In these final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign, U.S. voters’ attention is being consumed by a maelstrom of crises — a merciless pandemic, a battered economy, a society ruptured by racist police violence and deadly structural inequalities, climate chaos and a fragile democracy.
Who has time to worry about nuclear war?
But just as warnings of a climate crisis and pandemics have been borne out, experts have long sounded the alarm about nuclear weapons, whether their use is triggered by impulse, accident or miscalculation.
It took 140 years for the average global temperature to rise by 1.1° Celsius and just four months for COVID-19 to kill 100,000 people in the U.S. Meanwhile it would take as little as 15-30 minutes for nuclear-armed missile to reach its target thousands of miles away and kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single day. New hypersonic weapons being built by China, Russia and the U.S. could reduce that time even further.
Whoever is president on January 21, 2021, will face an array of complex nuclear issues. Given Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s strikingly different political knowledge, tendencies, dispositions and commitments, the outcome of the election could signal very different directions for our nuclear future.
Under Trump, the U.S. has prioritized nuclear weapons, sharply increasing spending, fast-tracking replacement of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, deploying new low-yield strategic nuclear weapons, and has considered the resumption of explosive nuclear testing. Trump has threatened to use nuclear weapons more than once, taunting adversaries and unsettling allies. In an interview with journalist Bob Woodward, Trump bragged about having a “new nuclear weapon” that no one else knows about and has boasted about “super duper” missiles.
Trump has also abandoned key arms control agreements, withdrawing from the Reagan-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal), and, effective in November, the Open Skies treaty first proposed by President Eisenhower as a way to improve transparency and stability.
The last remaining U.S.-Russia nuclear agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START) will expire on February 5, 2021, unless the U.S. accepts Russia’s invitation to extend it for five years, something Trump has refused to do unless China joins. Biden has said he would extend New START, although he would have only two weeks to do so.
One arms control expert described Trump’s abandonment of New START as a “self-inflicted wound,” warning its demise could spur increased spending on a new arms race and “a period of greater tension and strategic instability with Russia.”
Alexandra Bell, senior policy director with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation and co-author of the report “Blundering Toward Nuclear Chaos: The Trump Administration After Three Years,” expressed disbelief that Trump would “give up a perfectly good bird in hand” by letting New START lapse.
“It would seem to me that any president would be interested in both making this country safer from nuclear threats and being able to demonstrate that they themselves were responsible for helping reduce those threats,” Bell told Truthout.
According to Bell, every nuclear challenge facing the U.S. has worsened under Trump. If re-elected, she expects a continued erratic, undisciplined approach to arms control, based on personal whims and impulses.
A U.S. president has the potential to make longstanding, substantive changes through arms control, says Bell. “When it comes to foreign policy and defense … who is in the executive office makes a huge difference.”
Trump has little to show at the end of his term, says Bell. “I think he will be the first president since Kennedy — really, before Kennedy — that has made no progress in reducing nuclear threats in the first four years.”
Under a Biden presidency, Bell expects a return of U.S. leadership in arms control and non-proliferation. “Overall, I think his record as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shows that he very much believes in the power and effectiveness of smart, pragmatic diplomacy.”
All Over the Map
One of the U.S.’s most critical nuclear challenges is North Korea. In 2017 and 2018, Trump lunged wildly from taunting Kim Jong-un as “little rocket man” and threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea, to a historic Singapore summit followed by boasting about Kim’s nice letters and “falling in love.”
Christine Ahn, executive director of the peace group Women Cross DMZ, says that although North Korea has been a signature foreign policy pursuit for Trump, the chaos, inconsistency and lack of follow-through raise serious concerns.
“[The Trump administration’s] inability to get their house in order is only further delaying the prospect for peace on the Korean Peninsula, which will further irritate the North Koreans, and what we will see is probably more testing from the North Korean side,” says Ahn.
Whether the U.S. pursues a policy of “strategic patience” (as it did under Obama) or “maximum pressure” (as it has under Trump), Ahn says aggressive military posturing, punishing sanctions and political isolation are at the center of the failed U.S.-North Korea policy. She hopes the next administration rejects the status quo and will instead create the necessary conditions through normalization and trust-building to eliminate nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.
A Political Punching Bag
When Trump took office in 2017, U.S.-Iran tensions had subsided following completion of the Iran nuclear deal, but in 2018, Trump withdrew from the agreement and relations have worsened, nearly erupting into war in 2019 and in January 2020 after the U.S. assassinated Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.
Sina Toossi, senior research analyst with the National Iranian American Council, says a second Trump term would likely lead to Iran definitively withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and dramatically increasing its leverage and stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, possibly reducing breakout time needed to produce enough material for one nuclear weapon, which could be used as a bargaining chip for any future negotiations with the U.S.
