The 2016 Democratic and Republican Platforms Have Things to Say About Nuclear Weapons

By Greg Mercer

This week, the Republican Convention and the Trump campaign brought spectacle and controversy to Cleveland. The Democratic Convention is set for next week in Philadelphia and will presumably be a tamer affair. Working off draft copies of the two parties’ respective platforms, here’s a look at what the two-party system has to say about non-proliferation for the next four years. These are dramatic, confrontational texts, each calling out the opposing party’s leadership and policies.

The Republican Platform starts off the strategic weapons discussion with a Reagan-era throwback, calling for “the development and deployment of ballistic missile defenses.” The platform argues that reduction in interceptor ground sites in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Alaska have made the U.S. vulnerable to nuclear attack. It characterizes the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) as weak on verifications and an enabler of a Russian nuclear buildup. Meanwhile, it argues that Russia has violated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). While not explicitly stated in the platform, this controversy has some history: some have accused Russia of possessing cruise missiles that violate the INF—Russia has argued that American drone strikes violate the same. The platform presents two treaties: one too weak to identify violations, and another flagrantly violated.

Rather than trigger these treaties’ enforcement mechanisms, the platform insists that (if you’ll forgive the block quote):

“We should abandon arms control treaties that benefit our adversaries without improving our national security. We must fund, develop, and deploy a multi-layered missile defense system. We must modernize nuclear weapons and their delivery platforms, end the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, and rebuild relationships with our allies, who understand that as long as the U.S. nuclear arsenal is their shield, they do not need to engage in nuclear proliferation.”

Ballistic missile defense has been a conservative stalwart since Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (which you’ll see hip publications refer to as Star Wars). Nuclear modernization is a bipartisan trend. President Obama, having famously called for the end of nuclear weapons early in his presidency, has still locked in plenty of funding to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal. Ending the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction is a rather larger, more philosophical demand. It requires more detail than is presented here, but presumably the platform is referring to banning and American first nuclear strike while maintaining a robust second strike capability (it could be argued that this is already the case, whether de facto or de jure).

Finally, there is an entire section devoted to guarding against Electromagnetic Pulse attacks, which many experts will tell you is not a thing.

The Democrats are succinct:
“We believe America will be safer in a world with fewer weapons of mass destruction. Donald Trump encourages the spread of nuclear weapons across Asia and the Middle East, which would weaken the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and he is unwilling to rule out using a nuclear weapon against ISIS. Democrats want to reduce the number of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons around the world, as well as their means of delivery. We will stop the spread of nuclear weapons and loose nuclear material, as well as strive to eliminate these weapons entirely as President Obama laid out in his speech in Prague in 2009. Democrats will be informed by a new Nuclear Posture Review in determining continued ways to appropriately shape our nuclear deterrent, with the aim of reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons while meeting our national security obligations. Democrats will also seek new opportunities for further arms control and avoid taking steps that create incentives for the expansion of existing nuclear weapons programs.”

These tenets are less specific. With the advantage of a Democratic presidency to set the most recent precedent, the Democrats would mostly be happy to carry on with their non-proliferation[1] efforts as-is.

“Loose nuclear material” has been a favorite of Democrats, post-Soviet collapse. Elsewhere, the platform refers to past U.S.-Russia joint efforts to reduce nuclear weapons and negotiation with Iran to curtail their alleged[2] nuclear weapons program.

The language is different, but that Nuclear Posture Review, coupled with Obama’s force modernization groundwork, would probably end up meaning that Democrats would pursue similar modernization efforts to the ones Republicans call for. Note, though, an emphasis on deterrence, not missile defense. The Republican platform calls out specific treaties (and calls for their disposal) but the Democratic platform is more broadly directional.


[1] Nomenclature: in broad political discourse, non-proliferation and counter-proliferation tend to get tossed around more or less interchangeably and usually neither is more or less correct than the other, but non- can be taken to mean prevention of the spread of something (in this case nuclear weapons) and counter-proliferation to mean the rolling back of the spread that has already occurred.

[2] This is tricky to phrase. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (colloquially “the Iran Deal”) requires that Iran’s nuclear program be exclusively peaceful. Given that there is some degree of controversy over Iran’s nuclear-weapons-specific progress before, during and after the JCPOA, I like “alleged.”

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