Nuclear anxiety is on the rise. While President Trump has denied reports that he sought a “nearly tenfold” increase in America’s nuclear arsenal, there is no disputing that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe is escalating on his watch. Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal recklessly imperils the landmark agreement and our security. It also damages the chances of diplomacy with North Korea, which has been ramping up its missile testing program, by signaling that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its word. And with the United States and Russia engaged in an increasingly dangerous cold war, it was reported this weekend that the Air Force is preparing to put nuclear bombers on 24-hour ready alert for the first time since 1991.
With so many causes for alarm, it was wise that the Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize this month to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). For too long, many leaders in the United States and around the world have failed to heed the warnings of experts about the escalating nuclear threat. As former defense secretary William J. Perry warned in 2016, “The danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” That people are finally paying serious attention is a positive first step. Now, if we hope to avert a calamity, it is time to consider the alternatives to our current disastrous path.
One such alternative was recently proposed, in an opinion piece for The Post that demands more attention, by perhaps the most radical and committed arms reductionist ever to lead a nuclear power, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. While remaining clear-eyed about the challenges of negotiations between the United States and Russia, Gorbachev argues that diplomacy is necessary in order to prevent a nuclear conflict. “A way out must be sought,” he writes, “and there is one well-tested means available for accomplishing this: a dialogue based on mutual respect.”
Gorbachev, who is the subject of a new biography by William Taubman, speaks from experience: In December 1987, he and President Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Gorbachev characterized then as a critical step “away from the threat of catastrophe” and “toward a nuclear-free world.” (In his newly published memoirs, Gorbachev devotes a chapter to another important episode in the annals of nuclear history, the 1986 Reykjavik Summit that helped pave the way toward the INF treaty.) Thirty years later, the agreement, which for the first time in the nuclear era led to the elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons, remains one of the greatest diplomatic achievements in U.S. history. But the Trump administration is reportedly debating whether to withdraw from it, egged on by hawkish voices in Congress demanding retaliation against alleged Russian violations.
In his op-ed, Gorbachev calls on U.S. and Russian leaders to hold a “full-scale summit on the entire range of issues,” including the preservation of the INF treaty. “It will not be easy to cut through the logjam of issues on both sides,” he acknowledges. “But neither was our dialogue easy three decades ago. It had its critics and detractors, who tried to derail it. In the final analysis, it was the political will of the two nations’ leaders that proved decisive. And that is what’s needed now.”
There are additional steps that can and should be considered immediately to reduce the risk of nuclear war. Congress could pass legislation introduced by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to require a congressional declaration of war for the president to authorize a nuclear first strike. The United States and Russia could de-alert the nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons currently kept on hair-trigger alert. The debate over nuclear deterrence would also benefit from more realistic thinking about the efficacy of missile defense. But, ultimately, there is no substitute for our leaders coming to the table and beginning a dialogue about difficult issues — including the threat posed by North Korea.
Skeptics will understandably argue that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are not the men to undertake such a daunting effort, that they are incapable of negotiating in good faith. But as I have written before, we come to negotiations with the governments we have, not the ones we wish we had. And of course, there was resistance and skepticism, too, about the talks between Gorbachev and Reagan. More to the point, given the rising probability of a military conflict between nuclear powers, what other choice do we have? As a leader, Gorbachev never wavered in his conviction that there are always alternatives to a dangerous status quo. Today, we should heed his wisdom when he writes, “It is time to return to sanity.”