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The 2020 Presidential Debates: Will Nuclear Policy get the Attention it Deserves?

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This post was written by Luke Radice. Originally from Boise, Idaho, he graduated from Claremont McKenna College in 2019 with dual honors in International Relations and History. A former intern with NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program, he conducts research as he awaits a COVID-delayed Fulbright fellowship in Germany.

The upcoming presidential debates will rightly focus on the issues that have dominated headlines recently and throughout the 2020 campaign: the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s economic struggles, racial injustice, and the Supreme Court vacancy.

If recent history is a guide, an important part of that record—the president’s actions on nuclear policy—will get short shrift. It shouldn’t.

Why is this important, even as we battle a pandemic? Because, according to leading experts, global nuclear risks are higher today than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis—and COVID-19 has taught us the importance of preventing and planning for the unthinkable.

Today, amid adversarial U.S.-Russian relations and nuclear risks compounded by a lack of international dialogue, the advent of new and advancing cyber and hypersonic technologies, the global proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons, and the persistent threat of terrorism, there is far less attention to nuclear threats in presidential campaigns than there has been in the past. This must change.

The president of the United States directs the country’s nuclear policy and has the power to make decisions with a significant impact on security here at home and around the world—so the candidates should be asked how they would address the new arms race with Russia, the threat of cyberattacks on nuclear command-and-control systems, terrorist ambitions, and more.

The question is, will they?

An analysis of presidential debates dating back to 1980 suggests nuclear issues may not get the attention they deserve when Donald Trump and Joe Biden meet on Sept. 29, Oct. 15, and Oct. 22 for the 2020 presidential debates. The analysis included reviewing the transcripts and videos of all 25 presidential debates that occurred between 1980 and 2016, reviewing both direct questions asked of the candidate as well as moments when candidates independently brought up nuclear issues.

Here’s what we found:

During the Cold War, which ended in 1991, nuclear topics were at the forefront in presidential debates. Consistently 20% of the total run-time of each debate was dedicated to the discussion of nuclear weapons and nuclear policy, making it the second most prominent single topic (behind the economy) by a significant margin. This trend is further magnified when considering only the “foreign policy” portion of debates. Here, nuclear issues dominated, accounting for nearly 50% of the total discussion.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, nuclear issues took a dive. From 1992 through 2000, not a single question regarding nuclear policy was asked of the candidates. Though in 1992 and 1996, each of the candidates brought up the topic on their own accord (including talking extensively about the dangers of nuclear weapons and materials inherited by Soviet successor states, a problem addressed by the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program), in the 2000 presidential debates, the word “nuclear” was not uttered a single time.

Since 2000, nuclear topics have slowly crept back in, though less often than during the Cold War, and despite significant new nuclear risks. In 2004, President George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry were asked to name the biggest threat facing our country. Both candidates cited nuclear proliferation and the potential of nuclear terrorism that stemmed from it.

“Nuclear proliferation,” Kerry responded. “There’s some 600-plus tons of unsecured material still in the former Soviet Union and Russia. At the rate that the president is currently securing it, it’ll take 13 years to get it.”

Said Bush: “I agree with my opponent that the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network. And that’s why proliferation is one of the centerpieces of a multi-prong strategy to make the country safer.”

On average, however, nuclear topics now encompass just about 4% of total debate questions (down from their 22% peak), and candidates don’t seem to be bringing up the topic nearly as much as they used to: compare 7% of total nuclear mentions and 24% of foreign policy mentions in 2016 to 23% of total nuclear mentions and a whopping 67% of foreign policy mentions in 1988.

Unfortunately, even the precipitous drop in the amount of nuclear discussion during presidential debates doesn’t tell the full story. Where nuclear discussions do take place, both the quality and the duration are significantly decreased. In 1988, across two 90-minute debates, nuclear issues were discussed for nearly a half hour, translating to roughly 1/6 of the total runtime of both debates. During this time, the candidates clashed about policy, discussing Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the nuclear freeze movement, the importance of arms control treaties, and more. Contrast this with 2016, where across three 90-minute debates, nuclear issues were discussed for a grand total of 12-and-a-half minutes. That’s 1/20th of the total runtime, compared to 1/6th!

What’s worse: the candidates tended to address nuclear issues in quips and one-liners, rather than through the kinds of detailed, thoughtful discussions often found in earlier debates. In 2016, for example, Donald Trump called the Iran nuclear agreement “one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history,” and Hillary Clinton called Trump “a person who has been very cavalier, even casual about the use of nuclear weapons.”

Is the takeaway, then, that nuclear security is significantly less important to the candidates of today than to the candidates of, say, 1988? In the candidates’ own words, that is not the case. Despite their attacks on one another, in one 2016 debate, Hillary Clinton called nuclear weapons “the number-one threat we face in the world,” and Donald Trump said that “the single greatest problem the world has is nuclear armament … nuclear weapons.”

If that’s the case, then nuclear issues certainly merit more than 10 minutes of discussion over four and a half hours of debate.

A note on methodology: in the analysis of the data, the topics are sorted into two broad categories: “Questions” and “Mentions.” Essentially, a nuclear “Question” is one asked by the moderator, whether as a primary question or a follow-up; a “Mention” is when the topic is brought up by a candidate without having been directly asked about the topic.

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