What does McCain’s speech on nuclear security say?

1. It’s addressed to the wonks, not the voters.
2. It won’t please the ultra-hawks; it puts daylight between McCain and Bush, at least rhetorically. But it assumes that generals, not civilians, make security policy.
3. It involves changes from McCain’s earlier positions without explanation.
4. Statements in it diverge from consensus reality at several points, especially in his characterizations of opposing positions.

What can we learn from McCain’s speech on nuclear security?

John McCain won’t get John Bolton’s vote, or that of many others who started out in 2001 to wreck the international arms control regimes. But while the speech signals a big turn away from unilateralism and toward realism in tone and substance in a restricted policy realm, it does so in language that is aimed more at the Council on Foreign Relations than the public, and it exposes question marks about his leadership style as well as political vulnerabilities.

As the official position of the candidate of the Republican party, this speech favoring reductions in US nuclear forces and consideration of a comprehensive test ban (long a bogeyman to conservatives) should make it much easier for a Democratic president to put realistic and cooperative policies in place, and to make progress on the real security agenda.

Details at the jump.

Update: Glenn Kessler in the WaPo and, especially,

Elisabeth Bumiller on the front page of the NYT provide context. Both refer to a McCain/Lieberman opinion piece in Tuesday’s WSJ Asia that appeared to take a somewhat harder line on North Korea than the Bush administration, underscoring the absence of clarity about how a McCain administration would deal with North Korea and Iran.

1) McCain is fond of the rhetorical technique that involves distinguishing yourself from unnamed “others” who hold ridiculous opinions that are meant to sound like those of your opponents, and to falsify the record in the process. (“Many believe all we need to do to end the nuclear programs of hostile governments is have our president talk with leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, as if we haven’t tried talking to these governments repeatedly over the past two decades.”) No sensible person believes that all that is necessary is a presidential meeting, and no candidate ever said so, and there have been long periods where the policy of the current administration specifically ruled out talking to these governments about their nuclear efforts.

2) He does not feel the need to explain his policies or positions in words that average Americans can understand (with no further elaboration, he says “I would seriously consider Russia’s recent proposal to work together to globalize the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.” He is speaking to the policy community and to impress the editorial writers, and to signal a new tone of cooperative efforts and realism, but not to be understood or to mobilize support. (The challenge for Obama is to match McCain with the policy community and editorial writers, while speaking plainly to the American people.)

3) The theme of the US being a good international citizen and cooperating with other nations appears in at least every third paragraph, as does the theme that there are no simple answers and we must focus on practical and effective solutions, and even to strengthen international accords and institutions. This is no doubt meant to signal a key difference from the Bush administration.

4) In his focus on countering proliferation and being willing to cut back on the US deployed nuclear force, McCain is going with mainline strategic thought which for 15 years now has recognized that as the sole surviving superpower it’s in the US interest to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in international politics — in this calculus we are mostly the deterree, not the deterrer, and the threat of “loose nukes” and even accidental detonation outweighs any possible benefit to the US from the possibility of nuclear use. His disavowal of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator is a recognition of political reality (Congress has effectively stopped the program) as well as the plain logic that few targets would be worth a nuclear first use that would create significant radioactive fallout and breach the nuclear taboo, and the practical reality that most enemies will be able to defend high-value targets by not letting us know where they are, against which any kind of weapon is useless.

6) Nothing much has changed strategically since 1999, when McCain opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban (as he acknowledges in the speech), but now he is willing to look at it again, without saying what has changed in the interim. This is a flip-flop within a flip-flop, and raises the question of how strong a leader McCain would be on these policies. I would imagine that in debate this would be a point of vulnerability.

7) How would he lead? He plans to “ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff to engage in a comprehensive review of all aspects of our nuclear strategy and policy. I would keep an open mind on all responsible proposals.” Here we have an image of security policy led by the military, with no role for the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense, not to mention the Department of State, and the president as a disinterested “decider” hovering above the policy fray. Early in the speech, McCain refers to John F. Kennedy’s description of the proliferation problem. After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy knew that he had to have an active civilian staff dealing with military and security issues.

8) Was it really smart for McCain to lead off by talking about how the US is a young nation even though it is the oldest constitutional democracy? Shouldn’t a young nation have a young leader?

So on the whole, McCain chose a fairly low-risk arena to distinguish himself, at least in tone and perhaps in substance, from the George Bush administration. The emphasis on realism and cooperation is a plus, though the lack of detail about how to deal with nations’ security dilemmas in the face of regional proliferation and also the lack of detail on just how to increase the security of stockpiles in states such as Pakistan may be of concern.