Lurching Toward Catastrophe: The Trump Administration and Nuclear Weapons

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Lurching Toward Catastrophe: The Trump Administration and Nuclear Weapons

In July 2017, by a vote of 122 to 1, with one abstention, nations from around the world attending a United Nations-sponsored conference in New York City voted to approve a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Although this Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons received little coverage in the mass media, its passage was a momentous event, capping decades of international nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements that, together, have reduced the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals by approximately 80 percent and have limited the danger of a catastrophic nuclear war. The treaty prohibited all ratifying countries from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, using, or threatening to use nuclear weapons.

Curiously, though, despite official support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by almost two-thirds of the world’s nations, the Trump administration?like its counterparts in other nuclear-armed countries?regarded this historic measure as if it were being signed in a parallel, hostile universe. As a result, the United States and the eight other nuclear powers boycotted the treaty negotiations, as well as the final vote. Moreover, after the treaty was approved amid the tears, cheers, and applause of the UN delegates and observers, a joint statement issued by the UN ambassadors of the United States, Britain, and France declared that their countries would never become party to the international agreement.

One clear indication that the nuclear powers have no intention of dispensing with their nuclear arsenals is the nuclear weapons buildup that all of them are now engaged in, with the U.S. government in the lead. Although the Trump administration inherited its nuclear weapons “modernization” program from its predecessor, that program?designed to provide new weapons for nuclear warfare, accompanied by upgraded or new facilities for their production?is constantly increasing in scope and cost. In October 2017, the nonpartisanCongressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that the cost for the planned “modernization” of the US nuclear weapons complex over the next three decades had reached a staggering $1.2 trillion. Thanks to the Trump administration’s plan to upgrade the three legs of the US nuclear triad and build new cruise and ballistic missiles, the estimated cost of the US nuclear buildup rose in February 2018 to $2 trillion.

In this context, the Trump administration has no interest in pursuing the nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements, discussed or signed, that have characterized the administrations of all Democratic and Republican administrations since the dawn of the nuclear era. Not only are no such agreements currently being negotiated, but in October 2018 the Trump administration, charging Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, announced a unilateral US withdrawal from it. Signed in 1987 by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the treaty removed all medium range nuclear missiles from Europe, established a cooperative relationship between the two nations that led to the end of the Cold War, and served subsequently as the cornerstone of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms controls.

Although some Allied leaders joined Trump in questioning Russian compliance with the treaty, most criticized the US pullout, claiming that treaty problems could be solved through U.S.-Russian negotiations. Assailing the US action, which portended a nuclear weapons buildup by both nations, a spokesperson for the European Union declared: “The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability.” Nevertheless, Trump, in his usual insouciant style, immediately announced that the US government planned to increase its nuclear arsenal until other nations “come to their senses.”

Of course, as Daniel Ellsberg has noted in his book,

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Lurching Toward Catastrophe: The Trump Administration and Nuclear Weapons