President Obama took office pledging to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons. But, so far, he has cut the least warheads from the nuclear stockpile of any administration, ever. A new analysis says that tracks with an historical trend— Republicans have been the biggest nuclear disarmers in the post-Cold War era.
"It's a funny thing," says nuclear weapons expert Hans Kristensen. "The administrations that talk the most about reducing nuclear weapons tend to reduce the least."
Based on the latest data declassified and published by the Obama administration, Kristensen has created two graphs. The one immediately below shows how the U.S. nuclear stockpile has changed over time—and during specific administrations—in terms of the number of warheads that were added or withdrawn from the stockpile each year.
But, a better way to assess an administration's record is to compare the reductions as a percentage of the size of the stockpile at the beginning of each presidency. That way the data more clearly illustrates how much of an impact on stockpile size each president was responsible for—as illustrated in this chart:
Looking at the data, Kristensen notes:
The Reagan administration, which in its first term was seen by many as ramping up the Cold War, ended up shrinking the total stockpile by almost 900 warheads.
As the first post-Cold War administration, the George H.W. Bush presidency initiated enormous nuclear weapons reductions and ended up shrinking the stockpile by almost 9,500 warheads—almost exactly the number the Kennedy administration increased the stockpile. In one year (1992), Bush cut 5,300 warheads, more than any other president— ever.
The Clinton administration came into office riding the Bush reduction wave, so to speak, and in its first term cut approximately 3,000 warheads from the stockpile. But in his second term, President Clinton slowed down significantly and in one year (1996) actually increased the stockpile by 107 weapons – the first time since 1987 that had happened and the only increase in the post-Cold War era so far. It is still unclear what caused the 1996 increase. When the Clinton administration left office, there were still approximately 10,500 nuclear warheads in the stockpile.
President George W. Bush, who many of us in the arms control community saw as a lightning rod for trying to build new nuclear weapons and advocating more proactive use against so-called "rogue" states, ended up becoming one of the great nuclear disarmers of the post-Cold War era. Between 2004 and 2007 (mainly), the Bush W. administration unilaterally cut the stockpile by more than half to roughly 5,270 warheads, a level not seen since the Eisenhower administration.
So far, President Obama has had the least effect on the size of the stockpile of any of the post-Cold War presidents: a reduction of 10 percent over six years. Kristensen attributes this, in part, to the administration's stormy relationship with Congress. "A conservative Congress does not complain when Republican presidents reduce the stockpile, only when Democratic president try to do so," he says. "As a result of the opposition, the United States is now stuck with a larger and more expensive nuclear arsenal than had Congress agreed to significant reductions."
Another issue has been the recalcitrance of Russian President Vladmir Putin to agree to additional arms reductions. Because the Obama administration has made additional reductions conditioned on Russian agreement, the U.S. today deploys one-third more nuclear warheads than it needs for national and international security commitments," argues Kristensen. "Ironically, because of Putin's opposition to additional reductions, Russia will now be 'threatened' by more U.S. nuclear weapons than had Putin agreed to further reductions…As a result, Russian taxpayers will have to pay more to maintain a bigger Russian nuclear force than would otherwise have been necessary."