THE U.S. ELECTION AND NUCLEAR ORDER IN THE POST-PANDEMIC WORLD

THE U.S. ELECTION AND NUCLEAR ORDER IN THE POST-PANDEMIC WORLD

https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/the-u-s-election-and-nuclear-order-in-the-post-pandemic-world/?utm_source=NAPSNet&utm_campaign=a57f332a5d-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_09_28_11_15&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f1452487e1-a57f332a5d-24262581

NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Leon V. Sigal, “THE U.S. ELECTION AND NUCLEAR ORDER IN THE
POST-PANDEMIC WORLD”, NAPSNet Special Reports, September 28, 2020,
https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/the-u-s-election-and-nuclear-order-in-the-post-pandemic-world/
________________________________

LEON V. SIGAL

SEPTEMBER 29 2020

I.  INTRODUCTION

In this essay, Leon Sigal concludes that “Absent popular
action…positive change to the global nuclear order will continue to be
marginal and fitful. This makes the international milieu critical for
the nuclear future – a milieu that a president can influence but not
determine.”

The essay may be downloaded in PDF format here.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security
Project in New York and has participated in Track II talks with North
Korea for two decades.

This essay is a working paper prepared for The 75th Anniversary
Nagasaki Nuclear-Pandemic Nexus Scenario Project, October 31-November
1, and November 14-15, 2020, co-sponsored by Research Center for
Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University (RECNA), the Nautilus
Institute, Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear
Non-proliferation and Disarmament.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the
official policy or position of the Nautilus Institute. Readers should
note that Nautilus seeks a diversity of views and opinions on
significant topics in order to identify common ground.

This report is published under a 4.0 International Creative Commons
License the terms of which are found here.

Banner image:  Nautilus Institute incorporating graphic of
pandemic-Earth by Sophia Mauro

II.  NAPSNET SPECIAL REPORT BY LEON V. SIGAL

THE U.S. ELECTION AND NUCLEAR ORDER IN THE POST-PANDEMIC WORLD

SEPTEMBER 29 2020

Abstract

U.S. power and prestige may have diminished in recent years, but the
United States still plays a pivotal role in international
institutions, alliances, and mass media, so who becomes its president
and which party controls Congress matter a lot for the global nuclear
order. However unlikely it is that Donald Trump’s expressed desire to
contest the election’s outcome could succeed,  whether the nation can
avert a violent backlash among disappointed partisans is less clear.

Nuclear weapons are often thought to be the esoteric domain of
experts. Yet one need only recall that although mass activism does not
guarantee policy change, three of the most significant developments in
recent decades – the ban on above-ground nuclear tests, the INF
Treaty, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall – would not have happened
without mass protests in many countries. And citizen involvement,
organized by NGOs, can even facilitate monitoring of arms agreements
and nuclear developments in some countries.

The public’s understandable preoccupation with COVID-19, economic
distress, racial animus, and climate change leave scant scope for
paying heed to nuclear risks, which makes mobilization of a mass
anti-nuclear movement unlikely. Absent popular action, however,
positive change to the global nuclear order will continue to be
marginal and fitful. This makes the international milieu critical for
the nuclear future – a milieu that a president can influence but not
determine.

President Trump’s reelection is likely to have a pernicious effect on
that milieu, hindering international cooperation to limit nuclear
weapons and accelerating a qualitative arms race that could endanger
crisis stability. Yet two of Trump’s more positive impulses are likely
to continue. He is unlikely to increase the risk of an intense crisis
leading to nuclear war because he wants to avoid U.S. involvement in
any wars, not start new ones. He will also try to sustain negotiations
with North Korea to curb nuclear developments there, though whether he
is prepared to satisfy Pyongyang’s stiffer demands remains in doubt.

