Welcome to the 21st century nuclear arms race. Once again, we’re teetering on the brink of nuclear conflict instead of taking critical steps toward de-escalation and disarmament.
If it feels like we’re in the middle of a wacky James Bond movie plot, that’s not far off. Any progress we were making toward nuclear safety is being rapidly, systematically and recklessly dismantled by the Trump administration.
Current tensions with Iran, particularly after the assassination of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, have heightened not just the risk of regional conflict but also of global nuclear war.
In his State of the Union address on Feb. 4, President Donald Trump declared that Iran “must abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” without acknowledging that he unilaterally withdrew the United States from an international treaty, which was successfully doing just that. It’s vital that the United States get back to the negotiating table and reenter the Iran deal.
Trump also pulled out of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and Russia. This treaty led to the elimination of nearly 2,700 intermediate-range missiles and helped the two countries make tangible progress in stabilization and disarmament efforts.
Currently, the most important arms control treaty the United States is still a party to is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, also known as New START. The treaty is set to expire just a year from now, in February 2021.
In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to immediately extend the New START treaty, without preconditions. But New START’s future remains unclear. Trump has hinted in the past that he may let the treaty simply expire, while senior U.S. officials have said that Washington wants a broader deal involving China.
Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov co-authored a Feb. 10 OpEd in the New York Times urging the United States to work to extend New START.
“Doing nothing while waiting for a ‘better’ agreement is a recipe for disaster: We could lose New START and fail to replace it,” they wrote. “The treaty’s agreed limits on nuclear arsenals are too important to be put at risk in a game of nuclear chicken.”
The stakes in preserving or reentering these vital arms control treaties could not be higher.
Besides ditching vital arms control treaties, the Trump administration is actively revving up the arms race. On Feb. 5, the U.S. Defense Department confirmed that the Navy has deployed a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead.
To call these weapons “low-yield” is misleading. At 6.5 kilotons, they are 2,600 times more powerful than the 1995 Oklahoma City bomb. And they may be indistinguishable on radar from missiles armed with high-yield bombs, meaning an adversary could respond to a launch with a full attack, immediately escalating the conflict to a full nuclear war.
Proponents of this low-yield nuclear warhead say it is more “usable,” a turn of phrase that should concern everyone. A more “usable” warhead increases the risk of actual nuclear conflict, while decreasing U.S. national security.
We all have a vital interest in ensuring that nuclear weapons are not used. It’s time for the United States to take the lead on nonproliferation and disarmament. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, which rates the danger of unparalleled catastrophe, is now set at 100 seconds to midnight, closer than ever to an apocalyptic disaster. And in the real world, we can’t rely on a vodka martini-sipping British spy to save us.
Olivia Alperstein is the media relations manager for Physicians for Social Responsibility. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.