By Emma Claire Foley
Nuclear weapons are a crisis masquerading as a settled issue. While policy experts warn that the possibility of a nuclear weapon being used again is higher than ever, the relative absence of any discussion of that risk from the presidential debates is an indication of how far down the list of priorities nukes have slipped outside the small circle of the initiated. Worse, when they do come up, the nuclear discourse among Democratic presidential candidates reflects a commitment to holding humanity hostage in the name of security that is fundamentally incompatible with the larger left foreign policy project. Far from a side issue that must be wedged in among more pressing concerns, a renewed push for nuclear disarmament can and should form the center of a foreign policy that extends and serves the priorities of the left’s domestic demands.
Last July, in the second Democratic presidential debate, Jake Tapper asked candidates: “Why should the US tie its own hands with [a nuclear No First Use] policy?”
Steve Bullock, apparently flummoxed that a presidential candidate would have to talk about nuclear weapons at all, gave an answer that encapsulates the center-right elite consensus into which many Democratic leaders have slipped:
“I wouldn’t want to take that off the table. I think America’s strength — we have to be able to say that. Look, never, I hope, certainly in my term or anyone else, would we really even get close to pulling that trigger.[…]But going from the position of strength, we should be negotiating down so there aren’t nuclear weapons. But drawing those lines in the sand, at this point I wouldn’t do.”
Bullock’s answer veers between full-throated assertions of US military strength and deep, pathological intuitions that the slightest lapse in vigilance could destroy the country utterly. This tortuous path is now the default position for someone who wants to appear moderate, authoritative, and reasonable on nuclear issues. Both Tapper’s question and Bullock’s answer presupposed that a No First Use declaration is the leftward boundary on American nuclear policymaking, beyond which any further proposals are unthinkably radical.
The range of acceptable viewpoints, then, among the candidates of the ostensible party of the left, is between a wholehearted embrace of mutually assured destruction as US policy into an indefinite future, and a No First Use pledge that, while desperately needed, is only a half-step back from the nuclear brink. Even No First Use, held up here as the furthest imaginable reach of reform, cannot be spoken about without the kind of strenuous warning Tapper provided in his role as ostensibly impartial moderator. (The exception here, tellingly, is Bernie Sanders, who has repeatedly expressed support for getting rid of nuclear weapons entirely during this election cycle.)
But a serious commitment to nuclear abolition is not only very much in keeping with left and progressive visions for foreign policy: without this commitment, the prospects for a left foreign policy are seriously foreshortened. Ending the reliance on a nuclear sword of Damocles to guarantee US security is an essential part of the shift of power to ordinary people that core left domestic policy demands like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal require in order to be effective and lasting. It’s also necessary for an internationalism that’s based on deep cooperation to address mutual threats rather than constantly holding the world at risk of total destruction.
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The power of the US executive branch, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, now far exceeds that of the legislative and judiciary. Liberal foreign policy thinkers often portray Trump’s use of that power as an aberration that can be corrected by maintaining a high level of public moral outrage and enforcing a kind of electoral discipline. Foreign policy thinking on the left, however, rightly sees Trump acting within a long tradition that includes Obama’s far-ranging use of executive authority in service of his foreign policy agenda, the Bush administration’s machinations to start the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many administrations before.
It is impossible to explain the trajectory of that tradition without focusing on nuclear weapons. While the trend toward increased executive power began before nuclear weapons were invented, each successive US president who has been in charge of the US nuclear arsenal has moved to consolidate authority over their use as part of a larger trend of asserting greater control over warmaking. Though nuclear weapons have not been used in war since the United States used them against two cities full of civilians in August 1945, they have been made constantly useful as a just-thinkable-enough worst-case scenario to help the powerful argue for the necessity of “smaller” violent conflicts. Decades of living with the reality that the US president can make the decision to end human civilization at any time have gone a long way to normalize presidential control over the rest of the US’ vast warmaking apparatus—or at the very least have provided a powerful institutional guarantee of the executive’s leading role in war.
It is also no coincidence that the bureaucratic reorganizations which brought about the modern national security state were originally designed to manage nuclear war planning, and were designed to do so without being constrained by voters. That these same institutions went on to guide conventional wars free from checks and balances is a natural progression for a state built by elites on the back of a constant nuclear emergency.
For the left, which seeks to take power in order to reorder power relations to constrain elite leadership in foreign and domestic policy in favor of sustained popular political participation, nuclear weapons therefore point to a larger conundrum. On one hand, they form the bedrock of the system of concentrated power we wish to dismantle. On the other, if a truly progressive president had access to that power, they could accomplish a great deal.
It is clear that everyone running for the Democratic presidential nomination has accepted that making the best of overextended executive power in the form of executive orders will be a primary driver of policy change, no matter how manifestly committed the candidate may be to empowering democratic decision-making. Voters are left to decide which candidate has the commitment and strategic wherewithal to use this power effectively.
The broader progressive agenda takes this into account: definitive policy programs like the Green New Deal lean heavily on an approach that makes the best of the full extent of executive power, much like its namesake, from Day 1 of the next administration. But the long game of enacting a left policy agenda requires consistent pressure from working-class movements on elected officials to champion the left’s policies—in short, shifting power away from the very top.
A renewed commitment to getting rid of nuclear weapons is a necessary prerequisite to squaring the circle of executive and popular power. Mainstream proposals for nuclear weapons reform leave the power relations sustained by the existence of nuclear weapons undisturbed and draw much of their popularity from the keenly felt urge to rein in the current president. While reducing the likelihood that a nuclear weapon is used is a very necessary emergency measure, it can only be that: a short-term fix, not the basis of a long-term strategy. In order for a candidate to be trusted as someone who will durably roll back executive power and defer to democratic decisionmaking, they must display a credible commitment to fully dismantling the nuclear stockpile that undergirds executive power.
The case for disarmament should not be hard to make. Not holding the world constantly at risk is a necessary step to enabling the kind of cooperation that effectively addressing climate change requires. More than that, though, a credible left foreign policy must be based on the idea that the US is not the exception to the rules it has helped to craft: as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the US is obligated to “undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.” Even the recent Nuclear Posture Review, which called for the production of new nuclear weapons, spilled a little ink paying lip service to this commitment (and boasting of US leadership in past arms control initiatives). In theory, at least, we’re already living in the twilight of the nuclear age, holding our noses before we finally decide it’s better for everybody if no one person’s able to make the world uninhabitable for everyone.
Negotiations among countries with nuclear arsenals could begin with the US adopting or adapting one of the plans that have been put forward by the nuclear policy community to reduce the US nuclear arsenal and set the stage for eliminating nuclear weapons entirely. Similarly, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons currently has 81 signatories, of whom 35 have ratified it. Should it enter into force, the US should be prepared to undertake the diplomacy necessary to follow those who have taken the lead on this issue.
The US nuclear weapons complex represents a truly mind-boggling investment of time, money, and resources. Looking ahead, there’s plenty of work to be done to reimagine how the facilities, materials, and expertise it contains can be repurposed for better ends, particularly addressing climate change. A commitment to ridding the world of nuclear weapons not only sits easily with left foreign and domestic policy priorities, it’s a key manifestation of the critique of power that drives the resurgent left in the United States today. Without such a commitment, we risk reducing “left” or “progressive” to a set of values contained within the individuals that profess them, rather than a comprehensive, compelling vision for a better world.
Emma Claire Foley is a Program Associate at Global Zero. All views are her own. Find her on Twitter at @emmaclairefoley.