His opponent, Joseph Biden, will face those same demands. Personnel is
policy, and the Biden administration will likely be staffed with
officials who served under President Obama. That means a return to
shoring up alliances and international cooperation. It also means
continuity with Obama’s nuclear policies. Whether he will curtail
Obama’s modernization plans is not clear, but in contrast to Trump, he
will try his best to restore the JCPOA, which could head off nuclear
weapons development not only in Iran but also in Saudi Arabia. He will
also strive to save START, seek technical talks with China, and not
abandon the Open Skies accord.

Background

The hopes and fears of many at home and abroad are riveted on the
November 3 presidential election in the United States – and
understandably so. However much its power and prestige may have
diminished in recent years, the United States still plays a pivotal
role in international institutions, alliances, and mass media, so who
becomes its president matters a lot for the global nuclear order.

Almost as important as the outcome of the presidential race is whether
the next president’s party can secure a commanding majority in both
houses of Congress.

However unlikely it is that Trump’s expressed desire to contest the
election’s outcome could succeed, whether the nation can avert a
violent backlash among disappointed partisans is less clear.

Yet focusing on the U.S. election risks drawing too much attention
away from the deeper questions that the world now faces – questions
that a U.S. president can address but cannot answer alone. Among those
major post-COVID unknowns with an impact on nuclear arming and
disarming are the following:

Will the experience of the global pandemic cause further disruption of
the international order?

Will distrust of governments wane or continue to impede international
cooperation to contain the global pandemic, mitigate climate change,
facilitate international trade, and promote nuclear proliferation?

Will the contagion of nativism and ethno-nationalism exacerbate
disintegrative global political and economic trends or will the need
for cooperation and expertise to contain the coronavirus triumph over
the attempts of leaders to blame foreigners or immigrants for the
spread of the pandemic?

Will inward-looking “America first” sentiment in the U.S. public and
Congress recede or will it persist and further impair alliance
relations and international cooperation on matters of global concern?

Will political and economic competition between the United States and
China be held in check by modest efforts at cooperation or escalate
into a new Cold War, and even military confrontation?

Will German deficit-financing stimulate EU economic recovery and ease
disintegrative trends in Europe or will the ethno-nationalist tide
continue to rise on the continent?

Will New START be renewed and U.S.-China talks explore cooperative
measures to reduce  nuclear arms and nuclear risks or will intensified
competition set off a new arms race?

In all these unknowns, the role of publics, and explicitly popular
attitudes and activity, is potentially decisive. If that is not
obvious in the case of nuclear weapons, which is often thought to be
the esoteric domain of experts, one need only recall that while mass
activism does not guarantee policy change, three of the most
significant developments in recent decades – the ban on above-ground
nuclear tests, the INF Treaty, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall –
would not have happened without mass protests in many countries. And
citizen involvement, organized by NGOs, can even facilitate monitoring
of arms agreements and nuclear developments in some countries.

Yet the public’s understandable preoccupation with COVID-19, economic
distress, racial animus, and climate change leave scant scope for
paying heed to nuclear risks, which makes mobilization of a mass
anti-nuclear movement unlikely. Absent popular action, however,
positive change to the global nuclear order will continue to be
marginal and fitful.

The outcome of the U.S. presidential election will help shape answers
to the post-COVID questions and especially the risk of nuclear war and
the likelihood that negotiations to reduce and constrain the role of
nuclear arms will resume.

A New Arms Race?

The United States, Russia, and China are all making new nuclear
weapons. U.S. efforts began under the Obama administration, but when
President Trump was shown a graph tracing  START reductions in U.S.
and Russian arms, he demanded that even more be built – only to be
told that existing production lines were already full. After throwing
a tantrum, he had to content himself with authorizing a new
lower-yield warhead instead. Despite fears of a new arms race, the
U.S. buildup thus remains constrained by existing production capacity,
Russia may lack the financial wherewithal to replace its aged weapons
at a much more rapid pace, and China is mainly expanding its SLBM and
road mobile arsenal, which arguably enhances strategic stability
though not necessarily crisis stability.

