Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops are correct: We cannot engage in a new nuclear arms race

Pope Francis walks by a photo showing the destruction of an atomic bomb during a visit to the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo on Nov. 26, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters)Pope Francis walks by a photo showing the destruction of an atomic bomb during a visit to the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo on Nov. 26, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters)

The five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations, which had been scheduled for this April but has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, will come at a time of growing peril. While Pope Francis and the U.S. Catholic bishops have advocated progressive disarmament, the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction toward a new nuclear arms race.

The Pentagon budget for the current fiscal year includes tens of billions of dollars for the rebuilding and upgrading of U.S. nuclear weapons systems. Policymakers euphemistically term this “nuclear modernization,” but a closer look reveals an expansion of capabilities in nearly every component of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Contained in this year’s operational budget are the following:

· investment in the reconstruction and upgrading of U.S. ground-based strategic ballistic missiles;
· production of a new submarine capable of launching 24 Trident ballistic missiles,
· production of B-21 long-range strategic bombers;
· the development of a new sea-launched cruise missile and continued development of the long-range standoff weapon, an air-launched cruise missile that will provide new capabilities for stealth nuclear attack from long distances.

These programs are part of a top-to-bottom overhaul and upgrading of nuclear weapons systems. Russia and other nuclear powers have been upgrading their weapons systems as well, although the U.S. program remains the largest. The cost of building and maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons systems over the next decade is estimated to be nearly $500 billion. This spending establishes a de facto policy of maintaining nuclear weapons in perpetuity, making it more difficult to implement existing commitments to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons.

The cost of building and maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons systems over the next decade is estimated to be nearly $500 billion.

The upgrade also creates security dilemmas in Russia and other potential target countries. The United States claims that its programs are a response to nuclear developments in Russia, but our actions motivate further weapons building on their side, as the action-reaction cycle of nuclear arming spins onward in a replay of the Cold War.

Recall Mr. Trump’s “nuke tweet” in December 2016. The “U.S. must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” the president-elect wrote. The next day he reportedly told MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, off camera: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” At the time, many dismissed this talk as bluster, but it seems that Mr. Trump was serious. Nuclear arms racing has become official U.S. policy.

This is evident in the administration’s commitment to building new nuclear warheads. For decades, the United States maintained a de facto freeze on the production of new nuclear bombs, but the White House is now moving ahead with funding for so-called low-yield nuclear warheads, which are designed to be more usable in military hostilities. The 2020 military budget also includes funds for resuming the production of plutonium pits, which are the radioactive cores of nuclear bombs. The United States is back in the business of building nuclear bombs.

The United States is back in the business of building nuclear bombs.

The production of more usable warheads fits with the strategy spelled out in the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the official statement of U.S. nuclear doctrine. The purpose of nuclear weapons, the document states, is not merely to deter nuclear threats but to counter “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.” This new doctrine “blurs the line between conventional and nuclear forces,” according to Lisabeth Grunland of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and is “consistent with a focus on nuclear war-fighting.”

The Trump administration has shown little interest in the N.P.T. review conference and has systematically undermined nuclear arms limitation. For example, in May 2018 the United States unilaterally revoked the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, tearing up a successful agreement that had curtailed Tehran’s nuclear program and was effectively blocking further uranium enrichment or nuclear production, as confirmed in reports from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

And in August 2019, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a bedrock of arms control since it was signed in 1987; it eliminated thousands of medium-range missiles in Europe and helped to end the Cold War. U.S. officials claim that Russia has been violating the treaty, but as former Secretary of State George Shultz wrote in 2018, the appropriate response to these concerns would be to discuss them with Moscow, not abandon the treaty. Dismissal of the agreement paves the way for unrestrained deployments of nuclear-capable missiles in the western regions of Russia and further additions to U.S. capabilities for striking Russia. That means missile deployments once again casting a nuclear shadow over Europe.

Without the New Start Treaty, the United States and Russia would enter a dangerous and uncertain new era of potentially unrestrained strategic arms competition.

The last remaining arms limitation agreement and arguably the most important is the New Start Treaty, the 2010 agreement negotiated between the United States and Russia that limits each side to 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. The treaty contains essential verification and monitoring mechanisms that were established in the Reagan-Gorbachev era, including on-site inspection protocols that enable the two sides to examine each other’s nuclear capabilities and validate compliance with agreed arms limitations. Without the treaty, the United States and Russia would enter a dangerous and uncertain new era of potentially unrestrained strategic arms competition.

Mr. Trump has called the New Start agreement a bad deal and proposed bringing China into negotiations for a new three-way nuclear agreement. China has supported discussions among the five nuclear weapons states to strengthen the N.P.T. process, but it has rejected the idea of a trilateral treaty, emphasizing that its arsenal is much smaller than those of Russia and the United States. Critics have called the Trump administration’s China proposal a disingenuous ploy to avoid extending the New Start treaty with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that Moscow is ready to sign immediately a five-year extension of the New Start agreement. An extension of the treaty could be accomplished quickly and would not require congressional approval or lengthy new negotiations with Russia and China. But if the U.S. president does not agree to an extension, the treaty will expire in February 2021, leaving the United States without negotiated limits on Russian strategic nuclear weapons or the ability to conduct on-site inspections of Russian forces. Members of Congress, including Republicans, are urging the White House to act, and pressure is building to save this important bulwark against unrestrained nuclearization.

At the N.P.T. conference, which has been postponed until no later than April 21, non-nuclear states will remind the United States and other nuclear powers of their obligation under the treaty to negotiate for disarmament. An essential first step in that direction is for Washington to accept Moscow’s offer for extending the New Start Treaty. The U.S. Catholic bishops have added their voice to the growing chorus for treaty extension, and we can join them in urging our elected leaders to support a halt to the production of new nuclear weapons.

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