ON THE EVE of the first summit between Presidents Clinton and Putin, new national public opinion surveys indicate that the Clinton Administration would have the strong backing of the public for deeper nuclear arms reductions and a decision not to deploy the proposed, "limited" national missile defense. Following Russia's ratification of the second Strategic Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), the United States and Russia have intensified discussions on START III and talks on possible modifications to the ABM Treaty to allow deployment of a costly and controversial national ballistic missile defense system, which Russia has said it opposes.
The most recent opinion survey shows that nearly seven out of every ten Americans believe that "reduction" or "elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide should be the goal of U.S. nuclear policy." A plurality (40%) feel that the elimination of all nuclear weapons should be our primary goal, while another 28% believe that the country's aim should be reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world to lower levels. Only 15% believe that we "should maintain the current number of nuclear weapons" and only 15% believe we "should design new and better nuclear weapons" for the United States. The results are similar to previous national opinion surveys conducted in 1997 and 1999.
Support for the elimination and reduction of nuclear weapons cuts across gender lines, with 67% of men in favor of elimination (38%) or reduction (29%) and 68% of women in favor of elimination (41%) or reduction (27%). These goals are also supported by Americans from every region of the country.
The April 2000 survey was conducted by The Mellman Group for the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, the Council for a Livable World Education Fund, and the Fourth Freedom Forum. The survey of 1000 adults was conducted between April 7 and April 9, 2000. The statistical margin of error for the sample as a whole is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The margin of error for subgroups is larger.
Americans Prefer a Smaller Number of Nuclear Weapons
When given a choice between the two proposals under consideration to limit the number of nuclear arms in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, Americans choose the proposal with the lower limit by almost 4 to 1. In the same April 2000 Mellman Group survey, respondents were asked to choose between a limit of 2500 nuclear warheads for each country and a limit of 1500 warheads for each country. Forty-three percent (43%) chose the 1500 warhead limit, while only 11% chose the 2500 warhead limit. Forty-six percent (46%) were unsure which number would be better, demonstrating that there is a need for further public debate and an opportunity for Presidential leadership.
Political Barriers to Progress on Reducing Nuclear Dangers
With Russian approval of START II, the burden of leadership is on President Clinton and the U.S. Senate to deliver on START and avoid an historic blunder on missile defenses. If they fail, they risk another CTBT-like political meltdown and a severe international nuclear security crisis.
Early signs are not good. Some Senators are taking the extreme position of opposing verifiable arms reductions with Russia if it means limiting U.S. missile defense options. Consequently, implementation of START II and a future START III pact are highly uncertain. Compounding the problem, the Republican-led Congress has unwisely enacted legislation that bars reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal below START I levels (approximately 6000 strategic warheads) and changes in the alert posture of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, until and unless START II is implemented. This policy makes no sense given that Russia. s deployed strategic nuclear arsenal is already below 6,000 . and is shrinking . as a consequence of economic hardship. This restriction should be repealed so as to allow President Clinton or his successor the flexibility to match anticipated Russian nuclear reductions.
Presidents Clinton and Putin have an historic opportunity to conclude a START III deal to secure deeper verifiable and irreversible reductions of each nation. s long- and short-range nuclear bombs. This agreement could, if properly structured, help bypass the START logjam in Washington and bring U.S. and Russian arsenals closer in line with present day political and military realities.
The two sides differ on the overall target for strategic nuclear reductions. Russia has said it is prepared to verifiably reduce to 1,000-1,500 long-range weapons, but sadly, the Clinton-Gore Administration insists on a limit of 2,500 warheads. To break this impasse, the United States and Russia should agree to a START III treaty that leads to verifiable nuclear force reductions of 1,500 warheads or fewer. Even further reductions, down to a ceiling of 1,000 strategic warheads, would still leave the U.S. and Russia with arsenals well in excess of what is needed to deter attack.
Americans Do Not Favor a Decision to Deploy NMD
Both Clinton Administration and Russian officials have repeatedly stated that the ABM Treaty remains the "cornerstone of strategic stability." But the Clinton Administration is proposing changes to the ABM Treaty that would allow for a "limited" national missile defense. Russian officials have made clear that maintaining the ABM Treaty is essential to the START process, and have adamantly opposed changing it. President Clinton is scheduled to decide whether to deploy the system . and possibly violate the ABM Treaty by the end of this year.
In another April 2000 survey question by The Mellman Group, a majority of Americans support waiting to decide on deployment of national missile defenses until after the 19 tests are completed. After hearing arguments both for and against deploying a national missile defense system this year (see below), 59%favor waiting until testing is complete while only 20% favor deciding this year. Only one-in-five are undecided (21%). Large majorities of both men (59%-21%) and women (58%-20%) favor waiting until testing is complete before a deployment decision is made.
A growing number of defense experts and U.S. allies are recommending that President Clinton should not decide to deploy a national missile defense . They cite the fact that the proposed 3-phase system is technologically unproven and will not work against simple countermeasures. The cost is estimated to be $50-$60 billion and rising. Deployment will only lead Russia and China to strengthen their strategic nuclear forces, increasing, not decreasing the missile threat.
Another national public opinion survey conducted by ABCNews.com conducted April 26-30, 2000 shows that a narrow majority of Americans finds the downside of a $60 billion missile defense system more persuasive than the potential benefits. Fifty-three percent (53%) say they side with opponents of developing a land- and space-based missile defense system because it won. t work, would cost too much and would create a new arms race, while only 44% percent support developing because it would be worth its cost in order to protect the United States from a limited nuclear attack. Republicans support a missile defense system by 60-37 percent, while Democrats oppose it by 56-41 percent. On this issue independents side with Democrats, opposing the system by 59-38 percent.