A Policy Lesson from Reagan for Obama and Romney

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William Lambers is the author of "The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty." This article was originally published by the History News Service; attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

U.S President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at the Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland on October 11, 1986, during the Reykjavik Summit. Credit: Flickr/CTBTO/Ronald Reagan Library.

When President Obama and candidate Mitt Romney take to the stage for a foreign policy debate on October 22, nuclear weapons are sure to come up, especially Iran's ambitions for the Bomb. But the debate should also focus on the countries that actually have nukes, including Russia, China, North Korea, and rivals India and Pakistan.

As President Eisenhower once said, nuclear weapons are the only thing that can destroy the United States. Americans will want to hear how the next president plans to control the thousands of nuclear weapons that exist around the world.

It's worth remembering that in October 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, to discuss eliminating nuclear weapons.

The two leaders focused on nuclear weapons testing. As Reagan wrote at the time, "I am committed to the ultimate attainment of a total ban on nuclear testing, a goal that has been endorsed by every U.S. president since President Eisenhower."

But Reagan had some prerequisites. In 1986 the United States Senate had yet to ratify two treaties that had been negotiated with the Soviets: the Threshold Test Ban, which limited the size of underground tests, and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, which allowed underground tests for peaceful purposes. Reagan wanted to get these treaties ratified first, and that meant making sure the agreements could not be cheated on by secret tests. As Reagan like to say about his agreements with the Russians, "trust, but verify."

In 1990, after Reagan had left office, both the Threshold Test Ban and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty were ratified by the Senate after satisfactory review of the verification provisions. Reagan's first requirement on the road to a nuclear test ban was complete.

Reagan's second requirement for ending nuclear testing was that the Soviets and the Americans should reduce their nuclear stockpiles. That effort started with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated medium- and short-range nuclear missiles. The Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaties subsequently continued U.S. and Russian reductions, although thousands still remain.

In 1996 the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was crafted to ban all nuclear test explosions. However, the United States and seven other nations have not ratified this treaty, so it has not yet taken effect. Russia, however, has ratified the CTBT.

Many Republicans -- and quite possibly Mitt Romney, though he has not publicly stated his position -- oppose the CTBT. Senate Republicans voted down the CTBT in 1999, and President George W. Bush did not support it, either.

The opponents of the CTBT insist that nuclear testing is needed to maintain the reliability of the American nuclear arsenal. They also do not trust our ability to detect secret nuclear explosions. Some are skeptical of the ultimate ambition for a nuclear-weapons-free world. In this sense President Obama, who has called for the elimination of nuclear weapons, has more in common with Reagan than his Republican opponents do.

Recent science offers a new take on whether testing is needed. A respected science panel called JASON concluded in 2009 that the "lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence." (The group's name, JASON, is not an acronym but is a reference to Jason, a character in Greek mythology.)

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is based on an improved science of nuclear-test detection that is far superior to what existed at the time of Reykjavik. For example, the CTBT's international monitoring system detected both of North Korea's nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

In 2011 Ellen Tauscher, then Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, said, "For my Republican friends who voted against the treaty in 1999 and might feel bound by that vote, I have one message: Don't be. The times have changed. ... We have made significant advances in our ability to detect nuclear testing."

Not ratifying the CTBT -- and even worse, resuming testing -- could set off a series of tests by Russia, China, India or Pakistan. This would destroy hopes of a united front among the superpowers to pressure Iran and North Korea to stop nuclear development. It could set off a global nuclear arms race with heavy expense for society plus the constant threat of terrorist seizure of nukes.

During the 1986 summit a picture appeared of Reagan shaking hands with Gorbachev. Many years later another picture from Reykjavik showed two scientists shaking hands by a new nuclear test detection station. The hope and the science for ending nuclear testing and ridding the world of nuclear weapons lie in Reykjavik. It's time for the U.S. president -- whether Obama or Romney -- to follow through on the course set by President Ronald Reagan more than twenty-five years ago.

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