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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 87, Spring 2008

US and Russian Public Opinion on Arms Control and Space Security

Nancy Gallagher

The past decade has witnessed a growing gap between the magnitude of the security problems demanding multilateral cooperation and the level of leadership devoted to developing an effective international response. Diplomats working to prevent proliferation, eliminate existing nuclear threats, and avert a new round of military competition in space are watching the presidential elections in the United States and Russia. The prospects for diplomacy will differ greatly depending on whether leadership changes bring a renewed commitment to constructive multilateralism, a continued neglect of cooperative security arrangements, or a complete disintegration of key treaty regimes that have helped slow the spread of nuclear weapons, stabilize US-Russian strategic relations, and transform European security relations.

It is too early in the US election cycle to predict the victor, let alone to know how vigorously and effectively that person will pursue security policies that they have described vaguely, at best, as they campaign to represent their party at the time of writing (November 2007). On the Democratic side, Barack Obama has advocated a nuclear-weapons-free world and opposed weapons in space, and both he and Hillary Clinton have expressed support for long-standing items on the arms control agenda, such as US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The major Republican candidates have said little to compare their approach to arms control and nonproliferation with that of George W. Bush's administration beyond calling for accelerated efforts to build missile defence, restrict new countries' access to advanced nuclear technology, and improve intelligence.[1] Vladimir Putin's replacement as president by Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev this spring may be predictable, but the structure of the next Russian government and its propensity towards nationalist or multilateral security policies remain unclear.

Public opinion polls are an omnipresent feature of presidential campaigns, especially in the United States, but their main purpose is to find out which candidate is ahead in the race, not to determine what the voters think the winner should do about particular policy problems. Therefore, the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and its affiliated Program in International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) undertook a joint study, described in Appendix I, of American and Russian public attitudes toward nuclear weapons, arms control, and more far-reaching forms of security cooperation. There is no reason to believe that citizens in either country currently care enough about these issues to alter the outcome of the elections, or that public opinion matters enough to affect the security choices of the next US or Russian administration. Even so, public opinion is an important resource that leaders can mobilize to influence elite-level security debates. If the next US and Russian leaders wanted to reverse the downward spiral in strategic relations and undertake the bold multilateral initiatives needed to match the magnitude of emerging global security challenges, they would be more likely to do so if public opinion is on their side.

We found that the American and Russian publics remain surprisingly interested in security cooperation and supportive of efforts to negotiate legally binding treaties with effective verification. Whether the question involved general attitudes, specific items on the current arms control agenda, or more visionary proposals for eliminating nuclear weapons and averting space weapons, respondents usually favoured cooperation by large margins. This held true across party lines in the United States, providing evidence of public support for change regardless of which party wins the election.

These findings could give courage to future US and Russian leaders who would need to overcome entrenched bureaucratic resistance to the negotiation of new security accords and legislative opposition to their ratification. Leaders and diplomats from other countries that want to see much more vigorous multilateral action on shared security problems might also find some useful insights from the polls as they think about how to make progress during this transition year.

General attitudes towards arms control and verification

Despite the deterioration of US-Russian strategic relations at the leadership level, the citizens of the two countries place a high priority on joint efforts to prevent proliferation and other forms of security cooperation. When we asked whether their leaders should make cooperating with the other country to achieve a given policy objective "a top priority", an "important priority, but not a top priority", or "not a top priority", respondents were nearly unanimous in choosing one of the top two categories. We asked about potential areas for security cooperation - stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons, preventing an arms race in space, and controlling the spread of infectious disease. On almost all of these, cooperation was viewed as highly desirable: the percentage of respondents who did not consider cooperation on a given issue to be important was usually five percent or lower. In only two cases did this percentage rise to ten (Russians on the Iranian nuclear programme) or higher (14 percent for Americans on weapons in space).

There was a strong consensus among both the American and Russian publics that nuclear weapons should play a very limited role in security strategy. When respondents were asked about the circumstances under which their country should use nuclear weapons, 20 percent of Americans and 14 percent of Russians chose "never", while 54 percent of Americans and 63 percent of Russians chose "only in response to a nuclear attack". Only 25 percent of Americans and 11 percent of Russians thought that there were circumstances under which their country should use nuclear weapons even if it had not suffered a nuclear attack. Hence, 71 percent of Americans favoured having an explicit "no first use" policy, while only 26 percent thought that this would be "a bad idea".

