U.S. Nuclear Policy Recommendations for the Shifting Global Order
By Marren Haneberg
U.S. Nuclear Policy Recommendations for the Shifting Global Order
An August 8 nuclear accident in Nyonska, Russia is the result of Russia’s nuclear expansion, which Russia President Vladimir Putin officially announced in March 2018. This accident, along with the INF Treaty’s collapse in February 2019, show that the United States needs to examine its current nuclear policies and set new objectives to match the evolving global order. Its two objectives need to be global non-proliferation and improving security and prosperity across the globe.
To meet these objectives, the United States needs to take the following actions:
- Include China in nuclear negotiations and agreements.
It is a mistake to compare the 2019 situation to the Cold War. While there is, once again, nuclear tension between the United States and Russia, this tension is no longer in a bipolar system. China’s rise makes for a multipolar system, which is far less stable than the Cold War setup. From the U.S. point of view, it sees two autocratic systems with nuclear weapons rising–a threat to the liberal democratic order championed by the United States, per an October 10 United Nations statement by Thomas G. DiNanno, who is deputy assistant secretary and senior bureau official at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (DiNanno).
Conversely, if Russia and China see the United States building its nuclear arsenal, they might have an incentive to band together, though China has a no first use policy and would need to invest heavily to get its arsenal to the point where it could launch a preemptive strike against the United States (Chan and Huang). Countering China’s rise was part of the United States’ decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty (Taylor).
With the size of China’s economy set to overtake that of the United States’ in 2020, building up a nuclear system to bankrupt China and Russia is not a feasible option for U.S. policymakers (Martin). Part of the problem with Cold War-era agreements, such as the INF Treaty, is that they only factor in two powers. Now, two of Russia’s neighbors, China and North Korea, both have nuclear weapons. While neither’s arsenal is as large as those of Russia or the United States, both countries neighbor Russia. Russia would be foolish not to maintain its regional nuclear dominance and has shown it prioritizes its immediate security rather than decades-old agreements.
The United States needs to work with both Russia and China to create new nonproliferation agreements. These agreements need to be realistic in their prohibitions. Because China has already maintained a no first use policy, these agreements should reconfirm this policy. If possible, the United States should work with China on North Korea policy, since China has significant influence over that country. Additionally, since China and Russia are located near North Korea, both need to maintain nuclear defense against the unpredictable Kim regime. If the United States and China could find a way to cooperate that results in the denuclearization of North Korea, China and Russia will be less inclined to continue building nuclear defense.
- The United States should continue building its own nuclear capabilities.
According to the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the Kremlin is pursuing an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, ‘suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first use could paralyze the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia” (NPT 30).
On the other hand, if the United States expands its nuclear arsenal, it will have more leverage in negotiations. While, the United States should continue pushing for new agreements with Russia (and China), but if these do not happen right away, with an expanded arsenal it would still maintain its credibility as a nuclear power. On the other hand, a U.S. policy to disarm would decrease its weight in negotiations and consequently, undermine the liberal democratic order that, according to DiNanno’s UN statement, establishes the security and prosperity crucial to U.S. goals (DiNanno 2).
- Hold off on expanding NATO to countries geographically near Russia.
While the United States should take soft power initiatives in all receptive countries, expanding NATO into countries on or near Russia’s borders is akin to Mexico joining a military pact with Russia. If this were to happen, the United States would build up its nuclear arsenal in response–and this is the geopolitical position Russia is in under the current perceived threat of NATO expansion. Realistically, it would be extremely difficult for NATO to defend additional countries located near Russia. However, NATO should uphold existing agreements to defend its members to maintain its credibility as a defensive pact, regardless of their geographic location.
In March 2018, Putin unveiled new nuclear weapons which the Russian military was developing. One missile design which has drawn a lot of concern from U.S. officials is called “Burevestnik” in Russia and “Skyfall” in the United States. Theoretically, it can draw enough power for unlimited range from a small nuclear reactor it carries “to heat the air in its jet engine” and could evade interceptors (Smith).
Initial media reports following the August 8 Nyonska explosion speculated that a test of Burevestnik caused the explosion, but eventually this speculation changed to the event being a failed recovery mission. An October 10 report by the U.S. State Department confirmed the latter explanation (DiNanno). The report found that the missile failed a 2018 test and remained in the White Sea until August 2019, “a long time to let a nuclear reactor sit on the sea floor” according to Joshua Pollack, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (Ioanes). The explosion killed seven people and exposed thousands of people to radiation levels 4 to 16 times above normal (Reevell).
