A moment for nuclear reflection — and an opportunity for Trump

A moment for nuclear reflection — and an opportunity for Trump
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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The culmination of nearly 10 years of work by arms control negotiators, the NPT’s objective was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, it became clear to the United States and Soviet Union that a world in which many states hold nuclear weapons would be far less safe. Experts in the 1960s believed that without a treaty there could be 20 to 30 nuclear states by the 1980s. The fact that today “only” nine sovereign states possess nuclear weapons is partly a testament to the effectiveness of the treaty.

I’m writing from a mountaintop in Italy, among the detritus of the Cold War arms race — a decommissioned military base that once was one of NATO’s “ACE-High” communications relay sites. This isolated mountaintop location is host to the corroding remains of large communications dishes, the remains of nuclear deterrence. If the Cold War had become hot and the U.S. president had ordered a nuclear strike, plans would have been disseminated through the 82 ACE-High stations, including this one, that stretch through nine countries from the northern tip of Norway to the eastern edge of Turkey.


This site is playing host to 16 international scholars from India, Pakistan, Russia, France, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Japan, South Korea, China, South Africa, the United Kingdom, United States and Canada for a “nuclear history boot camp.” Each summer for the past eight years, scholars have come to Italy to learn about and contribute their expertise on the history of nuclear weapons. The topics discussed this year range from the evolution of nuclear technology to the origins and development of deterrence theory through the historical roots of today’s global nuclear landscape. The geopolitical and technological realities have changed considerably since the passage of the NPT, but this diverse group of experts seems to agree: nuclear weapons proliferation remains a grave issue.


This year’s meeting is especially poignant given that it began just days after President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore. Upon his return from the June 12 summit, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE declared that he has “largely solved” the North Korean nuclear problem. He is sadly mistaken. Experts have been trying to solve the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation since the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (the only use of nuclear weapons in combat to date). Indeed, despite the president’s assertion of success, the White House’s June 22 declaration to Congress still labeled North Korea’s nuclear program an “unusual and extraordinary threat.”

But the nuclear threat goes beyond North Korea. During his annual Address to the Federal Assembly in March, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed a film that depicted Russian missiles raining down on Florida. He boasted that Russia was developing “invincible” nuclear weapons.

The United States, too, has escalated its actions and rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons. The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review embraced nuclear competition, an explicit rejection of the Obama administration’s effort to reduce the military’s reliance on nuclear weapons. President Trump has previously boasted to North Korea that the United States has a “much bigger and more powerful” nuclear button. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the president’s plan to rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal would cost $1.2 trillion over 30 years.

It is beginning to seem like the 1960s again, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev bragged that Soviet factories were turning nuclear missiles out like sausages, and President Dwight Eisenhower stated that he didn’t see why he wouldn’t use a nuclear weapon just like he would use a bullet.

But, if the NPT can teach us anything, it is that perhaps there is an opportunity for compromise amidst the nuclear bluster. The White House has announced a one-on-one meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin to take place on July 16. This meeting could provide a hopeful opening to slow the growing arms race. The New Start Treaty, signed in 2011, required the United States and Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons they could deploy. It was the most significant arms control agreement in two decades.

Despite this treaty’s success — both countries met their reduction obligations in February of this year — Trump has suggested he might scrap the deal, reportedly disparaging it as “one-sided.” The treaty expires in 2021; Moscow has proposed a five-year extension that has been met with silence from Washington. An extension to the treaty does not require congressional action. It can be implemented with a simple exchange of notes between the two governments — an opportunity for President Trump when he meets with his Russian counterpart in Helsinki.

In this political climate, it is rare to suggest that the United States should do as the Russians do — but in this case, Russia has the right idea. Nuclear weapons are a dangerous source of instability, and ramping up the nuclear arms race comes with potentially disastrous consequences. Just as the NPT helped slow the arms race and stabilize our world, an extension of New Start could do the same.

Allen Pietrobon teaches American history at Trinity Washington University. He received his Ph.D. in American History and Foreign Policy at American University, where he serves as an assistant director of research at the Nuclear Studies Institute.