In an annual exercise since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sets its Doomsday Clock to provide an educated guess of how close humanity is to the apocalypse. The organization will announce its 2023 clock this month, and I expect the outlook is bleaker.
If the United States responds to rising nuclear danger with more arms control instead of more weapons, it could help push the clock’s hands back again.
Last year was a reminder that the nuclear threat most of us spend little time worrying about is only one obstinate autocrat away. Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling is the most immediate escalation, but not the only one.
The deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons isn’t even on life support anymore. North Korea spent 2022 firing a record number of missile tests, and Kim Jong-un has promised to expand his country’s nuclear capabilities “exponentially” in the new year.
China merits the greatest concern in the long term though. Historically it has maintained a no-first-use policy, keeping a small nuclear arsenal for deterrence, only sufficient to retaliate if attacked, and has not kept its weapons ready to launch, in contrast to the United States and Russia.
But under President Xi Jinping, China’s nuclear posture is changing. It is reportedly on track to reach 1,500 warheads by 2035, which would put China on par with the limits that the United States and Russia have agreed to in the New START treaty. China is also building new delivery systems and a network of new silos to house intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The knee-jerk reaction to an increasingly dangerous world is to arm oneself against it even further, and many nuclear hawks are arguing for just that.
But a safer approach would be to avoid a nuclear arms race, not to aim to win it. After all, there are no winners in nuclear conflagration.
The case for expanding the US nuclear arsenal is based on the belief that it is necessary to hedge against opportunistic aggression by increasingly dangerous foes. But more nuclear weapons aren’t needed to deter such aggression, and expanding our arsenal will only encourage our foes to do the same.
America’s combined conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities are already an effective deterrent to a nuclear strike, as they dwarf the next contender.
Russia today simply isn’t the same foe that the Soviet Union was before, when it held nearly twice as many nuclear warheads as the United States, and we believed the Soviet Union had an advantage in conventional war capabilities in Europe as well. The decline of its relative combat power is on display in Ukraine, as is the deterrent effect of US conventional power, which has kept Russia from striking our allies, even as supply lines from NATO countries bolster Ukraine’s defense.
North Korea and Iran might be nuclear bogeymen, but using them as an excuse to grow our own large nuclear arsenal would be like buying more guns to deter fire ants, when your boot would do the job just fine if needed. If North Korea dared launch a first strike against South Korea, highly accurate US and South Korean precision conventional missiles would be enough to defeat North Korea conventionally.
Even if Iran secures nuclear capabilities, it still lacks the ability to project power into the Gulf or existentially threaten a nuclear-capable Israel, and the promised US response to any nuclear use would quickly wipe out any first-strike advantage Iran could secure.
China is a far more serious foe, but its growing nuclear and conventional capacity still doesn’t merit a growing US nuclear arsenal.
Yet China’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal does call for action to limit future risks. The safest and most sensible action is arms control. If the United States presses for arms control and agrees to limits itself, it could convince others to follow suit. If it chooses to build up more instead, others will follow suit as well, only increasing the danger presented by either outright aggression or accident.
The United States has done so before successfully too. During the Cold War, the arms race created the danger. The US and the Soviet Union managed and reduced that danger through communication, hard-fought diplomacy, and transparency.
The two superpowers began negotiating arms control in the 1970s, beginning with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and as recently as 2021, the United States and Russia extended the New START Treaty.
The United States must press Russia to return to the constructive role it has played in nonproliferation before and must bring China to the table too. The latter goal could help with the former, as China has more leverage with Russia today than any other country.
President Joe Biden’s meeting with Xi in November, which touched on nuclear policy, was a small start. But making progress diplomatically on hard issues requires concessions. The United States won’t get them unless it makes some of its own.
Working together with adversaries is hard, but a mutual benefit makes it possible. If we can’t find common ground here though, mutually assured destruction becomes more likely as the Doomsday Clock speeds up.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.
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