Although the number of arms being produced is not necessarily
destabilizing, several qualitative  developments are more worrisome.
Increased accuracies will continue to jeopardize land-based missiles
and intelligence down-links. More recently, purported Russian plans to
“escalate in order to deescalate”[i] and to produce lower-yield
warheads prompted the Trump administration to build theater-based
intermediate-range missiles that ostensibly will be
conventionally-armed and to deploy lower-yields warheads of its own on
Trident submarines.

These moves are based on two fundamentally flawed assumptions: that
deterrence will never fail and that a nuclear war, if fought, can be
limited. The ability of political leaders to control the use of
nuclear weapons in an intense crisis or during a war, always suspect,
has become all the more precarious with the increasing potential for
cyberattacks[ii] and anti-satellite weapons[iii] to disrupt command,
control, communication, and intelligence. New hypersonic weapons under
development in Russia, China, and the United States could aggravate
crisis instability by drastically reducing how long it takes to reach
their targets – the flash-to-bang time.[iv]  Distinguishing
conventionally-armed from nuclear-armed hypersonic missiles or lower-
from higher-yield warheads in the heat of the moment could also prove
difficult.

More worrisome are growing U.S.-China, U.S.-Russia, and Sino-Indian
tensions, which, if they were to intensify, may spark fears of
impending war that raise the risk of crisis instability. A nuclear
arms race and potential nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia and
the Persian Gulf could accentuate this danger. So too could displays
of force by one rival or another – “dynamic force employment” is the
Pentagon’s buzzword for its displays – in the South China Sea, near
Taiwan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, in the Baltic Sea and the Sea
of Okhotsk, and on the Himalayas, which could spark deadly clashes. A
case in point is Korea where large-scale joint U.S.-South Korean
exercises compel North Korean counter-mobilization that could trigger
a deadly clash that gets out of hand.

If Trump Wins

Observers of foreign policy have many reasons to prefer Donald Trump’s
defeat – to cite just a few, his abandonment of critically important
international agreements like the JCPOA, the INF Treaty, and the Open
Skies Treaty; his open promotion of nuclear arming by other nations;
his undermining of international institutions like the WHO and the
WTO; his open support for ethno-nationalists who undermine the
democratic governments of European allies; his attempt to turn what is
essentially a political and economic competition with China into a
military and ideological confrontation; and his misguided mercantilist
challenge to trade ties with allies like the TPP and global supply
chains without obvious benefit to American workers. Such efforts are
likely to persist in a second Trump administration.

Of even greater concern is the character of President Trump –
mercurial and impulsive,  uninformed yet impatient with the details of
policy briefings, insecure enough to feed on flattery. As
disrupter-in-chief, he prefers to govern by free-for-all instead of a
coherent policy process and to promulgate policy tweets, often without
follow-up.

Hopes for nuclear diplomacy with Iran, Russia, or China under Trump
are much dimmer, darkening prospects of nuclear proliferation in the
Persian Gulf and East Asia.

Yet two of Trump’s more positive impulses are likely to continue.
Despite his spasms of rhetorical excess, he is unlikely to increase
the risk of an intense crisis leading to nuclear war because he wants
to avoid U.S. involvement in any wars, not start new ones, and he will
try to continue negotiations with North Korea to curb nuclear
developments there.

Beyond drawing attention to himself by meeting with Kim Jong Un, he
may not have fully understood what he was doing or paid much attention
to the details of policy or implementation, but his administration had
officials like the secretaries of State and Defense and a Joint Chiefs
of Staff who did and he sometimes heeded their counsel.

