After a 30-year hiatus, nuclear arms racing is back in vogue – and the world is about to get a lot more dangerous.
On August 2, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia officially collapsed, freeing the world’s two largest nuclear hoarders to develop weapons once banned by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Less than three weeks later, with the corpse of the Treaty still cooling, the United States launched a new ground-based cruise missile off the coast of Los Angeles with a range previously prohibited by the defunct agreement.
According to the Pentagon, “Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities.” The test came on the heels of a deadly accident earlier this month that may have involved an experimental and highly volatile nuclear-powered cruise missile that killed seven scientists and exposed tens of thousands of people in northern Russia to radiation levels 20 times higher than the norm.
Experts have long warned about a new nuclear arms race on the horizon – one that promises obscene spending, dangerous new weapons, global instability and greater risk of nuclear use. Dire forecasts first began to emerge when the U.S.-Russia relationship went into a tailspin following the invasion of Crimea. They pointedly intensified after a reality TV star ascended to the White House and called for a “massive expansion” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal just weeks before his inauguration. Now, arms control negotiations have stalled, treaties have been broken, and the world is moving closer than ever to nuclear catastrophe.
Both tests bring into focus just how dramatically the United States and Russia are moving in the wrong direction. We are straying far and fast from Reagan and Gorbachev’s maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Washington and Moscow would do well to recall the hard lessons of the Cold War – and stop undermining the steady progress that brought global nuclear stockpiles down from a peak of 70,000 in 1986 to fewer than 14,000 weapons today.
In the 1980s, the INF Treaty sent thousands of nuclear weapons to the scrap heap, helped end the Cold War, and kept Europe stable and out of nuclear crosshairs for a generation. The agreement was central to reversing the most dangerous military buildup in history, laying the groundwork for a new set of rules to help America and Russia avoid conflicts – and prevent conflicts from spiraling out of control if and when they might take place.
In today’s parlance, INF was a Big Mood: for nearly 30 years it made America and its allies safer and the U.S.-Russia nuclear relationship more predictable. That is, until Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin allowed it to collapse over mutual allegations of cheating without making any serious diplomatic effort to resolve the dispute.
INF’s demise marks a dangerous new chapter in the nuclear era. The risk of nuclear weapons use is already unacceptably and unnecessarily high. As the old safeguards against nuclear build-ups are being pulled apart without any alternative plans for arms control in evidence, the world’s two most heavily nuclear-armed nations will only accelerate their downward spiral into nuclear chaos.
Today, only one restraint remains on U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenals: New START. For nearly a decade, New START has limited U.S.-Russian nuclear forces to 1,550 strategic warheads, 700 deployed delivery vehicles, and 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers each. Under the treaty, inspectors make regular visits to U.S. and Russian facilities to help verify both nations uphold their end of the bargain — and so far, they both have. It also provides a critical window into Russian and American nuclear capabilities and intentions — a feature that’s all the more valuable as relations worsen between Washington and Moscow and mistrust builds on both sides.
At the stroke of a pen, Trump and Putin could extend the agreement, preserve critical verification tools, and strengthen the last remaining barrier to a full-blown nuclear arms race. Extending New START would immediately stabilize a dangerous and rapidly deteriorating situation between the world’s two biggest nuclear stockpilers, and set the stage for negotiations to further reduce nuclear arsenals and their inherent risks — possibly even drawing other nuclear-armed nations into the process for the first time in history.
New START expires in less than 18 months. Despite its clear value, the treaty is already under assault by hardliners in the Trump administration. That includes Trump himself, who has reportedly called New START a “bad deal” and rejected an earlier offer by Putin to extend it, as well as his national security advisor John Bolton, a 1980s throwback whose greatest hits include three dead arms control agreements and the Iraq War.
Recent statements from long-standing arms control opponents like U.S. Senator Tom Cotton that New START is flawed because it does not include Chinese nuclear forces are meant to divert attention from Trump’s refusal to extend the agreement. China’s total nuclear arsenal is less than 10% of the size of either the United States or Russia; the Chinese have repeatedly made it clear they will not join talks until these vast arsenals are shrunk significantly. As former U.S. chief START negotiator Amb. Richard Burt wrote recently in The National Interest, bringing China into the arms control process over time is a good idea, but sacrificing New START’s many benefits for a goal whose time has not arrived makes no sense and has no upsides.
Congress has taken note of this alarming situation and is putting pressure to bear on the White House to extend New START. Letters from key committees, including the House Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as from a number of Senators, have noted the importance of New START and urged the Trump administration to extend it. U.S. military and intelligence communities also support the agreement and want to see it preserved, and for obvious reasons: the inspection and verification tools alone would take billions of dollars in new surveillance measures and precious years to replace.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration will likely refuse to extend the agreement. Should a new president be elected in 2020, the next administration will have just 16 days following her inauguration to decide what to do about the New START before it goes the way of INF — a feat Russia has so far indicated will not be possible. In that case, the United States and Russia should commit now to abiding by New START requirements and immediately get to work on a new framework.
Over the last 30 years, more than 80% of global nuclear stockpiles have been eliminated. If leaders in Washington and Moscow can find a way back to our historical trajectory, it’s possible that most of us could live to see a world without these weapons. That is a goal worthy of every conceivable effort — and a far better legacy for any president than dragging us back to the worst days of the Cold War.
The world narrowly avoided nuclear conflict during the arms race of the 20th century. We’re unlikely to be so lucky a second time around.