As fires rage across the West and the coronavirus continues its deadly march, President Donald Trump tweets and fulminates but refuses to take charge. He denies climate change; on the pandemic, he leaves to the states his clear responsibility to protect the people of America.
Tragically, his incompetence extends beyond Covid-19 and climate change to another existential danger, rarely debated in Washington or covered by the media: the chance of a nuclear blunder.
The Cold War may have ended in 1989, but the United States and Russia together still possess more than 12,000 nuclear weapons, 90 percent of the world’s arsenal, nearly 2,000 of which are programmed to launch in minutes at the command of either countries’ president. The risk of a real nuclear catastrophe is not a bugbear from a past decade. It is a current threat, and becoming more serious because of Trump’s policies—and because the public has largely stopped paying attention.
Like passengers on the Titanic, our leaders in Washington don’t see what is in front of them.
Trump has pulled out of two vital nuclear treaties—one covering Iran’s nuclear program and the other banning intermediate and short-range missiles. Now, there’s just one treaty holding back an all-out revival of the nuclear arms race with Russia—the New START Treaty, signed in 2010, and expiring early next year. Instead of promptly extending this agreement, Trump is dithering and has shown no interest in controlling nuclear weapons. In fact, he just authorized $13.3 billion to build new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The president is playing Russian roulette with humanity—with weapons that could kill millions, and in the case of a full-scale nuclear war, lead to the end of civilization itself.
How can we change course? That starts with the election of a new president, one who will have the courage to restore nuclear sanity. This is precisely what President Ronald Reagan did when he joined Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, declaring that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”
The next step would be for the new president to publicly reaffirm that principle and take bold action to pull us back from the brink.
Where does the next president begin? Fortunately, serious academic and policy experts have thought long and hard about this continuing and intractable nuclear danger. They have proposed many practical steps. Based on their ideas and our own experience, we recommend that the new president and Congress take the following actions—practical, commonsense and eminently achievable.
First, prohibit “launch on warning” of nuclear weapons. The gravest threat facing the world today is that both the United States and Russia have their intercontinental ballistic missiles on hair-trigger alert, which means that nuclear weapons can be fired before an incoming attack is even verified. The president can quickly change this since he has the sole authority to decide when, and under what conditions, nuclear weapons can be launched. Deterring Russia requires an invulnerable retaliatory capacity, not intercontinental ballistic missiles set on hair-trigger alert. Several times, both Russia and the United States received false warnings of a missile attack, including an incident in the dark of night on June 3, 1980, when a faulty computer chip at NORAD detected 2,200 Soviet missiles heading for America. United States missile launch keys were removed from their safes and fighter pilots took to the skies before the error was discovered. Had the United States retaliated based on this false alert, an apocalyptic catastrophe would have ensued—by mistake. That is why the United States policy must be changed so that the president orders retaliation only after a nuclear attack is unambiguously confirmed.
Second, cut back the current plan, initiated by the Obama administration, to spend—over three decades—more than $1 trillion to build and maintain a new generation of missiles, submarines and bombers for a nuclear arms “modernization.” This United States Department of Defense and Department of Energy program, heavily backed by the arms industry, needs to be publicly scrutinized, ideally both by hearings of the congressional Armed Services committees and by the new administration. The stakes are too high to leave these expensive and dangerous decisions to a small coterie of nuclear experts, or to the back-room defense-budgeting process.
This is not a radical proposal, given the inevitable reexamination of the federal budget in the wake of the massive spending needed to recover from the coronavirus. Both Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton found ways to cut military spending without compromising security. We can do the same.
Third, the next president should immediately extend the New START Treaty with Russia and begin follow-on negotiations to reduce deployed strategic nuclear forces by one-third, something Obama himself had planned to do.
Fourth, we should find a way to limit strategic missile defenses, which perversely incentivize building ever more offensive systems—making the world far more dangerous. The United States has spent $300 billion since 1983 trying to build a defense system to stop incoming nuclear missiles, without success. As predicted, Russia is now countering these efforts by creating five new offensive weapon systems that will overwhelm our defenses, and at a much cheaper cost. Ironically, these new Russian weapons are redundant because even Russia’s current weaponry can do the job. What started as an idea for making America safer is now making the whole world far more dangerous. Unless we find some way to negotiate an agreement with Russia that limits nuclear defense systems, similar to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed by President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev—and which President George W. Bush cancelled in 2002—we will never reverse the arms race and achieve stable deterrence.
Fifth, after the bluster and bombast of Trump, it is now time for serious and intensive diplomacy with Russia and China, and also with North Korea and Iran—one already a nuclear power and the other striving to be one. We cannot turn a blind eye to objectionable behavior from these countries. But cutting off communication as a way to punish our adversaries is stupid and dangerous. At many levels—military, intelligence, diplomatic and NGO—we should engage in serious dialogue even with our rivals about the profound dangers we face.
Diplomacy is not a reward for good behavior. It is an imperative to reduce tensions and forge understandings that make our world safer. Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Obama all signed nuclear agreements with our adversaries. They recognized our shared vulnerabilities and were ready to engage in extended diplomacy.
This five-step action plan derives from a vision of planetary realism that recognizes our world of endless competition but also deeply shared interests. Russia, China and the United States—together with Iran and North Korea—are each vulnerable to pandemic, climate change and, yes, nuclear blunder. Contrary to reigning doctrine, we are not in a zero-sum game.
The next president should reflect deeply on our existential predicament and chart a new and wiser path for America.
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