War Wasn’t a Campaign Issue. What Does That Mean for the Next Presidency?

During the last presidential debate, Donald Trump and Joe Biden sparred over the pressing domestic problems of racism, health care, climate change, the economy and the pandemic, along with the alleged Chinese, Russian and Iranian interference in the elections. But substantive discussions of foreign policy and the threat of nuclear war were off the table. The same was true in earlier debates, including the primaries. Moderators didn’t ask, and the candidates didn’t tell.

This is critical since relations with Russia, China and Iran are the worst they’ve been in decades under the Trump administration. And nuclear war looms more menacing than since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

On his website, Biden describes his agenda for various domestic issues, but only mentions foreign policy when he promises support for Central American countries so they can improve their residents’ lives (presumably reducing their need to immigrate or seek asylum). Trump’s site says nothing about these issues; rather, it asks supporters to contribute in order “to send a message that America will never be a socialist country.”

Why do the candidates largely ignore foreign and nuclear affairs? According to Pulitzer Prize winner Martin Sherwin, a professor of history at George Mason University and author of the just released Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the strategy seems to be “if you don’t need to say something, don’t.” He told Truthout that, “since Trump isn’t saying anything, Biden is also keeping quiet.”

Peter Kuznick, a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, says the U.S. has not taken a constructive leadership role to resolve the dangerous global conflicts and the threat of nuclear war and annihilation.

Kuznick, who is co-author with Oliver Stone of the 12-part television series and New York Times bestseller book The Untold History of the United States, details the most worrisome current global conflicts and threats:

* The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has persisted since the 1980s. But in late September, it erupted into war and cease-fires haven’t held. Russia and Iran support Armenia, while NATO member Turkey supports Azerbaijan, and Israel has supplied it with arms. But the war could blow up further, dragging in NATO and the U.S. “This smells like the prelude to WWI, where entangling alliances launched the full-blown international conflict” Kuznick told Truthout.

* Iran. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, which infuriated the European Union, Russia, China and Iran. Kuznick says the deal was working brilliantly: Iran shipped 97 percent of its enriched uranium out of the country and deactivated its centrifuges. But since the treaty was hatched on Obama’s watch, with Israel in fierce opposition, Trump had to obliterate it. Moreover, Trump’s ex-adviser, John Bolton (along with Steve Bannon), had been itching for years to move on Iran. “In fact, many of us feared Trump would provoke a war there. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened, but negotiations are nowhere to be seen. Trump says he’ll produce a better deal, but as with a health care plan, we see nothing,” Kuznick said.

* North Korea. All countries, especially in Asia, worry about its missile programs, but again, negotiations are not visible and no substantive progress has been made toward achieving a long-overdue peace treaty, reducing U.S. military presence on the peninsula or denuclearization.

* A new cold war, this time with China. China is making expansive claims in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, which the U.S. is challenging by running “freedom of navigation operations” in the waters that China claims as its own. “The U.S. seems to be intent upon provoking a confrontation, which is a very dangerous game,” Kuznick says.

* All nine nuclear powers are modernizing their arsenals. The U.S. launched a 30-year, $1 trillion (now $1.7 trillion) program under Obama to modernize its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems, and make them more effective and lethal. For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in March 2018 that Russia had developed five new nuclear weapons that can circumvent U.S. missile defense. This all flies in the face of the just-ratified UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which makes possession, development and the threat to use nuclear weapons illegal under international law. Kuznick says that U.S. leaders have tried to intimidate the nations that signed it into withdrawing their support. Thus, “it is fitting that Honduras, the original banana republic, which the U.S. has bullied and exploited for decades, became the 50th country to ratify the treaty and put it into effect. Critically, the nine nuclear powers boycotted the talks.”