“If Trump wins,” Toossi told Truthout, “we’re headed toward dramatic escalation.” He added that in itself wouldn’t rule out an eventual deal with the U.S., however. He also suggests Iran might leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty just as North Korea did in 2003.
Freed from first-term constraints, Toossi says there’s a narrow chance that Trump could pursue talks with Iran, but he doesn’t think Trump has the skills to successfully negotiate with Iran.
Biden, on the other hand, has indicated he would try to return to the Iran deal if possible. Although he continues to be criticized for voting in favor of the Iraq War as a senator and for his centrist hawkish record, Biden is more open to pro-engagement foreign policy figures in what could lead to greater stability. Regardless of who is president in 2021, Toossi says, “Iran is a political punching bag in American politics.”
Follow the Money
William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, says that while Trump and Biden’s approach to arms control is like “night and day,” the differences in actual defense spending are less clear. Biden himself has indicated he isn’t planning major military spending cuts.
The realities of the pandemic, climate change and other needs could force Biden to reassess defense spending priorities in opposition to traditionalists and establishment figures. Hartung points to language in the 2020 Democratic Party Platform that could initiate conversations, if not commitments, about unspecified defense cuts. The Republican Party did not release a 2020 policy platform, instead choosing to pledge its “enthusiastic support” for Trump.
Today, Trump — who has the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons at any moment for any reason with zero oversight from anyone — has bragged he is “the most militaristic person ever.” In 2019 he said, “I have plans on Afghanistan that, if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth,” adding, “I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.”
Hartung says that Biden, on the other hand, is more likely to be steady during a crisis and has demonstrated a commitment to and understanding of nuclear arms control, although he says the public will need to apply pressure to counter his militaristic tendencies.
During Donald Trump’s term as president, the U.S. has faced a range of threats — growing economic inequality, gun violence, domestic terrorism and white nationalism, worsening climate change and a virus that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans. None of these threats can be remedied by the nearly $500 billion the U.S. will spend spent on nuclear weapons over the next decade.
Emma Claire Foley, a program associate at Global Zero, an international organization committed to eliminating all nuclear weapons, told Truthout that there is a growing shift in public support for prioritizing domestic programs over weapons. But based on what she’s heard from Biden so far, Foley says she’s not “incredibly optimistic” about what change he would bring. Progress may be possible, Foley says, but would require a groundswell of sustained public pressure for a more progressive foreign policy.
Compared to Trump, Foley says those advising Biden appear to have a greater appreciation for the lack of public support for massive spending on modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Could a Biden presidency make progress on the four potential flashpoints of Russia, China, North Korea or Iran? Foley says that in order to achieve a better outcome, you have to actually want a better outcome. “You need to have a commitment to the long hard work of diplomacy, which we have seen time and time again is not manifest in the Trump administration’s approach to any of these flashpoints,” Foley says.
Nuclear Jekyll and Hyde
At a time when nuclear threats are overshadowed by other crises, the nuclear priesthood, an elite group of mostly male experts and analysts who advocate for and guide nuclear weapons policy, can expect renewed relevance under Trump. In May, after The Washington Post reported that Trump administration officials had discussed the possibility of resuming explosive nuclear testing for the first time since 1992, Biden released a strong statement condemning the idea as “reckless as it is dangerous.”
In the same period, Trump’s special presidential envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, said the U.S. “know[s] how to spend the adversary into oblivion.” In response to the statement, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said, “the reality is that nobody wins a nuclear arms race. Everybody loses….”
Kimball points out that under Trump, the U.S. has accelerated its program to replace every aspect of the U.S. nuclear arsenal while increasing its ability to use nuclear weapons even against non-nuclear threats. Kimball says, “We are seeing an increase of the nuclear risks and a decrease of the guardrails to reduce those risks.”
Kimball describes Trump as having a “Jekyll and Hyde perspective” on nuclear weapons recognizing the potential for enormous death and destruction, while also viewing himself as statesman and extraordinary dealmaker. At the same time, the Trump administration has said it will not pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits any nuclear weapons test explosion or any other nuclear explosion. Since 1996, 184 countries have signed the treaty, but eight nations (including the U.S.) have not ratified it.
Conversely, Kimball notes that Biden has shown a deeper understanding of the value of arms control. Kimball expects that a Biden administration would at least revisit the $1.5 trillion nuclear modernization plan which critics consider excessive and unsustainable. Although Biden is certainly not an anti-nuclear revolutionary, he is a strong supporter of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which, as a senator in 1999, he tried to get ratified.
While it’s impossible to know what nuclear future awaits us under either presidential candidate, the grave threats posed by nuclear weapons necessitate the public play a greater role in advocating for policies that will reduce, not increase, potential dangers. The coming election will set the stage for the direction in which the U.S. turns on its path to nuclear redemption or ruin.