Consistent with the limited role they see for nuclear weapons, most Americans assume that the current US arsenal is much smaller than it actually is. When respondents were asked for their "best guess" about the number of US nuclear weapons, the median answer was 1000, roughly a factor of ten lower than the actual size. Americans also believe that a small arsenal would be sufficient to deter other countries from attacking; with the median response for all Americans being 500.[2] The median answers given by Russians were slightly higher (1391 in the current arsenal and 1000 needed for deterrence), but only about 15 percent of Russians were willing to answer these questions, so less weight should be put on their responses.

When we asked Americans a generic question about their attitudes to arms control, a slim majority (51 percent) took the position that verified agreements were valuable despite the possibility of minor violations. However, 45 percent were more inclined to say that arms control is not a good idea because other countries might cheat and the treaty could give a false sense of security. Whenever we asked about a specific weapon, though, Americans strongly preferred having a verifiable legal agreement rather than informal policy coordination or no cooperation at all. For example, 79 percent of Americans thought that "when the US and Russia decrease their nuclear arms, they should make it part of a legally binding and verifiable agreement" while only 20 percent thought they "should do it through a general understanding that each country decides on its own how to implement".

When we gave respondents four options to indicate their attitude toward nuclear weapons, seven percent of Americans said they were morally wrong and wanted to eliminate their own country's stockpile regardless of what other countries did, 38 percent favoured gradual verified global elimination, and 33 percent supported verifiable international agreements to reduce but not eliminate them completely. Only 19 percent of Americans - and an identical percentage of Russians - chose, "nuclear weapons give [their country] a uniquely powerful position in the world. It is not in the interest of [Country] to participate in treaties that would reduce or eliminate its nuclear arsenal."[3]

Taken together, the answers to these questions suggest that while the Bush administration's claims that arms control is a relic of the Cold War might be superficially attractive both to the part of the public that has never liked legal constraints on US military capabilities and to the part that wants to believe in spontaneous cooperation, the overwhelming majority of Americans still believe that legally binding, verifiable treaties are an important tool for managing contemporary security challenges.

To assess attitudes toward existing verification mechanisms, we asked about the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the organization with which respondents were most likely to be familiar. Twice as many Americans (54 percent) and five times as many Russians (40 percent) regarded the IAEA's influence on the world as "mainly positive" compared with the number who saw it as "mainly negative" (27 percent of Americans and 8 percent of Russians).

We also asked about the level of intrusiveness associated with international inspections, and found that the old stereotype of Americans wanting more intrusive verification and Russians resisting it is only partially true. A majority of Americans (53 percent) do think that there are too many limits on international inspectors, but 26 percent think that there are not enough limits. Very few Russians (12 percent) thought that there were too few limits on inspectors, with much larger numbers thinking that there were too many limits (24 percent), that the limits were about right (27 percent), or declining to answer (37 percent).

Another surprising result was a preference among American and Russian respondents for multilateral over bilateral arrangements. We asked two different questions about improving nuclear security by increasing transparency, one in which the US and Russia would exchange information and create systems to monitor each other's stocks of weapons and weapons-grade material, and another in which all countries would exchange information about their stocks. More Americans opposed the bilateral transparency proposal (54 percent) than favoured it (44 percent), but they strongly favoured the multilateral transparency proposal (75 percent for, 22 percent against). Russian respondents supported both transparency proposals, but the margin of support for the multilateral version (52 percent for, 24 percent against) was much larger than the margin of support for the bilateral option (44 percent for, 27 percent against). Current tensions in the US-Russian bilateral relationship may explain the difference, especially since the bilateral version of the question went beyond an information exchange to include monitoring and mentioned the risk that sharing such information could compromise national security.

Support for incremental arms control

We asked about various existing and proposed agreements that are long-standing elements of the international agenda for gradually reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world, decreasing their likelihood of use, constraining their future development, and strengthening other controls on weapons of mass destruction. A consistent picture emerged of strong popular support in both the United States and Russia. There was generally very little drop off in support when we followed up with a more ambitious form of the proposal, suggesting that some ideas which are assumed to be too far outside the bounds of political acceptability would actually enjoy a substantial degree of public support.

One sequence of questions started by asking about the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which committed the US and Russia to reduce their number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 2,200 by the end of 2012. Eighty-eight percent of Americans and 65 percent of Russians supported this agreement, with only 11 percent and 15 percent respectively opposed. Almost as many people favoured more ambitious agreements to reach SORT levels sooner than 2012 (71 percent of Americans and 55 percent of Russians) and to reduce US and Russian arsenals to some number significantly lower than the SORT levels (71 percent of Americans and 58 percent of Russians).

