Editorial of The Times
Posted January 13, 2018 5:56 p.m. EST
Raising the Risk of Nuclear War
It was the sort of nightmare that had only ever been real for most people’s parents or grandparents — the fear of an impending nuclear attack. “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii,” read the emergency alert that residents of the Aloha State received Saturday morning. “Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
The authorities quickly announced that the alert was a mistake. But it made tangible the growing fears that after decades of leaders trying to more safely control the world’s nuclear arsenals, President Donald Trump has increased the possibility of those weapons being used.
At a time when many are questioning whether Trump ought to be allowed anywhere near the nuclear “button,” he is moving ahead with plans to develop new nuclear weapons and expanding the circumstances in which they’d be used. Such actions break with years of U.S. nuclear policy. They also make it harder to persuade other nations to curb their nuclear ambitions or forgo them entirely.
Trump has boasted about the size and power of America’s nuclear arsenal, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, pushed for a massive buildup of an arsenal that already has too many — 4,000 — warheads and wondered aloud why the United States possesses such weapons if it isn’t prepared to use them.
Now, as he tries to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons capability and ensure that Iran never acquires one, Trump is poised to make public a new policy that commits America to an increasing investment in those very weapons, according to a draft document made public by HuffPost and confirmed by The Times.
A major departure in the new policy is the plan to build new low-yield nuclear weapons. The rationale is that most modern weapons are so powerful that no one believes they will ever be used, so lower-explosive warheads are needed to maintain an effective deterrent. This logic is insane.
The United States has immense nuclear and conventional capabilities, and experts say there is no evidence these more usable low-yield nuclear weapons will force adversaries to behave better. Enlarging the U.S. arsenal will certainly lead other countries to seek equivalent arsenals of their own, while also raising the odds that weapons fall into terrorists’ hands and heightening the risk of accidental war. Investing huge sums this way is also unlikely to protect us from tomorrow’s threats.
The administration, however, would have us believe that America is falling behind in military capability. Trump was compelled to act, the document argues, primarily because of Russia’s “unabashed return to Great Power competition,” including modernization of its nuclear weaponry. Russia is unquestionably a growing problem that needs to be confronted, but that’s a cynical rationale for a president who has refused to acknowledge the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election or its threat more generally to Western democracies.
Making matters worse, Trump, in a separate decision Friday, continued to put the 2015 deal that froze Iran’s nuclear program in jeopardy. The president warned European allies that they must agree to overhaul the deal in 120 days, or he would withdraw the United States from it. Although he again stopped short of reimposing sanctions, his demands would effectively require renegotiating the deal, something the other parties to the agreement have refused to do.
The proposed nuclear policy says a more aggressive nuclear posture is warranted because the world is more dangerous, with China, North Korea and Iran cited as concerns. Yet blowing up the Iran deal would free Tehran to resume its nuclear activities and make the world less safe. In other words, Trump’s approach makes no sense.
Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, signed in 1968, the United States and Russia promised to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons. They made significant, although insufficient, progress. After reductions under a succession of past presidents, the U.S. stockpile is 85 percent smaller than it was at the height of the Cold War. Negotiations on further reductions have stalled in recent years as Russia, threatened by America’s superior conventional arsenal, became more reliant on nuclear weapons, and there is no serious sign that Trump wants to revive the talks.
President Barack Obama made a down payment on a saner policy by narrowing to “extreme circumstances” the conditions under which nuclear weapons would be used and ruling out their use against most non-nuclear countries. Trump’s policy also talks about “extreme circumstances, " but it dangerously broadens the definition to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” which could mean using nuclear weapons to respond to cyber, biological and chemical weapon attacks.
Until Trump, no one could imagine the United States ever using a nuclear weapon again. America’s conventional military is more than strong enough to defend against most threats. But Trump has so shaken this orthodoxy that Congress has begun debating limits on his unilateral authority to launch nuclear weapons. Expanding the instances when America might use nuclear weapons could also make it easier for other nuclear-armed countries to justify using their own arsenals against adversaries.
As the residents of Hawaii can tell you, it’s a risk the world cannot afford.
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