Will Trump restart the nuclear arms race?

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President Donald Trump has threatened to allow the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to lapse when it comes up for renewal in 2021.

Renewal of the treaty would mean a drastic reduction in nuclear weapons.  Failure to renew would mean a resumption of the nuclear arms race and, sooner or later, a virtual certainty of nuclear war.

The Federation of American Scientists reports that number of nuclear warheads has been reduced from a peak of about 70,300 warheads in 1986 to 13,890 early this year.  That’s good progress, but no reason to stop now.

The USA and Russia still have enough nuclear weapons to obliterate each other and much of the rest of the human race in the process.

We the human race have been lucky so far.  The world has come close to the brink of war, but avoided it.  We can’t count on being lucky forever.

If you don’t count nuclear warheads retired, but not yet dismantled, the USA has 3,800 and Russia has 4,490.  The new START, if renewed, would reduce the number to 1,550 each.

President Trump has said he will not renew the treaty unless it covers China as well.  China has an estimated 290 warheads, which is not trivial.

Pakistan only has an estimated 160 nuclear warheads and India has 140.  Analysts say that if those two countries found a nuclear war, just the dust and soot from the nuclear explosions (never mind the radioactive fallout) would darken the skies and bring about nuclear winter.

It would be desirable for all the smaller nuclear powers, including France, the UK, Israel and North Korea, to accept an upper limit on their numbers of nuclear weapons.  But it is unlikely they would cut back so long as the USA and Russia have thousands of weapons.

So what is Trump’s motive?  My guess is that either he or the national security establishment thinks that, by restarting the nuclear arms race, the USA can force Russia to spend itself into bankruptcy or accept U.S. global military supremacy.

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President Trump already has withdrawn the United States from the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty (INF).

He canceled the agreement to cease economic warfare against Iran in return for that country limiting enrichment of nuclear fuel.  This action makes it unlikely that Iran or any other small nation will trust the United States to keep agreements in the future.

Earlier President George W. Bush withdrew the USA from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.  All of these actions eliminate safeguards built up over the years to make nuclear war less likely.

The USA has opposed recent nuclear weapons resolutions approved by the vast majority of members of the United Nations General Assembly.  These include a resolution calling for worldwide nuclear disarmament, a resolution to exclude nuclear weapons from the Middle East and a resolution to exclude nuclear weapons from outer space.

I don’t think most Americans realize how much our government is making us a pariah among nations.

Background on Treaties

ABM Treaty.   The anti-ballistic missile treaty was signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, after nearly 10 years of negotiation.

The USA and USSR agreed to limit themselves to 200 anti-ballistic missiles—missiles intended to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles—at two sites.. Later this was reduced to 100 ABMs at one site.  Missile defense against short-range and intermediate-range missiles was allowed.  After the breakup of the USSR, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan agreed to abide by the treaty.

The purpose was to preserve the principle of mutual assured destruction, which was considered a guarantee of peace.  If either American or Soviet leaders thought they had a reliable defense system, they might think they could attack the other nation and then be able to repel whatever weapons weren’t destroyed in the attack.

President George W. Bush canceled the treaty in order to place ABM systems in Poland and Romania.  He said such systems were necessary not just to protect against attack by Russia, but by “rogue nations” such as Iran.  I don’t think anybody took such claims seriously.

Russia responded by developing hypersonic weapons, a new generation of high-speed guided missiles that supposedly can hit their targets before the defender can react.  This creates a specter that the ABM treaty was created to avoid—the possibility of a nuclear first strike that leaves the victim helpless.

The new Russian system hasn’t been deployed yet.  The USA is working on its own hypersonic system.  Even if both countries have equal weapons, the so-called balance of terror will have been eliminated.  Possibly hypersonic weapons will not be as effective as advertised, but I don’t want to put them to the test.

INF Treaty.  Negotiations of the intermediate nuclear force treaty were begun by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and completed in 1987 during the George H.W. Bush administration.  The purpose of the treaty was to eliminate Soviet or Russian missiles aimed at European targets and Europe-based missiles aimed at Russia.

Although this treaty dealt with missiles rather than nuclear warheads, it made possible the long-range reduction in warheads that began in 1987.

The treaty called for a ban on land-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,420 miles).  It did not affect missiles fired from airplanes, ships or submarines, which was to the advantage of the United States, as the leading air power and sea power.

In the early 21st century, Vladimir Putin called for renegotiation of the treaty on the grounds that it did not set limits on other powers, particularly China, which has a long land frontier with Russia.

Later Russia reportedly developed and tested an intermediate-range missile, the 9M729, and may have deployed some of them, although not necessarily with nuclear warheads.  Putin claimed that the U.S. ABM system violated the treaty, arguing that nuclear warheads could be fitted on the supposedly defensive ABM missiles.

President Donald Trump announced cancellation of the treaty, based on Russia’s violations.

START.  Negotiations of the first strategic arms reduction treaty began with Reagan and Gorbachev, were completed by George H.W. Bush in 1991 and went into effect in 1994.  Under this treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to limit themselves to deploying 6,000 nuclear warheads to be delivered by 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines or nuclear bombers.

Under the new START treaty, negotiated by Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev, which went into effect in 2011, the limit was reduced to 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads on 700 ICBMs, nuclear subs or nuclear bombers.

This treaty is up for renewal in 2021, and President Trump has said he will allow it to lapse unless it includes China.  The U.S.government regards the Chinese weapons as auxiliaries to the Russian forces, but the Russian government regards British and French weapons as auxiliaries to the USA.

