During his presidential run, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., spoke for nuclear disarmament at Denver University on May 27, 2008.

During his presidential run, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., spoke for nuclear disarmament at Denver University on May 27, 2008. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

John McCain, Nuclear Disarmament, and What Might Have Been

If McCain had become president in 2008, the world might have had far fewer nuclear weapons today.

John McCain wanted to ban the bomb. It is not the image one has of the late Arizona senator, but when he ran for president in 2008, he argued that “the United States should lead a global effort at nuclear disarmament.”

It wasn’t just a throwaway line. McCain built it into a speech he gave to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council that March. In between calls for robust U.S. global leadership and his defense of the Iraq War, he delivered this clarion call:

Forty years ago, the five declared nuclear powers came together in support of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and pledged to end the arms race and move toward nuclear disarmament. The time has come to renew that commitment. We do not need all the weapons currently in our arsenal. The United States should lead a global effort at nuclear disarmament consistent with our vital interests and the cause of peace.

A few months later, speaking in Denver, McCain laid out a detailed plan that called for working with Russia and China to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and canceling the development of so-called nuclear “bunker-buster” bombs then underway in the George W. Bush administration. Advised by former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, McCain embraced Ronald Reagan’s vision of a nuclear-free world with specific proposals that still resonate today:

A quarter of a century ago, President Ronald Reagan declared, "our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth." That is my dream, too. It is a distant and difficult goal. And we must proceed toward it prudently and pragmatically, and with a focused concern for our security and the security of allies who depend on us. But the Cold War ended almost 20 years ago, and the time has come to take further measures to reduce dramatically the number of nuclear weapons in the world's arsenals…

Our highest priority must be to reduce the danger that nuclear weapons will ever be used. Such weapons, while still important to deter an attack with weapons of mass destruction against us and our allies, represent the most abhorrent and indiscriminate form of warfare known to man. We do, quite literally, possess the means to destroy all of mankind. We must seek to do all we can to ensure that nuclear weapons will never again be used…

Today we deploy thousands of nuclear warheads. It is my hope to move as rapidly as possible to a significantly smaller force…I would seriously consider Russia's recent proposal to work together to globalize the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty…As president I will pledge to continue America's current moratorium on testing, but also begin a dialogue with our allies, and with the U.S. Senate, to identify ways we can move forward to limit testing in a verifiable manner that does not undermine the security or viability of our nuclear deterrent. This would include taking another look at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to see what can be done to overcome the shortcomings that prevented it from entering into force. I opposed that treaty in 1999, but said at the time I would keep an open mind about future developments.

I would only support the development of any new type of nuclear weapon that is absolutely essential for the viability of our deterrent, that results in making possible further decreases in the size of our nuclear arsenal, and furthers our global nuclear security goals. I would cancel all further work on the so-called Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a weapon that does not make strategic or political sense.

McCain’s positions were so sweeping that they closely paralleled those advanced by his opponent, Barack Obama. There were plenty of areas of disagreement between the two, but nuclear policy was not really one of them. A debate that year between surrogates for the campaigns, Stephen Biegun for McCain and John Holum for Obama, was a fairly boring affair largely consisting of each side saying, “I agree.” Biegun (now President Donald Trump’s special envoy for North Korea) emphasized McCain’s long track record on nuclear reductions: “For his two decades in the United States Senate, he has been a strong supporter of treaty-based arms control.”

Related: Last Year’s Top 5 Worst Nuclear Nightmares (That Aren’t Going Away)
Related: A No-Cost, No-Brainer of a Nuclear Deal

If McCain had become president, it is quite likely that he would have continued this support and implemented these shared policies. In fact, as a Republican, he likely would have been more successful than Obama in getting them enacted.

It is not that he was a better strategist than his Democratic opponent, but McCain would not have faced the fierce partisan opposition Obama encountered when he tried to enact the policies the two shared as candidates. McCain could have garnered Republican support in Congress for these policies, much as Ronald Reagan had done during his tenure. Conservatives would have trusted him; liberals would have applauded him. He very well could have guided us around a significant nuclear corner towards fewer arms, lower costs, and reduced risks.

But he never got the chance. Instead, much to his discredit, McCain himself became part of the opposition that blocked Obama’s efforts. Abandoning his principled positions, he voted against the modest 2010 New START agreement reducing U.S. and Russian strategic arms; as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he pushed billions of dollars into new nuclear weapons programs; he opposed verifiable restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program; and, in 2017, he called for a review of deploying nuclear weapons back to the Korean Peninsula.

Who was the real John McCain: 2008's nuclear disarmer or 2018's nuclear hawk? Likely both. As the Republican Party drifted away from Reagan’s vision, he drifted with it. He seemed to forget his own campaign-trail warning about “the folly of relying on policies that no longer keep us safe.” As defense budgets went up, he went from calls to slash nuclear arms to support for building more. As diplomacy faltered with Iran and North Korea, he went back to calls for regime change.

We will never know if, in time, he might have drifted back. But it was the 2008 McCain that offered the better hope, the better plan for reducing nuclear dangers rather than creating more.