Our nation and the world face a daunting array of challenges. Surely, this is not the time to ignite a new arms race with Russia and China — let alone to begin testing nuclear weapons again, as senior officials at the White House have been considering.
One of the most consequential responsibilities of the president of the United States is to pursue policies aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear war, curtailing the nuclear arsenals of America’s adversaries, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. For decades, presidents of both major parties have embraced these momentous responsibilities and helped create a system of treaties and agreements that have reduced the nuclear danger.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is backing out of vital treaties that have helped avert a catastrophic conflagration with Russia, our main nuclear rival, and is stoking nuclear tensions even further.
President Trump claims that he wants to constrain the arms race, which he says is “getting out of control.” However, he has withdrawn from one arms control treaty after another and rebuffed Russia’s offer to extend the sole remaining arms limitation agreement, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in eight months.
Last month, the president’s new envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, threatened to let New START expire and warned that the United States is prepared to spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in order to “win” a new nuclear arms race if they do not agree to a new nuclear deal on Trump’s (as yet undefined) terms.
Then, on May 22, the Washington Post revealed that senior White House officials have discussed the option of conducting the first US nuclear test explosion in 28 years as a way to pressure Russian and Chinese leaders into accepting vague US terms. The proposal was described in the Post as “very much an ongoing conversation” within the administration.
Billingslea announced on Tuesday that he would meet with his Russian counterpart in Vienna on June 22. While it is a positive that they are talking, there is no realistic chance of concluding a new and more ambitious nuclear arms control deal with Russia, let alone China, before START is due to expire. It would be foreign policy malpractice to gamble away that treaty’s important limits on Russia’s nuclear arsenal in a desperate attempt to coerce unilateral concessions from Moscow and Beijing. The common-sense path forward should be to agree with Russia to extend New START by five years, as allowed for in the treaty. That would provide time for talks on further nuclear reductions with Russia and for an agreement to halt the potential growth of China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal.
And most certainly, a demonstration nuclear test should not be on the negotiating table. Whatever Trump and his acolytes might tell themselves, a nuclear test blast by the United States would do nothing to rein in Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals or improve the environment for negotiations. Rather, it would raise tensions and probably trigger an outbreak of nuclear testing by other nuclear actors, leading to an all-out global arms race in which everyone would come out a loser.
Other nuclear-armed countries, such as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea would have far more to gain from nuclear testing than would the United States. Since a bipartisan majority in Congress halted underground nuclear testing in 1992, the US nuclear weapons labs have devised other technical means to ensure the reliability of US warheads; other nuclear powers would probably seize the opportunity provided by a US nuclear blast to engage in multiple explosive tests of their own, which could help them perfect new and more dangerous types of warheads.
Nuclear testing is a dangerous vestige of a bygone era. Since 1945, at least eight countries have conducted more than 2,000 nuclear test explosions, including 1,030 by the United States alone. About one-fourth of these nuclear tests were detonated in the atmosphere, which killed or sickened thousands of US military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well as civilians living downwind. The worldwide spread of radioactive isotopes from these tests — among them strontium-90, which accumulated in children’s teeth — provoked widespread protests against nuclear testing and helped create a nearly universal consensus that all such tests should be stopped.
American leadership played a key role in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in 1996, which prohibits all nuclear tests of any explosive yield anywhere. The United States and 183 other states have signed the treaty, though it has not yet been ratified by several countries, including the United States. Only one country — North Korea — has detonated nuclear tests in this century, and even Kim Jong Un has now declared a testing moratorium.
Unfortunately, President Trump could order a simple demonstration nuclear test explosion underground at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas in as little as six months.
Congress can and should step in to prevent such recklessness. Republicans and Democrats should join Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Charles Schumer of New York, and others who have proposed a prohibition on the use of taxpayers’ funds to resume nuclear weapons testing. Parallel efforts are being led by Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, and others in the House.
For the sake of our generation and generations to come, it is time to act to avoid a pandemic of dangerous nuclear weapons testing and proliferation.
Michael T. Klare is professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst. Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.