The second nuclear age

As 2007 drew to a close, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief. After spending most of the year talking up the danger of a supposed Iranian nuclear-weapons program and acting as if military action were imminent, the Bush administration was forced to spend December dealing with a new U.S. intelligence report showing that Iran abandoned its nuclear program in 2003. This time, at least, it appeared that the U.S. would avoid being sucked into an ill-conceived war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Yet as the presidential campaign year of 2008 slips into view, it is clear that the nuclear issue isn’t going away. More countries than ever before are capable of producing nuclear weapons— as many as 50 by some estimates—and pundits are writing of the dawning of a “second nuclear age” in which the fear, expense, and apocalyptic risks of nuclear weapons dominate international politics as never before. This time around, the U.S. desperately needs to elect a president who knows that we can’t simply bomb or invade every country with the potential to develop a nuclear program.

Simply put, the nature of the nuclear problem has changed. During the Cold War, the U.S. needed to be in a position to deter a potential Soviet attack, which meant building up a massive retaliatory capability. When the Soviet Union collapsed, that threat was quickly replaced by another. Suddenly, American security depended not on our ability to outspend the Soviets, but on our willingness to work with other nations to keep track of the existing nuclear weapons within the disintegrating Soviet empire, control the proliferation of weapons among emerging nuclear powers, and keep nuclear devices out of the hands of terrorist organizations.

Sadly, the current administration has failed to address the situation in any coherent way. Recent years have found the United States at a loss to stop North Korea, India or Pakistan from producing nuclear weapons in violation of international treaties, yet willing to invade Iraq and threaten Iran over nuclear programs that proved to be nonexistent. This inconsistency has undermined our credibility, fueled anti-American sentiment, and made the world less safe.

What is most needed is for Americans to elect a president in 2008 who understands that security in the second nuclear age depends on diplomacy and our ability to lead the world toward nuclear disarmament. That should begin with the negotiating away of the 20,000 warheads that still exist in American and Russian arsenals and a concerted effort to convince other nuclear nations—old and new—that nuclear weapons do not offer a strategic advantage to justify their incredible expense and danger.

So far, Democratic candidates John Edwards, Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich have stated their support for eliminating nuclear weapons. We hope to hear more about all of candidates’ views on this critical issue as the presidential campaign comes to the forefront in coming months.