WASHINGTON — A growing number of prominent Republicans and Democrats, dismayed by what they charge has been a lapse in U.S. leadership under President Bush, are urging his successor to jumpstart efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
There are differences over how the next president should proceed, but there's agreement that the world is facing a major expansion of civilian nuclear power to meet the world's growing energy needs, so prompt action is required.
"The threat is clear and present," said former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., a leading voice for revitalizing arms control and non-proliferation efforts, in an interview. "The same process that builds legitimate nuclear fuel ... can build a nuclear weapon."
On Tuesday, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, gave a speech that distanced him from Bush's policies.
"It is time for the United States to show the kind of leadership the world expects from us, in the tradition of American presidents who worked to reduce the nuclear threat to mankind, McCain said at the University of Denver. "We must seek to do all that we can to ensure that nuclear weapons will never again be used."
McCain and the Democratic presidential aspirants, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York, have embraced the ideas of overhauling U.S. nuclear policies and reviving efforts to move the world toward nuclear disarmament.
Some advocates believe the next president should launch the initiative with dramatic steps such as unilaterally cutting deployed U.S. warheads below the 1,700 ceiling set in a treaty with Russia that expires in 2013, and exploring possible paths to rid the world of nuclear arms.
"You have to create and motivate a political constituency by putting the goal (of nuclear disarmament) on the table," said Barry Blechman, a former member of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group.
Others said that total elimination isn't feasible. That goal, they said, would drain time and energy from more achievable steps needed to convince Russia and other nations that the U.S. is serious about reducing the nuclear threat.
These proposals include ratifying an underground test ban treaty that Bush has spurned, extending a U.S.-Russian arms inspection accord that's due to expire next year, negotiating further nuclear weapons reductions with Moscow and strengthening the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency's ability to detect illicit programs.
"This is a time for rethinking U.S. nuclear policy," said Arnold Kantor, the third-highest State Department official under former President George H.W. Bush, at a recent forum on the issue.
Those involved in the debate agree that a key component of any new U.S. policy must be working with Moscow to take the thousands of nuclear warheads the former superpower rivals still target at each other off hair-trigger alert.
There's also widespread agreement that the next president should push for a new international treaty to end the production of weapons-grade nuclear materials and seek a global system to provide fuel for energy generation to nations that forgo plutonium and enriched uranium production.
Bush has presided over major cuts in deployed U.S. and Russian warheads, but many experts agree that he's stifled arms control and non-proliferation efforts with policies that preserve America's reliance on nuclear arms, embrace pre-emptive strikes against non-nuclear nations and call for the development of new nuclear weapons.
The bipartisan consensus for a new approach is rooted in fears that the boom in nuclear power — driven by soaring oil prices and global warming — will give more nations access to technology and knowhow that could be used to make weapons, especially uranium enrichment and reprocessing.
Enrichment is the process that Iran has refused to halt. It produces low-enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for weapons. Reprocessing is used to extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent uranium reactor fuel.
"The expansion of enrichment to a number of new countries would pose a tremendous danger, and so we are at a decision time over the next couple of years," said Nunn, who co-chairs the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an arms control advocacy group, with CNN founder Ted Turner. "This is a very dangerous tipping point."
The pending expansion of nuclear power generation also will increase the production of nuclear fuel and waste, raising the risk of nuclear terrorism, experts warned.
"The greatest threat we face is not of a determined adversary willing to use nuclear weapons against us or our allies. It's some determined terrorist group trying to get its hands on a nuclear weapon and using it against us," said Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer who advises Obama.
Those advocating re-energized U.S. leadership to curb the spread of nuclear weapons also fear that the continued reliance by the United States and Russia on thousands of warheads risks an accidental or unauthorized launch that could ignite a nuclear holocaust.
Finally, many experts worry that the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and the emergence of an international black market in nuclear technology have undermined the global non-proliferation system, grounded in the Non-Proliferation Treaty policed by the IAEA.
The impetus for the bipartisan consensus came from a 2007 article in The Wall Street Journal calling for "a world free of nuclear weapons" that Nunn co-authored with former GOP secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former secretary of defense William Perry, a Democrat.
The "Gang of Four," as they've come to be known, published a second piece in the same paper in January — Toward a Nuclear-Free World — whose theme was generally supported by more than a dozen former senior officials in six previous administrations.
Congress earlier this year created a bipartisan commission to review the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security, and at least a half dozen think tanks funded by conservative and liberal benefactors are developing new policy recommendations for the new president.