CHICAGO, IL. March 2, 2020: Two leading experts raised serious concerns today about the lack of substantive discussion among U.S. presidential candidates about their plans for U.S. nuclear weapons and related threats around the globe. They noted that arms control agreements resulted in the number of nuclear weapons in the world being slashed from 70,000 to 14,000, with that progress now in danger of being reversed.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists briefing held one day before Super Tuesday included an appeal to both candidates and the news media to move nuclear weapons to the forefront of the 2020 elections.
Former Obama science adviser John P. Holdren said: “We live in a soundbite and Twitter culture. It’s difficult to express nuclear weapons threats in 240 words or an eight-second quote … We should be talking about embracing a no-first-use policy. We have much cheaper and safer ways to deal with conventional and biological attacks than using nuclear weapons and therefore launching a much wider nuclear war. That threat is not worth it. Candidates should be talking about their views on ‘no first use.’”
Holdren now is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Co-Director of the School’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Affiliated Professor in the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science. Holdren also is Visiting Distinguished Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, and Senior Advisor to the President at the Woods Hole Research Center, a pre-eminent scientific think tank focused on global climate change. From January 2009 to January 2017, he was President Obama’s Science Advisor and Senate-confirmed Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
Alexandra Bell, the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, said: “There are well over 4,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile. Anyone running for President is asking the public to trust them … The next President is going to decide if we live in a world when the number of nuclear weapons is going up or going down. If we lose the (arms control) agreements, we are definitely headed to a world where that number is going up. That is why this should be a major issue in the 2020 election cycle.”
Previously, Bell served as a senior adviser in the Office of the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. She has also worked on nuclear policy issues at the Ploughshares Fund.
Holdren said that the issue of “no first use” was considered at length during the Obama Administration and that a decision was deferred in the President’s second term “on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win” the 2016 election.
Bell noted that President Trump is the first U.S. president since John F. Kennedy to fail to initiate a major arms control agreement in their first term in office. She said: “Whoever the next person is to sit behind that Resolute Desk is going to having to deal with a number of issues that have been left behind to them.”
Both Holdren and Bell agreed that the news media (except for a handful of key outlets) are not paying enough attention to nuclear weapons issues. But they also agreed that it is incumbent on experts to find a way to talk about nuclear weapons that engages presidential candidates, elected officials, the media, and the public.
John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, moderated the expert panel discussion.
For more background information, see Nuclear Weapons Policy and the U.S. Presidential Election, an edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists available free online until March 31, 2020.
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December 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the first edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, initially a six-page, black-and-white bulletin and later a magazine, created in anticipation that the atom bomb would be “only the first of many dangerous presents from the Pandora’s Box of modern science.” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ iconic Doomsday Clock was reset on January 23, 2020 to 100 seconds to midnight. www.thebulletin.org.