For a sense of what's at stake for nuclear policy in this year's election, consider this: The U.S. government is on track to spend $640 billion over the next 10 years on nuclear weapons and related programs -- more than the military's budget for an entire year. The next president will make key policy decisions early in his term that will have an impact on these budgets and global security more broadly. Four years ago, Barack Obama and John McCain largely agreed on the need to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, but this year the candidates are poles apart.
Obama has a well-established agenda on this issue. But Mitt Romney's policies will depend on whether he brings into the Oval Office the hawkish positions that he staked out for most of the campaign or the moderate posture that he's assumed in the past month.
The president, for his part, has implemented only part of the comprehensive nuclear policies that he detailed early in his term. Having been frustrated by an entrenched bureaucracy, reluctant global partners, and political opponents for four years, he will likely pick up where he left off if he wins reelection. Senior aides insist Obama is personally committed to breaking with Cold War strategies and weapons. If so, we could expect early action on several fronts.
First, Obama will finally issue the presidential guidance the White House developed to implement the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. "It is the key to all the nuclear decision-making for the next 20 years," Jon Wolfsthal, a former nuclear security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, recently told Global Security Newswire. "It is the first commandment in setting all other nuclear decisions." The guidance could cut U.S. strategic warheads from the 1,550 permitted under New START, Obama's nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, to about 1,000. The White House completed the guidance during the summer but never sent the document to the Pentagon, presumably to mute it as a campaign issue. Once the guidance is issued, the president will then need to decide how to make these cuts. He could move to adjust U.S. nuclear forces to these levels quickly, either through unilateral reductions or reciprocal reductions with the Russians.
On that front, Obama is also likely to seek a new round of negotiations with Moscow on a cooperative approach to missile defense and on a treaty to spell out deeper reductions in each country's nuclear arsenal. The missile talks could take months; the new treaty talks, two or three years. Brookings scholars Steve Pifer and Michael O'Hanlon believe the new treaty should "limit each country to no more than 2,000-2,500 total nuclear warheads," down from the 8,000-10,000 that each side now possesses.
The Obama administration will also have to decide whether to push for Senate approval of the treaty banning all nuclear tests everywhere. President Bill Clinton negotiated the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 but could not get Senate approval in 1999 during Republican impeachment efforts. If the president thinks he has a reasonable chance of securing Senate backing for the treaty, he may very well pursue what could prove to be a major part of his legacy -- and Clinton's.
Iran, of course, will remain at the top of the president's foreign-policy agenda as well. We will likely emerge from 2012 without military strikes on Iran (conducted by either Israel or the United States), without an Iranian dash toward the bomb, and with some political space for diplomacy intact. Obama's key strategic challenge will be to expand political support for a negotiated solution and to develop the process and substance for an agreement that restrains Iran's program.