Trump Administration officials claim credit for compelling the North
to the negotiating table by threatening war. The evidence strongly
suggests otherwise.[v] North Korean diplomats were well-aware of
Trump’s oft-expressed interest in negotiating during his 2016
presidential campaign. Although the February 2017 visit of a senior
DPRK delegation was postponed, talks opened in the New York channel
that spring. Washington gradually deployed more airpower and other
forces to the region, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Joint Chiefs
of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, and the commander of U.S. Forces in
Korea Vincent Brookes repeatedly voiced caution about using them and
were reluctant to come up with military options for Korea sought by
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. The drumbeat of war in the
news media, amplifying hyperbolic threats by Trump of “fire and fury”
and loose talk by others of “bloody nose” strikes, aroused
consternation in Seoul, though not in Pyongyang. Careful parsing of
Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric suggests he was making deterrent threats
in the event that North Korean actions put U.S. or allied security in
jeopardy.[vi] On April 29, 2017, at the peak of the war fever, KCNA
dismissed these threats as bluffs:

The U.S. is bluffing after firing dozens of missiles at Syria and
dropping a GBU-43 bomb on Afghanistan. During his recent junket to
Asia, U.S. Vice-President Pence, saying the world witnessed the “bold
decision of the president” through the military actions in Syria and
Afghanistan, behaved so arrogant as to urge the DPRK not to misjudge
the will of the U.S. and test the decision of Trump and muscle of the
U.S. forces. Dignitaries including the U.S. ambassador to the United
Nations also noisily talk about “strong warning” to someone every day,
asserting that the era of “strategic patience” has come to an end and
all options including military action are on the table. This is just a
bluff of the U.S. keen on flexing its muscle by striking non-nuclear
countries and weak nations only. Such an act can never irritate the
DPRK.  … The U.S. is getting evermore desperate in its bluffing, but
it only reveals the vulnerability of those exasperated by the DPRK’s
nukes of justice and invincible military muscle.[vii]

Even as Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire for another summit
meeting with Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang has erected a high hurdle for
resuming talks. It is demanding  unilateral steps up front to
demonstrate a U.S. commitment to end enmity, demands  that Washington
has yet to satisfy. Three such steps might bring the North back to the
negotiating table. One is a public commitment in principle to work
toward what Secretary of State Pompeo once called “a fundamentally
different strategic relationship”[viii] from enmity to friendship,
starting with an end-of-war declaration. A second is a commitment to
scale back all joint field exercises with South  Korea on land, in the
air, or offshore for one year or longer if negotiations continue to
make progress. A third is sanctions easing such as granting an
exemption from U.N. Security

Council sanctions to permit the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial
Zone or to allow

North Korean sales of coal and textiles. Whether Trump is prepared to
satisfy the DPRK’s stepped-up demands remains unclear.

If Biden Wins

In government, personnel is policy, and the Biden administration will
likely be staffed with officials who served under President Obama.
That means a return to shoring up alliances and international
cooperation. It also means continuity with Obama’s nuclear policies.

Biden’s most considered responses on nuclear matters came in the
campaign’s answer to a survey of Democratic candidates conducted by
The New York Times in early 2020. Asked about the use of force “to
preempt an Iranian or North Korean missile or nuclear test,” the Biden
response was non-committal:

Force must be used judiciously to protect a vital interest of the
United States, only when the objective is clear and achievable, with
the informed consent of the American people and, where required, the
approval of Congress. The nuclear program of North Korea and the
nuclear ambitions of Iran pose such a vital interest. I would do
whatever necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,
taking no option off the table. I would also be prepared to use force
in the event of an imminent long-range missile attack by either
country.[ix]

Biden will try his best to restore the JCPOA, which could head off
nuclear weapons development not only in Iran but also in Saudi Arabia.
Although some may counsel him to demand  broader agreement with Iran
up front, he is more likely to embrace Obama’s underlying strategic
premise, that the JCPOA signals U.S. desire to avoid siding with
either Sunnis or Shiites and, if implemented, may facilitate further
cooperation with Teheran. As Biden was quoted by The New York Times:

