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Foreign Policy

What’s the way forward for America’s nuclear briefcase?

In October, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, an international ban on nuclear weapons with 86 state signatories, received its 50th ratification by a state signatory. As a result, and despite U.S. attempts to sink the treaty, it will come into effect as legally binding international law in January 2021. US President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to sign the treaty or significantly reduce his country’s nuclear arsenal during his treaty presidency. Still, his administration is likely to reverse some of President Donald Trump’s nuclear weapons policy and could encourage significant nuclear non-proliferation policies. Like the leadership of all nuclear-armed states, the von Biden government will continue to be under pressure to sign the treaty and look deeply into nuclear disarmament.

The 2017 international agreement prohibits the development, testing, use or threat of the use of nuclear weapons. It also prohibits the possession of nuclear weapons. The treaty was spearheaded by non-nuclear-armed states, survivors of the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nuclear tests and non-governmental organizations, including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. The nine nuclear-armed states – China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – boycotted the 2017 treaty negotiations, rejected and failed to sign the treaty.

Earlier this year, as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons drew closer to its entry into force, the Trump administration urged states that had ratified the treaty to withdraw their ratifications – an effort that did not work but was in line with the longtime U.S. Believes that nuclear weapons improve the security of the United States and that of its key allies.

If Biden had been president at the time, he might have been too. Like his predecessors, Biden is an advocate of nuclear deterrence. As Vice President in 2017, he described it as “the foundation of [U.S.] national defense ”and a statement on its campaign website affirmed that“ the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be to deter – and if necessary, retaliate against a nuclear attack ”. Once in office, Biden is likely to continue Trump’s policies of opposing the new treaty.

However, the arguments in favor of nuclear deterrence are deeply flawed. As pointed out by nuclear weapons specialist Benoît Pelopidas, nuclear weapons did not deter war between nuclear-armed states or maintain international peace. China and Russia got into a border conflict in the late 1960s, and India and Pakistan got into a direct conflict over disputed territory in the 1990s. Nuclear weapons did not keep the Cold War “cold”; Proxy-war tensions in the Global South killed millions of civilians, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 a nuclear war nearly broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union. In addition, historians of nuclear weapons have argued that nuclear weapons helped escalate tensions between nuclear-armed states during the early Cold War.

In addition to being of dubious deterrent value, nuclear weapons pose immense threats to human health and the environment. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 resulted in the deaths of an estimated 230,000 people from radiation sickness, burns and injuries . Radiation also increased the risk of disease in the long term, caused persistent psychological trauma and led to discrimination against survivors. Since 1945, nuclear tests carried out by the United States in areas with large Indian populations in the Marshall Islands and Nevada, by France in Algeria and French Polynesia, by the Soviet Union in Kazakhstan, by the United Kingdom in Australia in areas with significant indigenous populations Population groups in and from China in Xinjiang have also resulted in marginalized populations facing high rates of cancer and birth defects, as well as environmental contamination. In total, atmospheric nuclear tests have resulted in at least 2 million cancer deaths worldwide since 1945.

It is for this reason that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is required alongside other measures such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1968, a key element of international nuclear law that many states have largely failed to comply with. The treaty allowed the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and the Soviet Union, then the only nuclear-armed powers, to maintain their existing arsenals and forbade all other states to acquire them. Even so, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel developed and maintained nuclear weapons. The treaty also called on nuclear-armed states that are signatories to work towards nuclear disarmament, which the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and France for the most part have not, as they all keep and modernize their nuclear arsenals, particularly through development nuclear warheads and nuclear-armed drones and increasing the lethality of existing nuclear weapons. The new treaty would remove the limits of the previous treaty by banning nuclear weapons directly and for all states.

Regardless of the policy of the nuclear-armed states in relation to the new treaty, the agreement is significant because it significantly strengthens international nuclear law, the norm of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and, as disarmament specialist Anna Hood has argued, makes a decisive contribution to the delegitimization and stigmatization of all nuclear weapons , regardless of which states own them. It is important that the increasing support for the treaty and the abolition of nuclear weapons also increase the pressure on the nuclear-armed states to participate substantially and meaningfully in nuclear disarmament.

While Biden is likely to continue to oppose the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, that does not mean that U.S. nuclear weapons policy will fully adhere to the Trumpian status quo. Like former US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Biden was a long-time arms control advocate, including the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. The treaty bans all nuclear tests and was signed by Clinton but has not yet been ratified by the Senate, which would require a two-thirds majority. Faced with a similar blockade, it is very likely that Biden will continue America’s bipartisan moratorium on nuclear testing, which began during the George HW Bush presidency and has been almost interrupted by the Trump administration, which was considering resuming nuclear testing.

Biden has pledged a five-year extension of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia, which will limit the number of nuclear weapons used by both states to 1,550. New START is the only remaining arms control treaty between the two states. In 2019, Trump withdrew the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an arms control agreement signed by US President Ronald Reagan that banned the US and Russia from owning short- and medium-range nuclear missiles. The Trump administration and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have not yet agreed to extend New START, which otherwise expires in February 2021. The Trump administration has proposed extending the contract for just one year.

During his presidential campaign, Biden advocated a “no-first-use” policy that renounces the first-time use of nuclear weapons and advocates using such weapons only in response to a nuclear attack. If Biden officially introduced “no first use,” it would matter as the US president has sole power to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. No previous US government has waived its first use. Meanwhile worldwide only India and China have.

Biden isn’t the first Democratic leader to consider adopting a no-use policy for the United States. Obama considered the policy but ultimately rejected it after the Hawk Democrats resisted in his administration. While Biden is also being opposed by some Democrats, he is likely to face pressure from progressive members of his party too. For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the No First Use Act in the US Senate in 2019 to prevent the United States from carrying out a first strike.

In addition, Democratic Congress is advocating nuclear abolition later this year – Representatives. James McGovern and Earl Blumenauer have tabled a resolution in the US House of Representatives calling on the United States to adopt a “no-first-use” policy, to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the goal of the elimination of all nuclear weapons cease upgrading its nuclear arsenal. As a result, Biden is also likely to face pressure from some progressive Democrats to sign the new treaty and delve deeply into nuclear disarmament.

In his famous Prague speech in 2009, Obama stated that the United States “will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons”. These steps – which were important but small under the Obama administration and virtually nonexistent during Trump’s presidency – are likely to remain incremental during Biden’s presidency.

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