Trump administration risks Reagan’s legacy on nuclear disarmament
© Getty Images

“A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought,” declared U.S. President Ronald Reagan, in a 1983 speech to the Japanese parliament. “I will not be deterred,” he said, receiving a standing ovation. “The United States will never walk away from the negotiating table. Peace is too important.”

With such perseverance, his administration successfully negotiated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) in 1987, one of the most sweeping and successful nuclear disarmament measures of the Cold War.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet today, the United States has walked away from the table on nuclear weapons, and we risk being left behind as the rest of the world relegates these weapons — designed solely to kill civilians by the millions — to the past.

 

This Monday saw the release of the first draft of a United Nations treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The text proposes to stigmatize nuclear weapons, placing them in the same category of international law as other weapons of mass destruction (biological and chemical) or those that cause unacceptable harm (landmines and cluster munitions).

The draft treaty is based on a first round of talks in March this year in which more than 130 countries participated. If further negotiations in June and July result in the U.N. adopting a strong treaty, it would be the most significant development in nuclear politics since the end of the Cold War.

It’s a proposal grounded in the basic fact that nuclear weapons are 1940s technology, do not address the threats of the 21st Century, and create unacceptable moral and security risks. Unfortunately, the U.S. will not be part of this game-changing moment.

At the start of the March meeting, the Trump administration betrayed Reagan’s commitment to “never walk away” from nuclear disarmament talks by refusing to participate. Instead, America’s Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, stood outside the conference room and held a protest.

She invoked fears that North Korea would be “cheering” the nuclear ban treaty. But by refusing to even enter the room, the Ambassador Haley aligned herself with both North Korea and Russia, which are also not participating.

Rather than live up to the values America believes in, the U.S. gave them the excuse they wanted to skip the negotiations and continue their dangerous behavior.

Ambassador Haley paradoxically explained her protest as a way to “have our voices heard.” 

America is the supposed leader of the free world, a Permanent Member of the Security Council, and a guarantor of global security.

The U.S. should be inside the room leading the international community, not standing in the corridor and complaining.

The surest way to be heard is to show up – and we’ve done it before. The U.S. was a leader in efforts to ban biological and chemical weapons. We should play the same leadership role with nuclear weapons today. Instead, the Trump administration seems unwilling to lead or engage with other countries to make the world — including America — a safer place. US credibility as an actor capable of dealing with major global challenges is under threat.

But perhaps this is not a surprise. Trump has threatened to break with Republican and Democratic administrations’ bipartisan commitment to disarmament. He has called for a new “arms race,” to “greatly strengthen and expand” our nuclear stockpile, and seems determined to walk away from our legal commitment to seek a world free of nuclear weapons.

Global tension over the Korean Peninsula, a long history of accidents and close calls, and the fact that there’s nothing to stop the U.S. president from starting a nuclear war in a fit of pique, mean that there are no safe hands for nuclear weapons.

As a result, like every other weapon of mass destruction, nuclear weapons must be subject to an international prohibition. And so it falls to Congress, advocacy groups, activists and faith leaders, who must refuse to let America walk away from a vital discussion about the future of our planet.

Dr. Matthew Bolton is Associate Chair of Political Science and Director of the International Disarmament Institute, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Pace University.


The views of contributors are their own and not of The Hill.