But I don’t see how the resumption of a U.S.-Russian arms race will constrain China or any other country.  And I don’t see this as a reason to ratchet up the risk of nuclear war.

The Open Skies Treaty.  Russian pilots fly unarmed planes over the United States regularly to verify compliance with nuclear arms treaties, and American pilots do the same over Russia.

These overflights are authorized by the Open Skies Treaty, first proposed by President Eisenhower in 1955 and finally ratified by the USA and Russia in 1992.  Thirty-two other countries also have ratified the treaty.

In recent years, the Russian government has interpreted the treaty more narrowly than the U.S. government has, and insisted on restrictions that the U.S. objected to.  Some Americans think it works to the advantage of other countries because the U.S. has the most advanced spy technology.

But the treaty plays its part in reducing fears by governments that they are in imminent danger of attack.  It would be a shame to let the treaty lapse.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.  The NPT, which went into effect in 1970, was intended to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.  Under the treaty, the five nuclear weapons powers—the USA, USSR (now Russia), UK, France and China—agreed to begin negotiations aimed at eventual disarmament

The 185 other signatories agreed to refrain from developing nuclear weapons and in return were promised aid in developing peaceful uses of nuclear power.

Iran, then ruled by the Shah, signed the NPT.

India, Pakistan, Israel and South Sudan are outside the treaty.  South Africa briefly had nuclear weapons, then destroyed them.   North Korea announced a withdrawal from the treaty in 2003.

I remember the great fear of the spread of nuclear weapons back then, and I am surprised how few nations have nuclear weapons   But I’m not sure whether this can be counted on in the future, unless the USA, Russia and other signatories keep their promise to disarm.

The rulers of Iraq and Libya renounced plans to develop nuclear weapons, and their countries were then attacked.  North Korea, which has nuclear weapons, is unlikely to be attacked.

Iran, which never tried to develop nuclear weapons, was sanctioned by the Trump administration anyway.  When the Iranian government agreed to limit development of its nuclear energy industry, President Trump made new demands and continued the sanctions.

What Trump’s action teaches small nations is that the United States can’t be trusted to keep its promises and that disarmament leaves them vulnerable.

Every U.S. President from Eisenhower to Obama has negotiated with leaders of the USSR and Russia to limit the danger of nuclear war.  You don’t have to like or approve of a foreign government to recognize the mutual benefit of peace.

President Trump has set a new and dangerous course.  But many of his Democratic opponents, weirdly, accuse him of appeasement rather than brinksmanship.  We the people need to be aware of possibility of nuclear war and hold our leaders accountable to prevent it.


The Folly of Killing New START by Daniel Larison for The American Conservative.

We’re More at Risk of Nuclear War Than We Think by George Beebe for POLITICO.

25 Times Trump Has Been Dangerously Hawkish on Russia by Caitlin Johnstone.

Status of World Nuclear Forces by the Federation of American Scientists.

Eight Times the World Avoided a Potential Nuclear Disaster by Jessyln Cook for Huffington Post.

Close Calls With Nuclear Weapons, a fact sheet by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

U.S.-Russian Arms Control Watch, Nov. 15, 2019 by the Arms Control Association.

Click to enlarge.  Source: Federation of American Scientists.

Click to enlarge.  Source: Federation of American Scientists.





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2 Responses to “Will Trump restart the nuclear arms race?”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    “by restarting the nuclear arms race, the USA can force Russia to spend itself into bankruptcy” – again. Their desperate urge to keep us with the Americans was a major factor in the failure of the USSR.

    I’m not a big fan of this approach today. Russia is not a self-declared existential threat to the US and high-risk policies are not appropriate. Most people do not understand how close to a civilization-ending nuclear war we came and how many times it happened. Just in my life we’ve had the Cuban Missile Crisis, the BMEWS radar in Greenland warning of launches from the Soviet Union that turned out to be reflections off the moon. In 1969 a Chinese-Soviet border war almost erupted into a nuclear conflict. False Soviet satellite reports of massive missile launches from the US heartland, the misapprehension of a US wargame, Able Archer, as a real attack.

    The problem with China is its ambiguity. Nobody really knows how many warheads China has and how many long-range delivery systems since we don’t have access to Chinese nuclear sites. There is also a perception by some that China is an existential threat – or at least wants to become one – like the old USSR but with a powerful economy and a huge population base.

    China has been aggressive historically. Tibet was once a sovereign state. India developed nuclear weapons as a response to China’s invasion of Kashmir. (The Chinese are still there.) They tried to invade Vietnam years after the US left. They have moved into the Spratly Islands, ignoring claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei, all who are closer and set up military installations. And now they have a new Glorious Leader for Life.

    Ambiguity encourages paranoia. I think the Chinese want us paranoid right now.

    I understand and agree that China needs to come into the nuclear arms control treaty with a reasonable degree of verifiability. I don’t think that abandoning SALT gives us leverage in any way to do that. Neither does refusing to agree to a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons.

    As for what Trump wants, I don’t believe he’ll be in office long enough to effectively exit the New START treaty. Arms build ups don’t happen that quickly. Last I heard, even though Russia withdrew from the earlier START treaty due to us withdrawing from the ABM treaty, both the US and Russia are still adhering to it in general. And Congress doesn’t have to give him money to fund an arms race. All the next president has to do is revoke his decision. That is probably true of every executive decision that Trump has ever made.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Martin Kral Says:

    Nuclear war is the least of my worries because some of us will be able to survive the radiation and the planet will continue life. What worries me more is biological warfare because all life can actually be eliminated.

    Liked by 1 person

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