Contrary to the perception that Americans and Russians believe that maintaining some type of superpower status requires keeping far more nuclear weapons than any other country has, we found that majorities in both countries would favour reducing their arsenals down to the level of other nuclear weapon states. After being told that that no country besides the US and Russia has more than 400 active nuclear weapons, 59 percent of Americans and 53 percent of Russians said that they would favour an agreement to reduce their number of active nuclear weapons to 400, assuming that the other countries would agree not to increase their arsenals above it. Only 38 percent of Americans and 21 percent of Russians opposed an agreement limiting all nuclear arsenals to very low levels.

Many experts believe that the use doctrine and alert status of nuclear forces are at least as important as the total number of weapons in the US and Russian arsenals. It is hard to imagine the leadership of either country deliberately launching a massive unprovoked nuclear attack on the other side, regardless of how many hundreds or thousands of nuclear weapons the targeted state would have available for retaliation. Inadvertent nuclear use scenarios seem somewhat more plausible under current security circumstances. Both the US and Russian early warning systems have experienced false alarms in the past and could be manipulated by terrorists in the future. Concerns about Russian command and control of nuclear weapons increased after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the fallibility of US arrangements was demonstrated by the 2007 "bent spear" incident in which planes were mistakenly loaded, flown and left sitting on a runway for hours with nuclear rather than conventional missiles. Moreover, growing asymmetries between the strategic military capabilities of the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and Russia on the other, could heighten Russia's sense of vulnerability to pre-emptive attack and its inclination to "use them or lose them" if it believed that war was imminent.

We used a pair of pro and con arguments to assess public attitudes toward national launch-on-warning policies. In both countries, almost twice as many people preferred the option that would minimize the chance of mistakes over the one that would maximize the retaliatory threat. We found that 65 percent of Americans and 47 percent of Russians agreed that "early warning systems can make mistakes" and that even if some of their missiles were attacked first, their country "will always have plenty of options for nuclear retaliation". Only 34 percent of Americans and 26 percent of Russians thought that their "policy should be to immediately launch nuclear weapons if early warning systems detect incoming nuclear missiles [because] this will keep our missiles from being destroyed by the in-coming missile and will help deter an enemy from considering an attack".

We also asked whether respondents wanted their leaders to work with other countries on lowering the risks of accidental nuclear war by negotiating a verifiable de-alerting accord. Seventy-nine percent of Americans and 66 percent of Russians favoured an agreement to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on high alert, while almost as many (64 percent of Americans and 59 percent of Russians) also supported an agreement to take all nuclear weapons off high alert.

Public approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) remains very high in both the United States and Russia. Eighty percent of Americans - including 73 percent of Republicans - said that the United States should participate in the Treaty, while only 18 percent said that it should not. Seventy-nine percent of Russians supported the CTBT, while only ten percent opposed Russian participation. Interestingly, when we asked Americans, "do you think the US does or does not participate in the treaty that prohibits nuclear weapon test explosions world-wide", 56 percent incorrectly thought that the United States does participate, while only 37 percent knew that the United States has so far refused to ratify the Treaty.

Because the United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992, the average American citizen may not differentiate between a moratorium as a matter of national policy and as an international legal obligation. This finding is consistent, however, with other polls showing that Americans tend to assume that the foreign policy positions taken by their elected officials and preferred candidates for public office are in line with the respondent's own ideas about what would constitute reasonable policy even when the politician's actual positions are quite different.[4]

Since few people outside of diplomatic circles know much about the prospects for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), we told respondents that there was a proposal for a "world-wide ban on producing any more nuclear explosive material suitable for nuclear weapons". We then asked whether the benefits of a global cut-off outweighed the possibility that their own country might some day want more nuclear explosive material for weapons. Even without being told that both the United States and Russia already have national moratoria on fissile material production and support the negotiation of a global treaty, Americans favoured a ban by almost a two to one margin (64 percent to 34 percent). Support cut across party lines, with 54 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of Democrats, and 76 percent of Independents backing the proposed accord. Russians favoured an FMCT by almost a four to one margin (55 percent to 14 percent).

We asked Americans two additional questions about increasing international controls on fissile material production to reduce the chances that countries with a civilian nuclear energy programme would be able to produce fuel suitable for nuclear weapons. One approach proposed by President Bush involves a commitment by countries that have advanced nuclear capabilities to provide reactor-grade fuel to countries that promise not to build their own enrichment and reprocessing plants, but to deny these advanced capabilities to any country that does not currently have them, regardless of their status under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).[5] Fifty-seven percent of Americans supported a voluntary version of this proposal in which "countries that already make nuclear fuel should encourage other countries not to develop nuclear fuel by offering a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel for their power plants, if they promise not to produce their own", while 40 percent thought it would be a bad idea.

