People who work on nuclear security and deterrence are divided, like most other people, between optimists and pessimists — or in other words, some people believe that nuclear weapons use and spread can be prevented, and others believe both are inevitable.
It is understandable that there are likely many more nuclear pessimists than three years ago, since it seems that all of the nuclear challenges facing the United States are worse today than when President Trump took office, and all are moving in the wrong direction.
In fact, a new report from the American Nuclear Policy Initiative (ANPI) finds this to be the case and that the nuclear danger facing the United States and its allies is getting more severe. The report finds that only a deliberate change in policy and process can reverse these dangerous trends and improve the nuclear situation facing the United States.
By no means are all of the nuclear dangers we face of President Trump’s own making. North Korea has had an active nuclear and missile program since the early 1990s and efforts under multiple presidents to end them have not succeeded.
Likewise, U.S.-Russian nuclear deterrence has become increasingly unstable over the past decade, fueled by a mismatch in objectives and capabilities, as well as deliberate steps by President Putin to weaponize risk and threaten western stability.
So, some of these nuclear challenges were inherited by this administration. Yet others are directly of its own making, including the growing nuclear standoff with Iran, the increasing nuclear and stability challenges with China, the acceleration of the nuclear arms race with Russia, and the decline of confidence in the U.S. as a security partner.
None of this administration’s policy failures are as stark as the growing nuclear capabilities of Iran and Washington’s shrinking ability to address them. When Trump took office, Iran’s nuclear capabilities were restrained far below the point where its leadership could even think of building a weapon without detection. Today, Tehran is now much closer to being able to go nuclear than it was three years ago and the global consensus needed to keep Iran from going nuclear is in tatters.
In fact, since Trump decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal two years ago, the Trump administration has failed to make any progress on developing a new sustainable solution to the potential of a nuclear Iran, while its working relationships on this vital matter with Europe, Russia, China, and other Middle Eastern states has deteriorated. While Trump promised a better nuclear deal than that negotiated by his predecessor, his actions have actually helped accelerate a crisis that this administration seems incapable or unwilling to solve.
Sadly, the failures of the Trump administration are not only in the nuclear challenge of Iran. Across the board — from deterrence with Russia, to North Korea, to preserving the global system of laws and norms that have slowed proliferation for decades, to its management of alliances that have slowed the demand for nuclear weapons — the risk of nuclear use and proliferation is growing.
In some cases, this danger is growing because President Trump and his team made bad policy choices. In others, the president or his Cabinet have put forward reasonable goals but the process, personnel, and persistence needed to achieve them have been absent. Constant personnel turnover, reliance on acting officials without full Senate support, and the appointment of officials either skeptical or downright hostile to the stated and long-standing U.S. non-proliferation policy goals are all contributing factors.
A prime example is the stated desire to bring China into the arms control and reduction process. Most nuclear security experts would like to see the bilateral U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control process expand. Both Washington and Moscow have said as much for many years. So when President Trump, on the advice of his now former national security adviser — the notorious anti-arms controller John Bolton — said he would only consider extending the current New START treaty with Russia if China was brought into the process, it is striking that U.S. officials did not first notify our nuclear-armed allies in the U.K. or France. Likewise, the president made this announcement when there was no experienced arms control negotiator or nuclear expert in any of the key positions at the State Department who would likely be responsible for negotiating any such trilateral or multilateral agreement.
Lastly, three years into the Trump administration there is no formal proposal to Russia or China regarding any kind of trilateral arms control agreement, making clear the disregard and neglect with which these critical issues have been met inside this White House. Thus, while the goal of including China is appealing, there has been no reliable process, personnel, or detailed policy developed to actually achieve the stated outcome.
The ANPI report, titled “Blundering Toward Nuclear Chaos” offers particular concern about how the administration has undermined the tools the U.S. has relied on for its nuclear security for many decades. This includes the key role of American alliances in Europe and Asia, as well as our ability to pursue negotiated verified arms control agreements and treaties when they can enhance American security.
President Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the face of Russia violations, as well as his pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s compliance, has severely reduced the perceived ability of the U.S. to remain committed to legal commitments from one administration to the next.
At the same time, Trump’s criticism and disregard for the civil service in the intelligence community and the State Department have withered the morale and retention of experts needed to do the hard work on nuclear issues in the future. Rebuilding the ranks of such experts may take years, making it harder to repair the damage done to the structures that have protected the U.S. from nuclear dangers in the past and may well be needed in the future.
