the INF Treaty was originally ratified in 1987 and played an important role in securing the 2010 New START agreement. While claiming that the ‘Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy’, Biden has also stressed that ‘[i]t is precisely because we do not trust our adversaries that treaties to constrain the human capacity for destruction are indispensable to the security of the United States of America’. Collectively, these sentiments imply that a Democratic White House would double down on efforts to maintain robust arms control agreements with Russia.

On the Iran Nuclear Deal

All candidates with congressional backgrounds have expressed their support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral deal in which Iran agreed to verifiably halt its production of fissile material in return for sanctions relief. Consequently, these candidates responded critically to President Trump’s 2018 decision to remove the US from the agreement. Beto O’Rourke, who gained national attention in his recent senatorial campaign against Ted Cruz, called the deal ‘a miracle of modern diplomacy … [that] demonstrably makes the world … a safer place’. California Senator Kamala Harris recognised the agreement as ‘the best existing tool we have to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and avoid a disastrous military conflict in the Middle East’.

It is an altogether different matter, however, if any of these candidates might attempt to salvage – or replace – the deal should they win in 2020. While the European states that are party to the agreement have worked to keep it in place, the ‘snapback’ of US sanctions in November 2018 has placed significant pressure on the Iranian economy and undermines the leverage that the so-called P5+1 counties – which negotiated the JCPOA – used to bring Iran to the negotiation table in the first place.

On North Korea

Perhaps most central to President Trump’s nuclear policy has been his response to and handling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. In a dramatic shift from 2017, during which he derisively called the North Korean leader ‘Little Rocket Man’ and threatened a ‘fire and fury’ response to North Korea’s  provocations, Trump has since met with Kim Jong-un in two high-profile summits aimed at securing the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

On the whole, the Democratic candidates have expressed their support for diplomatic efforts to curb the North Korean nuclear threat but have criticised Trump’s particular approach. On Trump’s recent decision not to impose additional sanctions on the North Korean regime, John Delaney, the first Democrat to declare his candidacy, said the decision ‘undercut [Trump’s] own officials [and] underscores his erratic and unstable behavior’. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who has cited the false missile alert in her state of Hawaii as evidence that the US is marching towards ‘nuclear catastrophe’, claimed that ‘North Korea will look at Trump’s actions, not empty promises’ in deciding whether or not to make a deal. If the US threatens ‘regime-change war in Iran and Venezuela,’ she said, ‘we can’t expect Kim to believe that we won’t overthrow him if he gives up his nukes’.

Making his second bid for the White House, Senator Bernie Sanders has suggested a way forward with North Korea. Emphasising the importance of international sanctions, he claimed that ‘we should … continue to make clear that this is a shared problem, not to be solved by any one country alone but by the international community working together’.

The Next Nuclear Posture Review?

As has become custom, new presidents release a nuclear posture review (NPR) at the start of their terms to outline the administration’s nuclear weapons policies. While it is far too early to know who will be selected as the official Democratic nominee for the White House race, the nuclear stances of individual candidates hint at a possible NPR approach should the 2020 election hand the White House to a Democrat.

A Warren NPR would likely emphasise multilateral arms control and non-proliferation efforts. A Sanders NPR might focus on consensus-building around the most challenging nuclear issue areas. And a Biden NPR may look strikingly similar to Obama’s, perhaps even going so far as to adopt a no first use policy. Whatever the outcome, these early discussions demonstrate some candidates’ recognition that nuclear weapons issues will continue to be a central aspect of the presidential portfolio – and will hopefully encourage further debate on nuclear policies on the electoral campaign trail.

Jamie Kwong is a Research Assistant in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.      

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