What Iran is doing is dangerous, but still reversible. If Iran moves
back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, a Biden
administration would re-enter the JCPOA as a starting point to work
alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the
deal’s nuclear constraints. Doing so would provide a critical down
payment to re-establish U.S. credibility, signaling to the world that
America’s word and international commitments once again mean
something. My administration would also leverage renewed international
consensus around America’s Iran policy – and a redoubled commitment to
diplomacy – to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other
malign behavior in the region. This would include: targeted sanctions
against Iranian support for terrorism and Iran’s ballistic missile
program; ironclad support for Israel; robust intelligence and security
cooperation with regional partners; support for strengthening the
capacity of countries like Iraq to resist Iranian influence; and a
renewed commitment to diplomacy aimed at ending wars in Yemen and
Syria that provide Iran with opportunities to expand.[x]

Biden’s alliance management skills may be sorely tested in Asia, where
South Korean preferences to avoid entanglement in a new Cold War with
China and to deepen political and economic engagement with North Korea
face resistance in Japan, tensions that Suga Yoshihide might ease as
prime minister.

Curbing a renewed nuclear arms race to ease tensions in Asia through
technical talks with China is likely to be a Biden objective. Mutual
unease about China’s missile buildup on the one hand and U.S. missile
defenses and nuclear modernization plans on the other is likely to be
the prime issue. That seemed evident in China’s overbearing reaction
to the U.S. deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South
Korea. Beijing purportedly feared the capability of the AN/TPY-2 radar
to cue U.S.-based tracking radars and distinguish decoys, although it
was likely as moved by concern about the increased integration of U.S.
alliances with South Korea and Japan that anti-missile defense
requires. When deployment at a second site did not materialize,
Beijing relented and resumed attempts to woo Seoul.

The Biden approach to North Korea reflects the views of his advisers
who worked in the Obama administration:

The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea has relied on
pursuing photo ops with Kim Jong-un, reducing economic pressure,
suspending military exercises and ignoring human rights. But America
got very little in return. In fact, Pyongyang has continued to produce
fuel for nuclear weapons, and improved its nuclear weapons and missile
capabilities. After three years of Trump’s approach, North Korea’s
weapons are now more powerful, more mobile, more accurate and more
dangerous – and Kim is more defiant and emboldened. As Kim advances
his ability to hit the United States – and anywhere else in the world,
for that matter – we can’t rely on Trump’s tweets or threats to keep
us safe.

I would work with our allies and partners to prevent North Korea’s
proliferation of nuclear weapons to bad actors; set the right formula
of sanctions enforcement and sanctions relief; and make it harder for
Kim to continue on his belligerent path, while making credible efforts
to offer an alternative vision for a nonnuclear future to Kim and the
people of North Korea. I would strengthen our core alliances with
Japan and South Korea. And I would insist that China join us in
pressuring Pyongyang – and that if it does not, the United States will
continue to take measures to strengthen our ability to defend
ourselves and our allies. I would be willing to meet with Kim – not to
pursue a vanity project like Trump, but as part of an actual strategy
that moves the ball forward on denuclearization.[xi]

If Biden makes no more serious effort to address the North’s
negotiating demands, instead of a resumption of nuclear diplomacy,
Pyongyang is likely to end its self-imposed moratorium on long-range
missile test-launches and nuclear tests and resume testing to develop
a reentry vehicle for its intercontinental-range rocket, a
solid-fueled ICBM, and proven thermonuclear devices.

Saving START will be a challenge. Biden told Foreign Affairs he would
not hold START hostage to nuclear talks with China but “pursue an
extension of the New START Treaty, an anchor of strategic stability
between the United States and Russia, and use that as a foundation for
new arms control arrangements.”[xii]

He will not abandon the Open Skies Treaty:

The Trump Administration says it is withdrawing from the Treaty
because Russia is cheating. There are real concerns that Russia is not
complying fully with the Treaty. It has improperly imposed
restrictions on overflights over certain regions (Kaliningrad and the
Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia), to
which the United States and other parties have objected. These Russian
violations should be addressed not by withdrawing from the Treaty, but
by seeking to resolve them through the Treaty’s implementation and
dispute mechanism. That is exactly how other disputes over Russian
implementation have been resolved, including altitude restrictions
over Chechnya.

