Republican presidential candidate John McCain called Tuesday for talks with China to negotiate a temporary halt to production of nuclear weapons-grade material and with Russia on a new treaty to destroy more nuclear weapons.
"Today we deploy thousands of nuclear warheads," McCain said. "It is my hope to move as rapidly as possible to a significantly smaller force." He did not set a specific goal but said the number would be consistent with U.S. security and global commitments.
Cautioning against relying solely on force or merely on talks, McCain proposed a bipartisan push to strengthen a broad array of international arms treaties and nuclear monitoring. And he criticized past administrations, both Democratic and Republican, for failing to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
"We should also begin a dialogue with China on strategic and nuclear issues," the likely Republican presidential nominee said in a speech at the University of Denver. The goal would be to encourage China to conform to the practices of the other four nuclear powers recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, "including working toward nuclear arsenal reductions and toward a moratorium on the production of additional fissile material."
Noting that the United States and Russia "no longer are mortal enemies," McCain said the two countries, as the owners of the majority of the world's nuclear weapons, "have a special responsibility to reduce their number."
The Arizona senator said the U.S. should "enter into a new arms control agreement with Russia reflecting the nuclear reductions I will seek."
He also called for exploring with Russia the possible elimination of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, and the sharing of early warning data and prior notification of missile launches. And he said he'd be willing to seriously consider Russia's recent proposal to extend the reach of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to the entire globe and to take another look at the failed Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to overcome the shortcomings that prompted him to oppose it in 1999.
McCain sought to distinguish his approach from that of his predecessors or his likely Democratic opponent Barack Obama.
"If you look back over the past two decades, I don't think any of us, Republican or Democrat, can take much satisfaction in what we've accomplished to control nuclear proliferation," he said.
"The truth is we will only address the terrible prospect of the worldwide spread of nuclear arms if we transcend our partisan differences, combine our energies, learn from our past mistakes, and seek practical and effective solutions."
Quoting both Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Ronald Reagan on the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons, McCain emphasized a bipartisan problem-solving style. He said he was open to listening to a slew of people and weighing a bevy of proposals — a tacit contrast to President Bush, who critics contend has engaged in partisan go-it-alone diplomacy that has strained U.S. relations with allies.
"We cannot achieve our nonproliferation goals on our own," McCain said.
McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war who is making national security a cornerstone of his campaign, has increasingly called Obama naive on foreign policy matters.
McCain used the speech to take an indirect slap at Obama, who has said he would be willing to meet with the leaders of rogue states like North Korea and Iran, and to break with neoconservatives who advocate a military hard-line.
"Today, some people seem to think they've discovered a brand new cause, something no one before them ever thought of. Many believe all we need to do to end the nuclear programs of hostile governments is to 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," McCain said.
"Others think military action alone can achieve our goals, as if military actions were not fraught with their own terrible risks. While the use of force may be necessary, it can only be as a last resort not a first step," McCain added.
In response, the Obama campaign said, "By embracing many aspects of Barack Obama's non-proliferation agenda today, John McCain highlighted Obama's leadership on nuclear weapons throughout this campaign, and his bipartisan work with Richard Lugar in the Senate."
Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement praising what he called McCain's "change of course" on arms control.
As McCain spoke from a podium flanked by American flags in a university atrium, anti-war protesters angry over his support of continued military involvement in Iraq interrupted him four different times. Each time, they were escorted out and the several hundred people in attendance tried to shout them down by chanting McCain's name.
McCain grew increasingly irritated and then used the opportunity to press his case against withdrawing troops.
"This may turn into a longer speech than you had anticipated," McCain said tightly before adding: "And by the way, I will never surrender in Iraq, my friends." He received a standing ovation before continuing his nonproliferation remarks.
He spoke with recent nuclear nonproliferation developments as a backdrop. On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran may be withholding information needed to establish whether it tried to make nuclear arms. On Tuesday, the U.S. and North Korea began talks on Pyongyang's long-delayed nuclear declaration. And last fall, Israeli warplanes destroyed a suspected nuclear installation in Syria.