The danger this nuclear operation caused for a large population demonstrates the recklessness of Russia’s nuclear buildup and gives the United States reason to be concerned for its own safety and overal global security. After the explosion, Russia turned off four radiation sensors, an action reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s coverup of Chernobyl. Even if Russia does not carry out a nuclear strike on the United States, it could unintentionally cause a nuclear accident with detrimental consequences.
Skyfall is just one example of Russia’s dangerous nuclear developments. One expert called Skyfall a “flying Chernobyl” because of its tendency to spew radiation along its flight path (Herken). Additionally, this was not the first nuclear accident Russia has covered up in the post-Soviet Era. In 2000, the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine sank in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 Russian sailors onboard. Newly-elected Putin refused offers of assistance from other countries and “the Kremlin misled and manipulated the public” (Ayres). In September 2017, “European scientists detected an increased concentration of radioactive ruthenium-106 over Europe” and traced it back to the Ural Mountains. This led to speculation that an accident occurred at the Mayak facility, “the site of the worst nuclear accident before Chernobyl” (Ayres). The Kremlin insisted that Mayak was not involved, but a scientific study later debunked this claim and confirmed that the radiation’s source was the Mayak facility (Masson et. al).
To preserve its safety and uphold its values, the United States should negotiate a new treaty adapted to the changes in the global order. It especially needs to account for China in new negotiations. To maintain credibility, it should continue building its nuclear forces until it reaches a reinforced agreement with Russia. However, it should not threaten Russia by enlarging NATO near Russian borders. This global security concern, while daunting, is not insurmountable, as long as the United States pursues its goals to spread security and prosperity across the globe.
Ayres, Sabra. 2019. “After a deadly nuclear missile test in Russia’s north, the Kremlin stuck to an old Soviet habit: Secrecy.” August 13. LA Times. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2019-08-13/russia-nuclear-missile-explosion-soviet-secrecy.
Chan, Minnie and Kristin Huang. 2019. “Is China about to abandon its ‘no first use’ nuclear weapons policy?” February 7. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/2184577/could-china-abandon-its-no-first-use-nuclear-weapons-policy.
DiNanno, Thomas. 2019. “2019 UN General Assembly First Committee, Delegation of the United States of America, General Debate Statement.” October 10. United Nations Meeting Statements. http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/21998264/united-states.pdf.
Herken, Gregg. 2019. “Russia’s mysterious ‘new’ nuclear weapon a ‘flying Chernobyl’.” August 16. Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/russia-s-mysterious-new-nuclear-weapons-a-flying-chernobyl-20190816-p52ho5.html.
Ioanes, Ellen. 2019. “Putin’s Skyfall missile failed a test and exploded in a deadly nuclear accident, the US says.” October 11. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/us-putins-skyfall-missile-failed-test-and-exploded-during-recovery-2019-10.
Masson et. al. 2019. “Airborne concentrations and chemical considerations of radioactive ruthenium from an undeclared major nuclear release in 2017.” August 20. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://www.pnas.org/content/116/34/16750.
Martin, Will. 2019. “The US could lose its crown as the world’s most powerful economy as soon as next year, and it’s unlikely to ever get it back.” January 10. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/us-economy-to-fall-behind-china-within-a-year-standard-chartered-says-2019-1.
NPT. 2018. “Nuclear Posture Review.” February 2018. U.S. Department of Defense. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF.
Reevell, Patrick. 2019. “Russia says radiation spiked 4 to 16 times above normal after suspected missile explosion.” August 14. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/International/russia-radiation-spiked-16-times-background-levels-suspected/story?id=64944648.
Smith, Alexander. 2019. “Failed Russian nuclear test hints at Putin’s dangerous plans to beat U.S. defenses.” August 13. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/russian-failed-nuclear-test-hints-putin-s-dangerous-plans-beat-n1041721.
Taylor, Adam. 2018. “How China plays into Trump’s decision to pull out of INF treaty with Russia.” October 23. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/10/23/how-china-plays-into-trumps-decision-pull-out-inf-treaty-with-russia/.