Our allies have made clear they want us to remain in the Treaty, and
to work together to address compliance issues with Russia. Without us,
the Treaty could crumble. Withdrawal will exacerbate growing tensions
between the West and Russia, and increase the risks of miscalculation
and conflict.[xiii]

On nuclear arms, Biden has hinted at adopting a policy of no first use
without quite committing to it: “As I said in 2017, I believe that the
sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring – and, if
necessary, retaliating against – a nuclear attack.”[xiv] Nor will he
resume nuclear testing.

At the same time, Biden is likely to continue replacing the current
nuclear force with new weapons, a modernization program initiated by
the Obama administration, although Democrats in Congress may
successfully press him to cut back excessive arms spending.

To change the dynamics of nuclear policy and rally public support,
Biden may need to address the international political milieu more
broadly. That requires going beyond a restoration of the pre-Trump
ancient regime and confronting the inertia in the national security
bureaucracy and the orthodoxy of a U.S. foreign policy establishment –
what Obama aide Ben Rhodes has called “the Blob.” – that seems
determined to revive a muscle-bound version of American
exceptionalism. As vice-president, Biden rose to the challenge in
opposing the troop surge in Afghanistan and Iraq while supporting
Obama’s desire to avoid taking sides in the Saudi-Iran and
Sunni-Shiite conflict. Yet, faced with overwhelming  economic, racial,
and viral crises at home, it remains to be seen whether Biden will be
prepared to pursue principled and purposeful multilateral engagement
abroad without reverting to throwing America’s weight around.

III. ENDNOTES

[i]O. Oliker and A. Baklitsky, “The Nuclear Posture Review and Russian
‘De-Escalation’”: A Dangerous Solution to a Nonexistent Problem,” War
on the Rocks, 20 (February 2020).

[ii]Nautilus Institute series, for instance, Daryl G. Press, “NC3 and
Crisis Stability – Growing Dangers in the 21st Century,”NAPsnet,
October 17, 2019.

[iii]Katrina Hanson and Christian Shepherd, “U.S. Military Puts Space
Weapons in Its Sights to Counter China, Financial Times, September 3,
2020, p. 4.

[iv]John T. Watts, Christian Trotti, and Mark J. Massa, Hypersonic
Weapons in the Indo-Pacific Region (Washington: Scowcroft Center for
Strategy and Security, August 2020).

[v]For a detailed history of U.S.-DPRK negotiations under Trump, Leon
V. Sigal, “Paved with Good Intentions: Trump’s Nuclear Diplomacy with
North Korea, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 3, No. 1
(2020), pp. 163-82.

[vi]For example, “The United States has great strength and patience,
but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no
choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” White House Office of the
Press Secretary, Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the
U.N. General Assembly, September 19, 2017.

[vii]KCNA, “U.S. Muscle-Flexing Can Never Work on DPRK: KCNA
Commentary,” April 29, 2017. (Emphasis added.)

[viii]U.S., Department of State, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,
Interview with Yui Hideki of NHK, June 7, 2018.

[ix]Maggie Astor and David E. Sanger, “The 2020 Democrats on Foreign
Policy,” New York Times,  February 6, 2020.

[x]Ibid.

[xi]Ibid.

[xii]Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign
Affairs, (March/April 2020).

[xiii] Statement by Vice President Joe Biden on President Trump’s
Decision to Withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, May 22, 2020.

[xiv]Biden, “Why America Must Lead Again.”

IV.  NAUTILUS INVITES YOUR RESPONSE

The Nautilus Asia Peace and Security Network invites your responses to
this report. Please send responses to: nautilus@nautilus.org.
Responses will be considered for redistribution to the network only if
they include the author’s name, affiliation, and explicit consent.

John Hallam
Australian Coordinator PNND
People for Nuclear Disarmament UN Nuclear Weapons Campaigner
Human Survival Project
Co-Convenor Abolition 2000 Nuclear Risk reduction Working Group
johnh@pnnd.org
jhjohnhallam@gmail.com
johnhallam2001@yahoo.com.au
61-411-854-612

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