Almost as many Americans approved of a more comprehensive approach along the lines of ideas advanced by IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei and President Putin - bringing enrichment and other sensitive nuclear fuel cycle services under international control on a non-discriminatory basis.[6] Fifty-four percent thought it would be a good idea to have "a UN agency control all facilities that process nuclear material and guarantee countries a supply of nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants", while 44 percent thought that would be "too big an intrusion on the freedom of countries". A significant partisan difference did appear on these two questions, though, with Republicans more strongly supporting the fuel suppliers' consortium arrangement, while Democrats and Independents were more strongly in favour of the international control option.

In addition to these questions about nuclear issues, we also asked about strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Eighty-seven percent of Americans and 78 percent of Russians thought that their country should participate in a protocol to the BWC that would provide for international inspections, while only 11 percent of Americans and 10 percent of Russians thought this would be a bad idea. We asked a different half sample of Americans the same basic question, but included pro and con arguments pitting the benefits of knowing more about what was happening in other countries' biological laboratories against the risk of revealing proprietary information that could give companies in other countries a commercial advantage. Support softened slightly, but still remained extremely high (79 percent for the protocol and only 19 percent against). As with the CTBT, a large majority of Americans (64 percent) mistakenly believe that the United States favours negotiating a protocol to the BWC, while only 31 percent know that their country opposes international inspections of biological research laboratories.

The BWC allows states to have dangerous pathogens for the purpose of developing defences against biological weapons, but it says nothing about the legality or legitimacy of threat assessment activities - i.e. trying to create pathogens more dangerous than those that already exist in an effort to identify future risks and possible responses. The United States has built a large new facility to do classified research on potential threats, and there are concerns both about the kinds of work that may be authorized at the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) and about the way that the United States would react if any other country initiated a similar programme.[7]

A large majority of American respondents (63 percent) rejected the view that the United States needed to develop new infectious diseases so as to prepare for the possibility that terrorists might do so, while only 34 percent thought that the United States needed "to be ready with new vaccines and antidotes against them". In fact, three out of four Americans wanted to go beyond unilateral restraints and negotiate a treaty that would forbid scientists to develop new infectious diseases.

Eliminating Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear disarmament has long been a cherished goal for many members of the international diplomatic community, but there have always been doubts about whether the states that already have nuclear weapons would ever be willing to eliminate them. Article VI of the NPT commits members to "negotiations in good faith", not only on the types of incremental measures discussed above, but also on "nuclear disarmament, and ... general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control". The 1995 Statement on Objectives and Principles and other documents connected to the NPT strengthened these commitments and spelled the initial steps out in more concrete detail. The subsequent lack of progress on bringing the CTBT into force and starting FMCT negotiations, however, along with renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons in US and Russian security strategies and the tacit acceptance by many of India and Pakistan as nuclear weapon states outside the NPT, have all been disheartening developments.

The idea of a world free of nuclear weapons gained renewed prominence on the public agenda after George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn published an essay in the Wall Street Journal. Nuclear weapons are no longer needed for Cold War-style deterrence, the authors argued. Such weapons are increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective in a world where the primary threats come from proliferation and terrorism.[8] The authors advocated a concerted international effort to reverse reliance on nuclear weapons, to prevent their proliferation, and to eliminate them as a threat to the world. Nuclear elimination should be a guiding objective for security policy, they argued, not a vague aspirational goal always being pushed farther into the future.

This endeavour was initiated on the twentieth anniversary of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, where President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev agreed orally that their governments should rid the world of nuclear weapons, so it is sometimes referred to as the Reykjavik Revisited Project.[9] It has been endorsed by Mikhail Gorbachev and by former British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, among other prominent statespeople, and the ideas have been elaborated and embraced by a growing number of former US officials and security experts.[10]

We asked Americans and Russians about nuclear elimination as the final step in our sequence of questions about progressively lower and more inclusive limits on nuclear weapons. This was in keeping with the Reykjavik Revisited Project's conception of elimination as the culminating stage of a step-by-step process to reduce threats, to demonstrate the benefits of cooperation, and to refine verification. The question did not cue respondents by mentioning the Reykjavik Revisited project or any of the other prominent opinion shapers who once saw nuclear weapons as a guarantor of security but now believe that the world would be safer without them. Still, Americans supported global elimination under effective international verification by a three-to-one margin, while the Russian margin of support was four-to-one.

