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Putin and Trump are pushing the world to the risks of nuclear war

Putin and Trump are pushing the world to the risks of nuclear war

While the world’s attention is occupied by Brexit, Venezuela, and a hundred other concerns, an almost forgotten monster is raising its head: the threat of nuclear war. Nuclear war gets surprisingly little attention considering there are enough nukes to end human civilization in hours. It feels like a relic of another era—of perestroika and glasnost and that famous walk in the woods. We’ve moved on to other concerns. Besides, what can anyone really do?

The reason to pay attention is that arms control—especially between the U.S. and Russia—has broken down. A fresh nuclear arms race appears to be taking shape. As for what anyone can do: Arms control moves forward in response to public pressure when humanity speaks louder than arms merchants and bellicose world leaders. Sanity can prevail. It’s been more than 70 years since the U.S. detonated the first two atomic weapons in war, and not one has been used in combat since.

Feb. 2 is when the Trump administration has said it could suspend its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. If it announces a full withdrawal, the treaty will die in six months. A treaty controlling anti-ballistic missiles was allowed to expire in 2002. That would leave just one binational treaty: New Start, which covers long-range missiles. Up for renewal in 2021, it has grim prospects. Trump has called it “one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration.”

The main goal of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control must be to prevent nukes from ever being launched, because even a small attack by one side could precipitate an all-out nuclear war. A firm commitment to no first use would diminish the chance of that. But the weaker side, the one that uses nukes as an equalizer, won’t make that promise. The U.S. refused to commit to “no first use” during the Cold War; it used the threat of nukes to keep Warsaw Pact forces from routing outnumbered NATO troops in Europe.

Arms control agreements ensured that neither side was able to gain an unbeatable advantage. The demise of arms control could lead not just to more weaponry but to more instability and uncertainty. The less each side knows about the other’s capabilities and intentions, the more likely it is that war will break out by accident.

With Putin and Trump in Charge, the Risk of Nuclear War Returns, Bloomberg, Feb 01

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