*A new arms race threatens nuclear war. Trump sabotaged negotiations to renew the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), in which the U.S. and Russia reduced their nuclear warheads down to 14,000 (from a previous 70,000 in the 1980s). Putin wants to renew the New START agreement which ends in February 2021, but Trump and his chief nuclear negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, were initially opposed and then dragged their feet. In May, according to Reuters, Billingslea said the U.S. can spend Russia and China into oblivion in order to win a new nuclear arms race. This echoes Trump’s 2018 statement when he said, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

Kuznick says if Trump kills the New START, this could also destroy the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which prevents the spread of nuclear weapons and under which the existing nuclear powers are supposed to more aggressively eliminate their arsenals. “If Russia and the U.S. aren’t abiding by the terms, why should the other nuclear powers?” he says.

Trump also pulled the U.S. out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed Russia and the U.S. to verify each other’s weapons.

Sherwin and Kuznick say it’s terrifying that Trump, who has made erratic decisions and alienated allies, has the sole power to press the nuclear button.

“We’ve survived without a nuclear war until now because the Soviets and Americans created treaties that set rules of behavior which gave the other some confidence. Though each side suspected the other was cheating, the treaties still established an international system that prevented the worst from happening,” Sherwin says. “These treaties were created after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which sent a message to the Soviet and U.S. administrations and their security experts that an uncontrolled nuclear arms race would lead to accidents and nuclear war. But Trump has made a mockery of treaties and doesn’t understand the danger of an uncontrolled system.”

Kuznick notes that the threat of nuclear war — which could happen by accident — is so high that in early 2020, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands on the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds before midnight. “When the U.S. and Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs in 1952 and 1953, they set it at two minutes. But given the current U.S.-Russian-Chinese conflicts, the danger is the worst ever. Yet none of this is discussed,” he says.

Both scholars point to moments in Cold War history when each side thought the other had launched a nuclear attack, due to an anomaly either in the atmosphere (in 1983) or the ocean (1962), which set off the nuclear alerts. And it was only the remarkable last-second decisions by two different men that stopped each side from firing their missiles.

But Sherwin and Kuznick argue that the dangers can be reduced. They say that in Russia and other countries with nuclear arms, three or four officials must decide about launching them. In the U.S., at present, the president has the sole power to start a nuclear war. However, this system could be changed to require assent from others, such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or Congress.

*Nuclear winter. Studies show that even a limited nuclear war, such as between India and Pakistan (which is a real possibility) could trigger a partial nuclear winter. If even 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons were used, Kuznick warns, the explosions would spew 5 million tons of smoke, soot and debris into the stratosphere that would circle the globe, blot out the sun’s rays, drop temperatures below freezing, destroy much agriculture and cause global famine that could kill up to 2 billion people. What would the use of thousands of weapons tens of times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb do? There might not be any survivors to let us know.

Why do the candidates, mainstream media and pundits largely ignore these life and death issues? Sherwin says that once the Cold War ended, many people assumed nuclear weapons were no longer a threat. And both Russia and the U.S. did reduce their stockpiles. However, Sherwin says, “They still have thousands and it’s possibly more dangerous now than during the Cold War because no one is paying attention to the threat.”

Moreover, Kuznick says the topics may be verboten because the mainstream media are controlled by companies that have ties to, own or get ads from those that profit from the nuclear arms race. Further, political leaders and the educational system fail to address them. “My colleagues and I study these issues but we’re rarely invited to speak about them on the networks because the subject is just too radioactive. It’s not even in their frame of reference,” he says.

Kuznick has one glimmer of hope, saying we came close to banning nuclear weapons at the 1986 Reykjavík Summit between President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. “Gorbachev offered to destroy Russia’s nuclear weapons if Reagan limited Star Wars tests to laboratories. Reagan was interested, but his adviser, Richard Perle, told him not to sign, as it would undermine the tests. So, Reagan refused,” he says.

Sherwin and Kuznick are both puzzled as to why Biden doesn’t continually raise these issues. “It’s a total win. He could show the public that Trump is undermining the last pieces of nuclear arms control,” Kuznick says.

Sherwin says Biden understands that treaties are about stability and the need to take part in international affairs; and Kuznick notes that Biden has vowed to extend the New START agreement and reduce nuclear spending, should he win. “This would go a long way to extending the life expectancy of our species,” Kuznick says.