This high level of public support for nuclear elimination did not reflect widespread recognition of their country's legal obligations under Article VI of the NPT. In fact, only 37 percent of Americans and 22 percent of Russians realized that their country had agreed as part of the NPT to work actively toward a world without nuclear weapons. Approximately the same number of Americans and Russians endorsed the NPT goal of eventual elimination as those who expressed personal support for actually eliminating all nuclear arms under effective verification. Notably, the level of American support was four percentage points higher when the question mentioned verification, while the level of Russian support was four percentage points higher when the question referenced the NPT obligation.

The average American or Russian citizen does not believe that the world is making sufficient progress toward nuclear elimination. When asked how well they thought the countries with nuclear weapons have been fulfilling their NPT Article VI obligations, 67 percent of Americans and 66 percent of Russians answered "not at all well" or "not very well". Only one percent of Americans and even fewer Russians thought that their countries were doing "very well". A sizeable number of Americans (26 percent), but very few Russians (7 percent), chose "somewhat well", with 7 percent of Americans and 27 percent of Russians declining to answer. Most respondents wanted their country to do more with the other nuclear weapons states to work toward a nuclear-weapons-free-world, with fewer than 20 percent in either country saying that their governments should not do more than they are currently doing to achieve this policy objective.

Preventing the Weaponization of Space

The Bush administration has made clear its belief that the United States must keep a sizeable nuclear arsenal for the indefinite future. Though Bush has expressed no interest in nuclear elimination, the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review did endorse the idea of reduced reliance on nuclear weapons even as the Bush national security strategy established ambitious goals - not just deterring existing threats, but preventing hostile states and terrorist groups from acquiring the technology to make weapons of mass destruction and defending against any threats that did emerge. To accomplish this, the Bush administration has sought to supplement its strategic nuclear weapons with long-range precision conventional weapons and missile defences, thus shifting emphasis away from nuclear weapons toward space as a new focus for military competition.

Space plays an integral role in the current US security strategy. Satellites provide much of the imagery, communications, and targeting information that gives the US military a huge advantage over any potential adversary, and space is envisioned as a basing mode for various offensive and defensive weapons in the future. The 2006 US National Space Strategy proclaimed the intention to control space militarily in order to "ensure freedom of access in space, and, if directed, deny such freedom of access to adversaries".[11]

Not surprisingly, a number of countries have grave concerns about the expansion of military space activities being led by the United States, as evidenced by the near-unanimous international support for the annual UN General Assembly resolutions calling for negotiations on additional measures to Prevent an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).[12] The United States is the most conspicuous opponent of any new legal rules to protect satellites or prevent space weapons. The more progress it makes toward using space to achieve unparalleled strategic offensive and defensive capabilities, however, the more likely other countries will be to compensate, for example by targeting the vulnerable satellites on which the US capabilities depend or building up their own nuclear forces for deterrence.

Debates about space security policy have occurred almost exclusively at the expert level, with little media coverage or public awareness of the changing role that space is playing in US security strategy and of other countries' concerns about the implications for strategic stability. China's January 2007 test of an anti-satellite weapon against one of its own aging weather satellites, the first destructive ASAT test since the United States did a comparable test in the mid-1980s, was the only development related to space security that received mainstream news coverage in the months before our poll was conducted, so we did not assume that respondents would know much, if anything, about the issue. Regardless of their level of awareness, neither public likes the idea of space weaponization. Eighty-six percent of Americans thought that cooperative efforts to prevent an arms race in space should be considered an important or a top priority. The same percentage of the Russian sample also gave this a high priority, but 53 percent of Russians put it in the top category, compared with only 28 percent of Americans.

Both Americans and Russians support the concept of reciprocal strategic restraint that was a central element of US space security policy throughout most of the Cold War. When told that no country currently has weapons in space, 78 percent of Americans and 67 percent of Russians agreed that "as long as no other country puts weapons in space, it is better for [my country] not to do so either. We should avoid creating an arms race in space". Only 21 percent of both Russian and American respondents endorsed the alternate position that their country "should put weapons in space because it could serve important military purposes such as protecting [our] satellites". Three quarters of US respondents also said that they would have more confidence in a Presidential candidate who expressed support for reciprocal restraint compared with one who sought military advantage by being the first to put weapons in space.

