There are but two minutes left in the last day of our civilization. This is according to the Doomsday Clock update released in late January by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a U.S. academic journal. It was advanced by 30 seconds from last year. The Doomsday Clock is a representation of "how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making," including nuclear weapons.
Not since 1953, when it looked like the Cold War would boil hot with the United States and the Soviet Union competing in nuclear tests, has the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock been so close to midnight. In other words, we are in dark days -- a pall cast in great part by the rush to the potentially nuclear confrontation between the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump and North Korea led by Kim Jong Un. However, the recent release of the U.S.' Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) may have the minute hand ticking the closest it has ever been to midnight in human history.
The NPR executive summary states, "While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have ... added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior." The full report also points out that "North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities poses the most immediate and dire proliferation threat to international security and stability."
The Trump administration claims in the executive summary that "expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression."
The previous NPR was conducted under former President Barack Obama in 2010. The global security environment has indeed changed a great deal in the ensuing eight years, so Trump did have cause to order a fresh review. The problem is the combination of the Trump administration's worldview and its thinking on nuclear weapons.
The 2010 NPR states that "the United States wishes to stress that it would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners," and the 2018 version sticks to that principle. However, the new NPR specifically dissects the capabilities of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, and leaves the distinct impression that Washington has specific circumstances in mind for when the U.S. would resort to nuclear arms. It also states that the U.S. could respond to even non-nuclear attacks with nuclear counterstrikes.
This lowers the psychological bar for using nuclear weapons, and makes the risk of nuclear attacks feel more realistic. A senior Department of Defense official emphasized that the NPR's content did not mean that the U.S. had any wish to use atomic arms, but America's antagonists probably aren't thinking that way.
Furthermore, deploying smaller warheads actually increases the danger of nuclear war. The Obama administration scrapped the U.S.' nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) to avoid any possibility that a country targeted with conventional cruise missiles would mistake them (genuinely or deliberately) for the atomic variety and order a nuclear counterattack.
The Trump administration is looking to return nuclear-armed SLCMs to the U.S. arsenal -- a move that appears designed to consign Obama's global denuclearization policy to the dustbin of history in both name and reality.
This is an extremely dangerous choice. In his State of the Union address, Trump declared that "we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defense." He added, "As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and so powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression by any other nation or anyone else."
However, for the world's greatest military power to expand its arsenal yet further will almost certainly trigger a backlash and military expansion in not just Russia and China, but also in places like Iran and North Korea. Rather than take that risk, it would be far safer and far more sensible to promote global disarmament including China and Russia.
Furthermore, the Trump administration's nuclear stance runs counter to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which, though it recognizes the U.S., Russia, France, Britain and China as legal nuclear powers, also demands those nations hold substantive disarmament talks. Trump's nuclear arms policy has none of the spirit of this agreement, and risks spurring the hollowing out of the NPT.
The 2018 NPR is the fourth such review since President Bill Clinton's time in office. The Republican administration of President George W. Bush had leaned toward the U.S. being able to use its nuclear arms, but in its NPR released in 2002, which came just a year after the 9.11 terror attacks, it put heavy emphasis on the nuclear option as a terror countermeasure and made a clean break from Washington's traditionally hostile policy toward the former Soviet Union and Russia. With its vehement insistence on viewing Russia as hostile, however, the Trump administration is risking starting a new Cold War.
The U.S. administration's moves have also made Japan's position uncertain. Last year, non-nuclear states angry with the nuclear powers' apparent disinterest in serious disarmament signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations. Japan, though the only country in the world to suffer a nuclear attack, came under severe pressure from its ally the U.S. and did not even join the negotiations.
Should the U.S. lean toward expanding its nuclear arsenal, the reduction and eventually elimination of atomic arms demanded by the NPT will recede even further into the misty distance. The nations protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella -- including Japan -- are opposed to the ban treaty. However, none of these countries would welcome a renewed nuclear arms race among the Great Powers.
Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono praised the Trump administration's NPR for clearly spelling out the U.S. commitment to using its nuclear deterrent to protect its allies. The Japanese government is also likely well pleased by the NPR's declaration that "the United States reaffirms that North Korea's illicit nuclear program must be completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminated."
That being said, North Korea is a military minnow without its nuclear bombs, so surely the U.S. can respond to the Pyongyang threat without reorienting its nuclear strategy. Rather, increased U.S. rivalry with China and Russia caused by the policies spelled out in Washington's latest NPR could in fact prove a major obstacle to multilateral efforts to deal with the North Korean problem. The Trump administration should open its eyes to this fact.