We can't overlook diplomacy in policy on nuclear arms

By Keith Peterson
Guest columnist
Updated 2/6/2018 4:22 PM
  • Jeff Knox/jknox@dailyherald.comKeith PetersonDaily Herald guest columnist.

    Jeff Knox/jknox@dailyherald.comKeith PetersonDaily Herald guest columnist.

Near the end of President Trump's first State of the Union address, there are three sentences:

"As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal. Hopefully, never having to use it, but making it so strong and so powerful that it will deter any act of aggression by any other nation or anyone else. Perhaps some day in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet, sadly."

Friday, the Trump Administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), traditionally released at the beginning of a new Administration. It largely follows the blueprint set forward by President Obama in 2010, which called for the modernization of all three legs of the nuclear triad -- submarines, missiles and bombers.

The 2010 program was estimated to cost $1.2 trillion to $1.7 trillion between now and 2046. The Trump Administration program, which calls for a new submarine-launched low-yield warhead and a new cruise missile will cost more. Analysts have expressed concerns that low-yield and other tactical nuclear weapons could, theoretically, make them more "usable."

The NPR portrays a Russia and a China that are modernizing their military capabilities and, thus, justifies the need to upgrade the U.S. triad and add these new tactical systems.

Monday was the deadline for America and Russia to meet the limits set forth in the New START Treaty, signed with Russia in 2011. It reduced the number of warheads the two sides could deploy to 1,550 and deployed missiles and bombers to 700. This was a 50 percent reduction in deployed arsenals and a far cry from the more than 20,000 warheads the two sides deployed in the early 1980s.

This has been the fundamental bargain set forth in the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): The vast majority of nations would not pursue nuclear weapons, while the nuclear powers would, eventually, reduce and then eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Three countries have never signed the NPT -- Israel, Pakistan and India -- and all have nuclear weapons. One nation -- North Korea -- withdrew from the treaty and subsequently developed nuclear weapons. Other nations, principally Iran, have violated their NPT commitments.

In parsing the three sentences from Trump's speech, several things stand out. The nuclear balance has been predicated on the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD. No one would use nuclear weapons for fear of a devastating counter-strike. Technologies that could upset that balance, such as defensive systems like President Reagan's proposed "Star Wars" defense were eventually controlled by a new treaty, in this case the ABM Treaty.

Second, the phrase "nations and anyone else" suggests that if -- God forbid -- a terrorist organization obtained a nuclear weapon and detonated it against the U.S. or our allies, we would retaliate in kind. However, terrorist organizations rarely leave a return address.

Finally, there will be no "magical moment" when nuclear weapons will be eliminated. The reductions achieved so far and the hard work of maintaining a nuclear balance have come about through hard-headed diplomacy -- patient, relentless, and untiring diplomacy.

The new NPR uses similar language to the 2010 review about reducing nuclear weapons, but it also suggests that nuclear weapons could be used in response to chemical, biological or cyber attacks. Given this administration's denigration of the Iran nuclear deal, its mixed signals on talks with North Korea and the disdain it has shown for diplomacy in general, the glaring omission in the president's State of the Union speech is an expression of willingness to go to the table to ensure that the nuclear balance remains just that.

The danger in pursuing new nuclear systems while setting aside diplomatic efforts to constrain nuclear arsenals is that other nations could decide to back away from their NPT commitments, increasing the number of nuclear armed nations. That would make an already crowded international chess board far more dangerous.

Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.