On space, as on all the other issues in our survey, the American public does not share the Bush administration's preference for informal, non-binding types of policy coordination. When we followed up the question about reciprocal strategic restraint with a question about a new treaty banning all weapons in space, support did not decline; instead, it increased by a few percentage points among both Americans (80 percent) and Russians (72 percent).

Providing a half sample of American respondents with pro and con arguments did little to decrease support for a treaty banning space weapons. Seventy-five percent of respondents still thought that a space weapons ban would be a good idea after they were given two positions on this issue and asked which was closer to their own view:

Pro: Such a treaty would stop a new arms race in space and would forbid weapons that would threaten US satellites, which are very important for managing US military capabilities.

Con: Such a treaty would make it harder for the US to do research into missile defense, intended to protect the US homeland, and to build systems to protect US satellites from attack.

US public support for a space weapons treaty has increased since we asked the same questions in a 2004 poll on "Americans and WMD Proliferation".[13] The percentage of people thinking that a space weapons treaty would be "a good idea" has moved up six points on the simple form of the question and ten points on the version that includes pro and con arguments. Americans also said, by more than a two to one margin, that on matters of national security, they would have more confidence in a Presidential candidate who favours a treaty banning weapons in space than they would in one who opposes it.

We found consistently high American and Russian support on three questions about negotiating new legal protections for satellites. The first question asked about a ban on attacking or interfering with satellites. It provided pro and con arguments that contrasted the importance of the information that satellites provide to the respondent's own country with the military benefits their country might gain from attacking or interfering with somebody else's satellites.

The second question asked whether such a ban should apply even in the midst of a crisis or conflict. It contrasted the greater likelihood that a conflict would spiral out of control if belligerents started attacking each other's satellites with the possibility that an anti-satellite attack might deliver the decisive knock-out blow to one's adversary.

The third question asked about a ban on testing or deploying dedicated ASAT weapons. It contrasted the mutual interest that all major countries have in legal protections for satellites against the claim that arms control will not stop countries from developing anti-satellite capabilities.

Regardless either of the treaty details or the types of pro and con arguments used, American support was in the high seventies while Russian support was in the low to mid sixties and Russian opposition was around ten percent. This suggests that the American and Russian publics endorse the basic logic of mutual legal protection for vulnerable satellites over the logic of competitive military space control.

After the Chinese ASAT test, there has been some expert-level discussion about military measures that the United States could use to defend its own satellites against such anti-satellite weapons in the future. One option that was proposed to a Congressional committee by General Cartwright, then the head of US Strategic Command and now the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the possibility of using US long-range precision conventional weapons to attack the anti-satellite missiles themselves or other nodes in an adversary's ASAT system.[14] We asked about the circumstances under which it would be legitimate to attack another country's missiles that could be used as anti-satellite weapons. Americans and Russians overwhelmingly reject the idea that their country would have the right to do this as a preventive measure. Only about a third of Americans and Russians believed it would be legitimate if their country had strong evidence that an ASAT attack was imminent (37 percent and 27 percent). Barely half said it would be acceptable if an attack was already under way (54 percent and 50 percent).


It is clear from these opinion poll data that the Bush administration's long-standing antipathy toward treaties and the Putin administration's increasingly confrontational stance in diplomatic arenas do not accurately reflect how the American and Russian publics want their leaders to behave. There is a deep reservoir of American and Russian public support for handling a wide range of security problems through legally binding, verifiable arms control agreements, including serious efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons and to prevent the weaponization of space. The vast majority of the American and Russian publics endorse the basic logic of cooperative security regardless of the details of a proposed treaty or the types of pro and con arguments used, and they are ready to support unprecedented types of agreements that match the magnitude of security problems facing the world today.

While it may be encouraging to see high levels of popular support for cooperation on all the major elements of the arms control and disarmament agenda, it is also discouraging to realize how disconnected a country's security policy can be from the preferences of the people that the leadership purports to represent. This disparity highlights an important challenge: how can the policy-making elite who favour cooperative security work more effectively with non-governmental organizations (NGO) and other grassroots groups who are trying to mobilize mass opinion so that it can have a larger impact on national policy and negotiating outcomes?

Some steps were taken during the 1990s to increase NGOs' access to information about diplomatic meetings and their ability to participate on the margins, but this progress has been much slower in the disarmament and security arena than for other issues, such as human rights. The major misperceptions we found among Americans regarding the size of the US nuclear arsenal and the US stance toward CTBT ratification and the BWC protocol help explain why the public is not demanding policies more in line with their preferences. American and Russian media and arms control organizations bear the largest share of responsibility for educating and mobilizing their own publics - a difficult job given all the other demands on citizens' attention - but diplomats from all countries should think about what they could do to make this job easier.

