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Trump’s nuclear policy is taking us back to the Cold War

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The Trump administration has touted its new nuclear policy, released at the end of last week by the Pentagon, as a tough, realistic assessment of foreign threats and U.S. capabilities. The Nuclear Posture Review, the first to be conducted since 2010, purportedly describes “the world as it is, not as we wish it to be” — and calls for an expansion of America’s nuclear arsenal to confront the evolving capabilities of other nuclear powers.

If that is the administration’s view of the world, it is far from a consensus. A legion of critics blasted a potential nuclear buildup as dangerous, fiscally ruinous and redolent of outdated Cold War thinking. Some pointed out that a coterie of nuclear hawks helped draft the NPR, including one academic who argued in 1980 that the United States could defeat the Soviet Union in a nuclear war, while stomaching “approximately 20 million” casualties, “a level compatible with national survival and recovery.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, echoed the administration’s recommendations to increase the stockpile of “low-yield” nuclear weapons — armaments that could still wipe out whole cities — and deploy a number of these warheads on submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles as a sign of American intent. “The U.S. must recognize the reality of a return to great power competition and posture itself accordingly,” he wrote in an op-ed for Defense News.

President Trump also plugged the new approach during last week’s State of the Union address. “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 acts of aggression by any other nation or anyone else,” he said. (Curiously unmentioned in his speech — but explicit in the NPR — was the Pentagon’s concern over Russia’s nuclear buildup in recent years.)

Though boosters of the administration’s nuclear agenda frame it as a continuation of long-standing American policy, it is a marked reversal from the strategy of Trump’s predecessor. “The previous administration’s policy hinged on what President Barack Obama called a moral obligation for the United States to lead by example in ridding the world of nuclear weapons,” wrote my colleague Paul Sonne. “Officials in the Trump administration and the U.S. military argue that Obama’s approach proved overly idealistic, particularly as relations with Moscow soured. Russia, China and North Korea, they say, all advanced their nuclear weapons capabilities instead of following suit.”

Skeptics of the Trump administration’s embrace of nuclear weapons argue that they won’t be able to credibly deter the sort of low-level aggression carried out by countries like Russia in Eastern Europe and North Korea in northeast Asia. The strategy seems to embrace the weapons more for their own sake than any utility they might provide.

“The document reads less like a strategy of how best to deter threats to the United States and its allies and more like a piece of advocacy for nuclear weapons — a self-conscious defense of their utility, affordability, and an effort to expand their mission. It is less a Pentagon policy document than a memo from a powerful lobby,” wrote Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “Rather than working to reduce nuclear dangers, the nation’s nuclear policy now reflects the reasoning of U.S. adversaries and readily follows them into a more dangerous world.”

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which pushes for global disarmament, warned that the new nuclear posture also gives Trump wider scope to order nuclear strikes. That’s something a majority of Americans don’t trust him with, according to a recent Washington Post poll.

“The authors spend pages arguing that the world has grown exponentially more dangerous due to the weakness of Trump’s predecessors,” Cirincione said in a recent op-ed. “They completely ignore the agreements that decreased Russian arsenals, rolled back and froze Iran’s nuclear program, and eliminated and secured tons of nuclear material from terrorists. The Nuclear Posture Review paints a world of terrifying ‘Great Power’ conflict.”

Ironically, an Obama-era nuclear agreement with Russia went into full effect Monday. It was aimed, like previous agreements forged by the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, to defuse the possibility of just such a cataclysmic “Great Power” conflict. Under the terms of the New START treaty, as it’s known, both Russia and the United States are committed to deploying no more than 1,550 nuclear warheads. There’s a strict verification regime on both sides, and proponents of the pact say those inspections have built confidence in the otherwise severely strained U.S.-Russia relationship.

But there’s little indication that the Trump administration has much interest in extending the agreement beyond 2021, when it is set to expire. Critics say that’s a scary prospect. “Even in this environment, as long as Russia complies, extension is critical,” wrote John F. Kerry, the former secretary of state, who as a senator marshaled support for the treaty’s passage through Congress. “To let one of the last elements of constructive engagement expire with no follow-on process would ignore the hard-fought lessons of the Cold War. It would court nuclear competition that brings neither stability nor security.”

Indeed, experts warn that the climate of nuclear competition ushered in by Trump could risk a new global buildup of nuclear weapons that offers little strategic gain.

“Risking a new nuclear arms race, as is now likely and would be even more so should New START be allowed to expire without a replacement in hand, would divert American resources away from our conventional advantage, and bring us no additional security,” wrote Jon Wolfsthal, a nonresident fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former Obama administration official. “It would also repeat the great mistakes of the Cold War when we learned that arms races and nuclear wars cannot be won, and are better left unfought.”

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