WASHINGTON (CN) – House Democrats and Republicans argued Wednesday over whether the United States should aim for a world without nuclear weapons months before the expiration of an arms-reduction treaty with Russia.
At the congressional hearing, Republicans called talk of eliminating nuclear weapons “nonsense” and expressed concern that the United States might forfeit plans to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe as it negotiates nuclear non-proliferation. Democrats and members of an expert panel said nuclear weapons are outdated, and possessing them makes the country less safe.
Both sides quoted former President Ronald Reagan to bolster their arguments. “Reagan said that those who turn their swords into plowshares will soon be plowing for those who didn’t,” said California Republican Dana Rohrabacher of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, arguing in defense of nuclear weapons.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, a panelist, responded with another Reagan quote: “We seek a world without nuclear weapons,” he said, grinning.
Republicans warned that giving up nuclear weapons would leave the nation weak, expressing concern over “rogue states” and a growing Chinese ballistic missile system, which could carry nuclear weapons.
Democrats and members of the panel cautioned that nuclear weapons could eventually fall into the hands of terrorists.
The hearing comes months before the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia after the Cold War. The treaty “significantly reduced U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, and included unprecedented transparency, verification and data-sharing provisions,” according to California Democratic Chairman Howard Berman.
If the agreement is not renegotiated before it expires on Dec. 5, the terms will still apply, but the inspection provisions would end, leaving the United States with no way of knowing if Russia is abiding by the treaty.
Department of State Secretary Hillary Clinton has said that renegotiating the treaty is the administration’s “highest priority,” and President Barack Obama has expressed hope for a world without nuclear weapons. Russia is also reportedly willing to renegotiate the treaty.
“This talk about a world without nuclear weapons is nonsense” as long as we live in a world with tyrants who murder their own people, Rohrabacher said.
He argued that “singing Kumbaya and holding hands” would encourage North Korea and other “wacko despots” to advance their nuclear programs to take advantage of the nations who had given up theirs.
But Berman countered that nuclear weapons are worse for national security. He said that getting rid of nuclear arms would curb aggression from other countries. “The longer that nuclear weapons are seen as the hallmark of a great power,” he said, “the greater the incentive for other states to also pursue, acquire and accumulate their own nuclear arsenals.”
Berman dismissed the argument that such weapons can be used for deterrence, saying conventional weapons accomplish the same goal as nuclear weapons. “Terrorist groups can’t be deterred with the threat of nuclear retaliation,” he said.
Ambassador Thomas Graham, the former arms control special representative to then-President Bill Clinton, agreed. “Nuclear weapons are no use to us,” he said.
“What about China?” Rohrabacher asked.
“This concept of no nuclear weapons means that nobody has them, including the Chinese,” Graham replied.
South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis argued in favor of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and mentioned that non-nuclear countries now protected by the United States’ “nuclear umbrella” may decide to develop arms if the United States leaves them vulnerable by giving up its arsenal.
“Time is not on our side,” Graham said. As more countries become nuclear powers, getting to “nuclear zero” will become more difficult, he said.
The three panelists agreed that ridding the world of nuclear weapons can only be accomplished if the United States works closely with Russia – if that’s possible. Ambassador Graham explained that because the two countries hold most of the world’s nuclear weapons – 95 percent, combined – they must cut their stores drastically before they can negotiate with other nuclear powers.
The Obama administration’s emphasis on non-proliferation worried Republicans that the nation might have to abandon plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe during its renegotiation with Russia.
Nonetheless, all three panelists said the United States would probably not have to make such a concession, but giving up the project might have to take place during tougher non-proliferation negotiations in the future.