It might be tempting to try to make arms control an issue in the current US presidential campaign in hopes of raising public awareness, affecting the outcome of the election, and influencing what the next president will do on these issues. When asked, the American public does consider the issues we posed to be important priorities, and support for most forms of security cooperation is high among Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents. In the two questions we asked Americans about hypothetical candidates, respondents strongly preferred the candidate who favoured a cooperative security strategy over the one who advocated a unilateral military approach.[15] Nevertheless, it would probably be a mistake to try to raise the profile of these issues during the presidential campaign.

Since the electoral process gives disproportionate influence to the most politically active members of the party, the Republican candidates, if pressed, will more firmly align themselves with the minority in their party that intensely opposes arms control and favours missile defence, space dominance, and other efforts to multiply US military power. These positions would not appeal to many voters, but that may not matter much when most Americans have other pressing domestic and political concerns that are more likely to influence how they vote.

When we framed poll questions in a political context, we got much lower Republican support than when we asked simply about respondents' own opinion on the same issue. For example, 71 percent of Republicans thought that a treaty banning weapons in space would be a good idea, but only 57 percent of them favoured the candidate who took this position. In short, whatever minor electoral benefits might come from politicizing these issues during the election season would be outweighed by the much higher importance of preserving the bipartisan support that the next president will need to make progress on this agenda.

Since a major theme of the US election is voters' desire for change, there is reason to hope that the next president will want to move quickly and decisively in a more effective direction. If part of the goal is to convince the rest of the world that the new administration is serious about security cooperation, then our poll shows that the American public would support vigorous action on CTBT ratification, FMCT negotiations, deep cuts in nuclear weapons, and a start to serious negotiations about space weapons. The policy changes to initiate each of these actions could be undertaken by presidential directive, but they could not be accomplished without overcoming resistance from entrenched elements of the US security bureaucracy and their counterparts in other countries. The strength of public opinion in favour of cooperation could provide important encouragement to a future president who was already inclined to undertake these initiatives, but it should not cause him or her to underestimate the difficulty of dealing both with the bureaucratic resistance and with the intense minorities opposed to arms control in Congress and elsewhere. Just as diplomats need a strategy for informing and mobilizing public opinion, so do national leaders who are serious about change.

If one recognizes both the possibility of change and the challenges that must be overcome, then the imperative for the coming year is to avoid doing anything that would exacerbate current tensions and make the conditions less favourable for cooperation once the United States and Russia have new leadership. All too often in the history of arms control, opportunities for cooperation are lost because countries are out of sync. Just when the leadership of one key country moves from a unilateralist phase towards a more cooperative one, the leadership of a potential negotiating partner moves in a more unilateralist direction, perhaps as a delayed response to the first country's actions or for unrelated reasons. Election seasons can exacerbate this pattern, especially if candidates believe - rightly or wrongly - that they can gain a political advantage by expressing belligerent nationalism or attacking arms control.

Knowing that the American and Russian publics strongly support cooperative security may make it a bit easier for foreign governments and candidates who are serious about working together to avoid over-reacting when other leaders give belligerent speeches and pledge to develop new weapons. This is not the time to expect or undertake bold initiatives, but it is a good time to lay the groundwork for them. Possibly the most important thing that the diplomatic community could do in the upcoming year is to end the deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament and show the next American and Russian presidents that if they are ready to exercise leadership on behalf of cooperative security, the rest of the world is ready to resume negotiations.

Appendix I: Design of the polling project

The poll on "Americans and Russians on International Security and Arms Control" was done in collaboration with WorldPublicOpinion.org, an international network of opinion research centres. Knowledge Networks fielded the poll in the United States from September 13 through 23, 2007. The US sample was randomly selected and demographically representative. Respondents were recruited over the telephone, then provided with internet access to take the survey if they did not already have it. Since all questions were administered to half the nationwide sample of 1,247 respondents, the margin of error on the US findings is plus or minus 4.0 percent.

The Levada Center conducted the poll in Russia from September 13 through 24. This survey was fielded using face-to-face interviews, so fewer questions were asked than on the internet-based poll in the United States. Each question was also asked of half the Russian respondents, but the somewhat larger size of the nationwide sample (1,601) produces a smaller statistical margin of error (3.5 percent) on the Russian findings.

