“Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, distanced himself from the Bush administration on Tuesday by vowing to work more closely with Russia on nuclear disarmament and by calling for a reduction in tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

In what his campaign promoted as a major speech on nuclear security policy, Mr. McCain told a largely friendly crowd at the University of Denver that he supported a legally binding accord between the two nations to replace verification requirements in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or Start, which expires in 2009. The Bush administration has refused to accept such binding limits on nuclear weapons, which the administration’s critics say has created paranoia in Moscow.”

You can read the full speech here. This is one of those times when it really helps to know the context. For starters, McCain does not have a very strong record on nuclear disarmament. He did vote for Nunn-Lugar and START II, but he also voted against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and against making it a precondition of our deal with India that it not contribute to nuclear proliferation. And while in this speech he comes out against the development of nuclear bunker-buster bombs, he fails to mention not only that funding for that project was cut three years ago, but that he voted against those cuts at the time.

Moreover, McCain’s other policies would make the ones he announced yesterday a lot harder. Ilan Goldenberg gives the short version on Democracy arsenal: “McCain’s basic plan is to slap the Russians smack across the face and then ask them for a favor. Somehow I don’t think that will work.” The longer version is below the fold.

A lot of the things McCain talked about yesterday turn on negotiations with Russia. Unfortunately, McCain has also proposed kicking Russia out of the G-8, and creating a rival to the UN from which Russia and China would be excluded. Fareed Zakaria:

“On March 26, McCain gave a speech on foreign policy in Los Angeles that was billed as his most comprehensive statement on the subject. It contained within it the most radical idea put forward by a major candidate for the presidency in 25 years. Yet almost no one noticed.

In his speech McCain proposed that the United States expel Russia from the G8, the group of advanced industrial countries. Moscow was included in this body in the 1990s to recognize and reward it for peacefully ending the cold war on Western terms, dismantling the Soviet empire and withdrawing from large chunks of the old Russian Empire as well. McCain also proposed that the United States should expand the G8 by taking in India and Brazil — but pointedly excluded China from the councils of power. (…)

The neoconservative vision within the speech is essentially an affirmation of ideology. Not only does it declare war on Russia and China, it places the United States in active opposition to all nondemocracies. It proposes a League of Democracies, which would presumably play the role that the United Nations now does, except that all nondemocracies would be cast outside the pale. The approach lacks any strategic framework. What would be the gain from so alienating two great powers? How would the League of Democracies fight terrorism while excluding countries like Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Singapore? What would be the gain to the average American to lessen our influence with Saudi Arabia, the central banker of oil, in a world in which we are still crucially dependent on that energy source?

The single most important security problem that the United States faces is securing loose nuclear materials. A terrorist group can pose an existential threat to the global order only by getting hold of such material. We also have an interest in stopping proliferation, particularly by rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea. To achieve both of these core objectives — which would make American safe and the world more secure — we need Russian cooperation. How fulsome is that likely to be if we gratuitously initiate hostilities with Moscow? Dissing dictators might make for a stirring speech, but ordinary Americans will have to live with the complications after the applause dies down.”

You can decide to work with Russia for non-proliferation, or you can decide to kick them out of major international bodies for no good reason. You cannot do both. But that’s what McCain is proposing.

Besides that, McCain says:

“In 2010, an international conference will meet to review the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If I am President, I will seize that opportunity to strengthen and enhance all aspects of the non-proliferation regime.”

That sounds very nice. But the fact that John Bolton is not just one of his foreign policy advisors, but one of the people who worked on this very speech, makes me very skeptical. Bolton, after all, was in charge of the last such conference, in 2005. And guess what happened?

“But if the NPT needed so much fixing under U.S. leadership, why was the United States so shockingly unprepared when the treaty came up for its five-year review at a major conference in New York this month, in the view of many delegates? And why has the United States been losing control of the conference’s agenda this week to Iran and other countries–a potentially serious setback to U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran?

Part of the answer, several sources close to the negotiations tell NEWSWEEK, lies with Bolton, the undersecretary of State for arms control. Since last fall Bolton, Bush’s embattled nominee to be America’s ambassador to the United Nations, has aggressively lobbied for a senior job in the second Bush administration. During that time, Bolton did almost no diplomatic groundwork for the NPT conference, these officials say.

“John was absent without leave” when it came to implementing the agenda that the president laid out in his February 2004 speech, a former senior Bush official declares flatly. Another former government official with experience in nonproliferation agrees. “Everyone knew the conference was coming and that it would be contentious. But Bolton stopped all diplomacy on this six months ago,” this official said. “The White House and the National Security Council started worrying, wondering what was going on. So a few months ago the NSC had to step in and get things going themselves.”

Well, that certainly inspires confidence. As does the fact (which I had forgotten until I reread the Newsweek article) that Bolton “tried to block” this administration’s one and only nonproliferation success: the deal with Libya.

Jon Wolfsthal lists even more problems with McCain’s speech at Democracy Arsenal.

This is one of the most important issues there is, and nothing about either McCain’s policies or his advisors suggests that he’s up to dealing with it.

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