Election 2024: Is the United States Looking at a New Nuclear Arms Race?
from The Water's Edge

Election 2024: Is the United States Looking at a New Nuclear Arms Race?

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: The demise of arms control agreements and the rise of geopolitical competition are a dangerous mix.
Members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron monitor an operational test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base on March 27, 2015.
Members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron monitor an operational test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base on March 27, 2015. U.S. Air Force Photo/Handout via REUTERS

A lot of ink has been spilled recently over the existential threats posed by climate change and artificial intelligence (AI). Lost in these worthwhile discussions is a third existential threat, one we thought we had tamed—the risk of nuclear annihilation. It’s an issue that the next occupant of the White House will need to grapple with even if it’s seldom mentioned on the 2024 campaign trail.

The return of the nuclear threat partly reflects the demise of the traditional nuclear arms control agreements painstakingly negotiated first between the United States and the Soviet Union and then between the United States and Russia. Only one agreement remains in place limiting U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces, the New START Treaty. It expires in just twenty-one months, on February 4, 2026. It has been extended once already, and by its terms it cannot be extended again.

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The return to unregulated nuclear competition comes as geopolitical competition has heated up. Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine and recently ordered military exercises to practice launching them. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia was pursuing an ambitious nuclear modernization campaign that included building “doomsday” nuclear torpedoes designed to obliterate coastal cities and potentially placing a nuclear weapon in space. The once “unthinkable” has become thinkable again.

What makes the current moment possibly even more dangerous than the Cold War is that it is now a three-country competition. After being content for nearly fifty years with a small nuclear arsenal by Russian and U.S. standards, China has launched its own ambitious nuclear weapons buildup. The Pentagon estimates that the Chinese strategic nuclear arsenal will hit 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade, a five-fold increase from what it had as late as 2019. That arsenal will still be smaller than the U.S. and Russian arsenals. It nonetheless greatly complicates the strategic calculations for both Washington and Moscow.

The hope is that all three capitals will recall the fundamental lesson of the Cold War: unbridled competition is not only enormously expensive, it leaves everyone more insecure than when they started.

But the prospects for negotiations to limit the emerging nuclear arms race look dim. In January, Russia rejected a U.S. call to hold strategic stability talks. China’s enthusiasm for talks is only marginally greater. At their meeting last November on the margins of the APEC Summit, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping agreed to resume discussions on nuclear weapons and nonproliferation. And earlier this month, U.S. and Chinese officials met in Geneva for their first discussions of containing the risks posed by AI. That said, China still refuses to take what would seem to be the most basic step to keep a crisis between the two countries from escalating, namely, setting up a military crisis hotline.

Although these issues aren’t being discussed on the campaign trail, whoever wins in November will have to face them. They will need to make tough choices about whether and how to continue America’s own substantial nuclear modernization program, how to begin and sustain serious negotiations with China and Russia, and what to concede or not concede if potential agreements are to be reached. That is a daunting task, but one on which the fate of the world could ultimately depend.

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Campaign Update

Nikki Haley announced on Wednesday that she will vote for Trump in November. The former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations justified her decision to support the candidacy of a man she has called “unhinged” on the grounds that “Biden has been a catastrophe.” When Haley quit the race in March, she said that Trump would need to earn her vote. There’s no evidence he tried. He instead repeatedly insulted her and her supporters.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is now officially on the ballot in seven states and seems poised to qualify shortly in an eighth state. Earlier this month, Kennedy qualified for the presidential ballot in Oklahoma. He also says he has collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in Texas. Assuming that Texas accepts Kennedy’s signatures, he would be on the ballot in states accounting for 201 electoral votes. That leaves him sixty-nine votes short of the 270 he needs to qualify for CNN’s debate on June 27. Kennedy has until June 20 to hit that mark.

Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine yesterday called for a special session of the state legislature to put Joe Biden on the presidential ballot in November. The Democratic National Convention will formally nominate Biden for president after the deadline passes to appear on Ohio’s ballot. The problem has been known for a while, but the state legislature failed to resolve the problem during its regular session. DeWine showed his exasperation with the legislature’s failure to fix the problem: “This is a ridiculous—this is an absurd—situation.”

What the Candidates Are Saying

Trump’s campaign posted and then quickly deleted a video on his Truth Social account this week that touted his reelection and included background text that spoke of “the creation of a unified reich” and “German industrial strength.” The video may have just relied on existing stock images taken from a Wikipedia page. But Biden wasn’t going to let what appeared to be an allusion to Nazi Germany slide by without comment. He mentioned the video at a fundraiser in Boston on Tuesday. He called it “Hitler’s language — not America’s.”

Trump claimed yesterday that he could win the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, “almost immediately after the Election.”

Trump Truth Social Post

Notably missing from Trump’s Truth Social post is an explanation of why Russian President Vladimir Putin would do something he has refused to do without receiving something in return. Trump also didn’t explain why he was wasn’t using his dealmaking skills to free Gershkovich today rather than wait until November.

What the Pundits Are Saying

My colleague Edward Alden profiled former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for Foreign Policy. Lighthizer, the architect of Trump’s tariff war on China, is rumored to be under consideration for Secretary of Treasury if Trump wins in November. When it comes to economic nationalism, Alden argues that “Lighthizer is just getting started. What he envisions, in the simplest terms, is a United States that worries far less about being a stabilizing force in the global economy and far more about pursuing its own narrow economic interests.” The danger, of course, is that roiling the global economy could damage those very economic interests.

Politico’s Victoria Guida argued that Biden has embraced Trump’s enthusiasm for tariff policy, warts and all. She noted that “Biden is also selling this policy as an effort to promote jobs. It may boost employment in those sectors, but it’s not at all guaranteed that it would increase manufacturing employment overall – people could simply shift from one set of manufacturing jobs in one sector to another favored by Biden, like making electric vehicles.”

What the Polls Show

Bloomberg News/Morning Consult released a survey showing that Trump leads Biden in five of the seven battleground states. The two are tied in Nevada, while Biden leads in Michigan. Adding third-party candidates did not change the survey results significantly. The poll also found that half of voters worry that the 2024 election will trigger violence.

The British newspaper The Guardian commissioned a Harris poll that found that economists and the American public do not see eye to eye. Economists repeatedly point to the strong performance of the U.S. economy—it is growing at a more than 2 percent annual clip, the stock market is hitting record highs, and unemployment is at record lows. In contrast, “55% [of Americans] believe the economy is shrinking… 56% think the US is experiencing a recession…49% believe the S&P 500 stock market index is down for the year… [and] 49% believe that unemployment is at a 50-year high.” The worst news for the Biden administration may be that “58% of those polled…[said] the economy is worsening due to mismanagement from the presidential administration.”

The Campaign Schedule

The first presidential debate is in thirty-four days (June 27, 2024).

The Republican National Convention opens in Milwaukee in fifty-two days (July 15, 2024).

The Democratic National Convention opens in Chicago in eighty-seven days (August 19, 2024).

The second presidential debate is in 109 days (September 10, 2024).

The first in-person absentee voting in the nation begins in Minnesota and South Dakota in 119 days (September 20, 2024).

Election Day is 165 days away.

Inauguration Day is 241 days away.

Michelle Kurilla assisted in the preparation of this post.

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