The number of Russians who answered "Don't know", or refused to answer tended to be much higher than the number of Americans who did so. Therefore, the percentage of Americans taking a particular position on a question should not be directly compared with the percentage of Russians who took that same position. One could expect, though, that if the "don't know" respondents were pressed for an answer, they would split along roughly the same percentage lines as did their compatriots who gave a clear-cut answer.

The findings of this project are in Steven Kull, John Steinbruner, Nancy Gallagher, Clay Ramsay, and Evan Lewis, 'Americans and Russians on Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Disarmament', November 9, 2007, and 'Americans and Russians on Space Weapons', January 24, 2008. These reports, the questionnaire, and related articles are at http://www.cissm.umd.edu/projects/pipa.php.

The polling project received support and assistance from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Secure World Foundation.


[1] Zachary Hosford, 'News Analysis: The 2008 Presidential Primaries and Arms Control', Arms Control Today, December 2007.

[2] There is an interesting partisan divergence on this question, with Republicans and Independents picking the same median answer (1000) for the current size of the arsenal and the number of weapons needed for deterrence, and Democrats choosing 1000 as their median guess about the current arsenal, but specifying 200 as the median answer for number of nuclear weapons needed to deter a nuclear attack.

[3] Russian percentages on the other options were also very close to the American numbers, with eight percent saying nuclear weapons were morally wrong, 31 percent favouring multilateral elimination, 31 percent preferring reductions, and 11 percent not answering (compared with two percent of American respondents).

[4] Steven Kull, 'Public Perceptions of Foreign Policy Positions of the Presidential Candidates', September 29, 2004, http://www.pipa.org.

[5] 'Remarks by President Bush on Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation', National Defense University, February 11, 2004, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/20040211-4.html.

[6] Mohamed ElBaradei, 'Saving Ourselves from Destruction', The New York Times. February 12, 2004 and Vladimir Putin, 'Speech at the Session of the Eurasian Economic Community Inter-State Council in Expanded Format', St. Petersburg, January 25, 2006.

[7] John Steinbruner, 'In the Name of Defence', New Scientist, November 25, 2006, http://www.cissm.umd.edu/papers/files/new_scientist06_steinbruner.pdf.

[8] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, 'A World Free of Nuclear Weapons', The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007. The authors of this original op ed (endorsed by about 20 other eminent officials and analysts) published a follow-up editorial a year later, see note 10.

[9] For more details on the project, see George Bunn and John B. Rhinelander, 'Reykjavik Revisited: Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons', World Security Institute Policy Brief, September 2007, http://media.hoover.org/documents/Bunn-Rhinelander-Reykjavik_Sept07.pdf.

[10] Mikhail Gorbachev, 'The Nuclear Threat', Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2007, Margaret Beckett, 'A World Free of Nuclear Weapons', Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, June 25, 2007, and George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, 'Toward a Nuclear-Free World', Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008.

[11] The October 6, 2006 unclassified version of the space policy is at: http://www.ostp.gov/html/US%20National%20Space%20Policy.pdf.

[12] PAROS is an agenda item that dates back to the mid-1980s when the Reagan Administration's Strategic Defense Initiative sparked a new round of fears about a superpower arms race in space. The resolution continues to bear this name even though the current situation is much less symmetrical. The vote on the 2007 PAROS resolution was 178-1-1 with the United States voting in opposition, and Israel abstaining.

[13] Steven Kull, 'Americans on WMD Proliferation', April 15, 2004, http://www.cissm.umd.edu/papers/files/wmdprolif_apr04_rpt.pdf.

[14] General Cartwright raised this possibility during the question and answer session when he appeared before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 28, 2007. An excerpt from the transcript of the Q & A session was included as part of a statement made by Michael Pillsbury to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, March 30, 2007, at: http://www.uscc.gov/hearings/2007hearings/written_testimonies/

[15] Seventy-three percent of respondents said they would have more confidence in the security judgment of a candidate who would not be the first to put weapons in space, compared with 26 percent who favoured the one who would. Likewise, 67 percent preferred the candidate who voiced support for a space weapons treaty, while only 31 percent chose the candidate who opposed such a treaty.

Nancy Gallagher is the Research Director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland (CISSM). She is the author of The Politics of Verification and other works exploring cooperative responses to global security challenges.

To contact the author or for more research on issues covered in the CISSM/PIPA, including a forthcoming American Academy of Arts and Sciences monograph on Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security, visit: www.cissm.umd.edu.

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