Hagel's Call for Nuclear Disarmament Has Been Mainstream Since Reagan

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He wants to decrease the size of our arsenal. But so do most security experts, on both sides of the aisle -- something opponents of his nomination have forgotten.

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Mian Khursheed/Reuters

Among the many heresies imputed to Chuck Hagel is the belief that we can greatly reduce our nuclear arsenal. The former Nebraska senator's views, however, are hardly radical -- in fact, they are downright boring. They represent the consensus of such a long list of security experts from both political parties that it is hard to list them and still keep this article interesting.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma and several other key GOP leaders base their opposition to Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense in large part on the supposedly extreme policies he advanced. Inhofe said that while Hagel's military service was commendable, he has been "an outspoken supporter of nuclear disarmament" and "seeks a world free of nuclear weapons."

In particular, Inhofe singled out Hagel's participation in recent study:

Hagel was a commissioner on a May 2012 Global Zero report on modernizing U.S. nuclear strategy, force structure and posture. Not only does that report not fully support the president's commitment to nuclear modernization but it also advocates the assumption of extreme risk to our national security, including possible unilateral nuclear disarmament. Given the premises and conclusions of the Global Zero report, how can we in Congress be confident that he will carry out the modernization efforts required to maintain the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent?

In other words, we need more nuclear weapons, not fewer. Hagel will elaborate his views at his confirmation hearing (and likely show how they track very closely with the president he hopes to serve). But the basic premise -- that reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons is a wild, left-wing position -- is unquestionably false.

The elimination of nuclear weapons is the official policy of the United States, enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 that requires the nuclear-weapon states to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament." Many presidents have personally and passionately believed in this goal. Stimson Center expert Michael Krepon has put together a long list of quotes along these lines that past presidents have used in their inaugural addresses. Here is Ronald Reagan's from 1985:

We're not just discussing limits on a further increase of nuclear weapons; we seek, instead, to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.

I have not conducted a thorough review of how often former secretaries of defense discussed the elimination of nuclear weapons. One would start, however, with the first secretary of the nuclear age, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who, after ordering the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, worked for the rest of his life to control what he called "the most terrible weapon in human history."

But let's assume that no other secretary of defense has been as outspoken about his view that significant reductions in nuclear weapons were in the best national security interest of the United States. What does that signify?

That the center has shifted. Hagel's views are not unique among security experts; they are now the norm. They reflect the growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S. security establishment that whatever benefits nuclear weapons may have had during the Cold War are now outweighed by the threat they present.

It is epitomized by the work of former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn. These two Republicans and two Democrats call now for "a world free of nuclear weapons." In a January 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed, they wrote, "We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands." The only way to prevent this, they argue, is to move step-by-step to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

In their January 2008 op-ed, the four listed other former officials who had endorsed their views. The list at the time represented two-thirds of the former secretaries of defense and state and national security advisers still living, including Colin Powell, James Baker, and Melvin Laird.

In fact, it is hard to find a former senior security official who does not believe that we can drastically reduce our nuclear force. Many current senior policy makers share this view. Take, for example, Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and will run Hagel's nomination hearing. He wants to cut the nuclear weapons budget, and says, "We can have significant reductions ... and stay secure," and we have had "an over-reliance on nuclear weapons in the last 20 years."

Opponents of Hagel's appointment like to point to two people mentioned as alternatives to Hagel, former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. They will be far more open to big nuclear budgets and big arsenals, Hagel critics hope. Sorry: Both have long shared Hagel's views. They were part of a working group that drafted a plan in 2007 for reducing nuclear threats that included the recommendation that "the U.S. and the other NPT nuclear weapons states ... should commit themselves to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons and to pursuing practical steps that would lay the groundwork for moving toward that goal."

Their report also called for the rapid Senate approval of the nuclear test-ban treaty. It suggested the U.S. "explore means of increasing warning and reaction times including by lowering alert rates of their strategic systems," and consider "an operationally deployed force of fewer than 1,000 nuclear weapons." *

This level is very close to force of 900 total weapons recommended by the Global Zero report that Hagel co-authored with former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright, former Supreme Allied Commander General Jack Sheehan, and former Reagan nuclear arms negotiator Richard Burt, among others. Hardly a radical bunch -- or a radical notion. They passionately defended their report in a January 28 statement saying, in part, that support for the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons "is widespread among experienced, respected leaders from across the political spectrum - including the hundreds of political, military, diplomatic and national security leaders from the United States and around the world who are part of Global Zero."

None of these people would have spoken out if they thought that reducing the nuclear arsenal, winning Senate support of the nuclear test ban, or moving steadily towards our legal obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons would pose risks to our national security -- or to their careers.

The truth is that these are all common sense and commonplace positions, part of any national-security policy for the 21st century. It is the nuclear hawks that are outside the mainstream; Chuck Hagel is solidly within it.

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* But wait, there's more. The 2007 report, "Reducing Nuclear Threats and Preventing Nuclear Terrorism," by the National Security Working Group, was done under the direction of Wendy Sherman, now under-secretary of state for political affairs, and Robert Einhorn, now special advisor to the secretary of state for nonproliferation and arms control. The drafters of the report were former Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham Allison, former Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci, Vice President Al Gore's former National Security Advisor Leon Furth, current Assistant Secretary of Defense Kurt Campbell, Flournoy, and myself. Again, deep in the mainstream.

The report was endorsed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former National Security Advisor Sam Berger, Gen. Wesley Clark (retired), current Chief of Staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bill Danvers, Sen. Tom Daschle, current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, former Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, current Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine, current Special Assistant to the President for European Affairs Elizabeth Sherwood Randall, President Clinton's former Chief of Staff John Podesta, and former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, among others. They all endorsed the report in general though no necessarily each specific recommendation.

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Presented by

Joseph Cirincione

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He is the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.

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