Survey Says: Americans Back Arms Control

By Kull, Steven | Arms Control Today, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Survey Says: Americans Back Arms Control


Kull, Steven, Arms Control Today


Arms control is being challenged today by proliferation crises from North Korea to Pakistan. Yet, perhaps one of the central challenges comes from those in the United States who contend that rather than strengthening and expanding the multilateral arms control regime, America and its allies should place greater reliance on the use of military threats against potential proliferators.

To find out how the American public feels, the Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted a nationwide poll in collaboration with the Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program, both programs of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

The poll found that Americans continue to be highly concerned about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation. The median respondent estimated that at least 10 countries have secret programs for developing weapons of mass destruction. An overwhelming majority say that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is a very (84 percent) or somewhat important (13 percent) foreign policy goal of the United States.

Americans also consistently showed strong support for arms control as a tool to address the problem. Ninety-one percent of those surveyed said that the United States should participate in the "treaty that bans all chemical weapons," and the same number favored participation in "the treaty that bans all biological weapons." Support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is also overwhelming, as is support for strengthening the inspection provisions of the biological weapons treaty. Support for such arms control treaties is robust among all demographic groups and all regions of the country. Though Democrats tend to be more supportive, large majorities of Republicans are supportive as well.

Views on Nuclear Weapons

American views on nuclear weapons exemplify these general attitudes. Clear majorities expressed support for reducing the role of nuclear weapons and ultimately aiming to eliminate them, especially when placed in the context of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). A majority of poll respondents (9 59 percent) were not aware that the United States has committed to seek the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons as part of the NPT. An overwhelming majority, however, approved of the United States making such a commitment. Eighty-four percent said that doing so was a "good idea." An even higher 86 percent said the United States "should...do more to work with the other nuclear powers toward eliminating their nuclear weapons." In each case, more than 70 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats and independents favored working toward elimination.

Even without the information that there was a quid pro quo as part of the NPT, a majority (albeit a significantly smaller one) favored the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons (see table 1A). Strong support for eliminating nuclear weapons is not a new phenomenon. A 1997 Stimson Center poll1 found 80 percent in favor of "eliminating all nuclear weapons from all countries in the world through a verifiable, enforceable agreement." In the same poll, 77 percent said they would feel "safer if [they] knew for sure that no country including the [United States] had nuclear weapons."

In a similar vein, Americans also supported retaining a commitment the United States first made in 1978 and reaffirmed in 1995 not to use nuclear weapons against countries that have signed the NPT and do not have nuclear weapons. Respondents were presented three options on this issue.

Only 20 percent endorsed the position that the United States "should explicitly retract this commitment, so that countries that have biological or chemical weapons will be deterred from using them out of fear that the [United States] will use nuclear weapons in response." Rather, 57 percent chose the option that the United States should "reconfirm" its commitment not to use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have nuclear weapons, "so as to discourage countries from trying to acquire or build nuclear weapons. …

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