Put bluntly, the nuclear landscape is bleak. But there are glimpses of hope if this or a future administration recognize the need to change direction. There is still time to preserve arms control agreements that serve American security. The New START Treaty that will expire 16 days after the next president takes of the oath of office, but it can be extended without Senate advice and consent. There may be parts of an Iran nuclear deal left to save or to build upon, if the U.S. decides to re-engage. U.S. allies continue to want American leadership and capabilities to ensure that the defense of countries is greater than the sum of its parts. And no country has the U.S.’s ability to lead in the critical effort to preserve and expand the 75 year-plus barrier to the use of nuclear weapons.
If the American president recommits to global engagement and leadership, and puts in place a functioning government that listens to experienced officials and can create a sustainable and reliable process for policy development and implementation, these negative trends can be halted and even reversed.
There are no guarantees, but current efforts are failing and a reversal cannot come soon enough.
Jon Wolfsthal is senior advisor to Global Zero. He served as special assistant to former U.S. President Barack Obama and as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council. In that post, he was the most senior White House official, setting and implementing U.S. government policy on all aspects of arms control, nonproliferation, and nuclear policy. Prior to that, he served as the deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies.From 2009 to 2012, Wolfsthal served as the special adviser to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden for nuclear security and nonproliferation and as director for nonproliferation on the National Security Council. He supported the Obama administration’s negotiation and ratification of the New START arms reduction agreement with the Russian Federation and helped support the development of nuclear policy, including the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.
A military aide carries the "football" containing launch codes for nuclear weapons into Blenheim Palace, where U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump were dining, in Woodstock, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.
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A Ukrainian serviceman stands at his position in a trench at a front line on the border with Russia, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Sumy region, Ukraine January 20, 2024. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
For a conflict discussed in starkly moralistic terms, the ways the Ukraine war is talked about by its most enthusiastic Western supporters can be remarkably cynical about the human carnage involved.
“Aiding Ukraine, giving the money to Ukraine is the cheapest possible way for the U.S. to enhance its security,” Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of the Economist, recently told the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “The fighting is being done by the Ukrainians, they’re the people who are being killed.”
This view is not unique to Beddoes. It’s been widely expressed by those most in favor of an open-ended, prolonged war and most against the kind of peace negotiations that would shorten it.
“Four months into this thing, I like the structural path we're on here. As long as we help Ukraine with the weapons they need and the economic support, they will fight to the last person,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) early into the war, accidentally voicing what the war’s critics have often said about the war — that the U.S. will fight it “to the last Ukrainian.” Later, Graham called it the “best money we’ve ever spent.”
“It is a relatively modest amount that we are contributing without being asked to risk life and limb,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Associated Press last year. “The Ukrainians are willing to fight the fight for us if the West will give them the provisions. It’s a pretty good deal.”
“I call that a bargain,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has said about the war funding, pointing to the damage Ukrainian forces had inflicted on the Russian military.
“No Americans are getting killed in Ukraine. We’re rebuilding our industrial base. The Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest rivals. I have a hard time finding anything wrong with that,” U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remarked.
Americans “should be satisfied that we’re getting our money’s worth on our Ukraine investment,” wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), because “for less than 3 percent of our nation’s military budget, we’ve enabled Ukraine to degrade Russia’s military strength by half,” and “all without a single American service woman or man injured or lost.”
But politicians aren’t the only armchair warriors who look at the enormous death and destruction suffered by Ukraine by prolonging the war as akin to a brilliant business decision. Hawkish think tanks have made similar arguments.
“When viewed from a bang-per-buck perspective, U.S. and Western support for Ukraine is an incredibly cost-effective investment,” Timothy Garten Ashe wrote for the weapons maker-funded Center for European Policy Analysis. “Support for Ukraine remains a bargain for American national security,” wrote Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia Peter Rough. “For about 5 percent of total U.S. defense spending over the past 20 months, Ukraine has badly degraded Russia, one of the United States’ top adversaries, without shedding a single drop of American blood.”
And major U.S. newspapers have likewise published similar perspectives. “We have a determined partner in Ukraine that is willing to bear the consequences of war so that we do not have to do so ourselves in the future,” former top George W. Bush officials Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates celebrated in the pages of the Washington Post.
“For all the aid we’ve given Ukraine, we are the true beneficiaries in the relationship, and they the true benefactors,” wrote Bret Stephens at the New York Times, pointing to the fact that NATO is paying in only money, while “Ukrainians are counting their costs in lives and limbs lost.”
What’s distasteful about this is not just the flippant way it treats the unimaginable scale of loss of life, permanentdisability and emerging long-term crises being experienced by Ukrainians — as mere abacus beads to be moved around in a cost-benefit analysis centered on the United States and its NATO allies. It’s also the fact that, far from being “willing,” “determined” and ready to “fight to the last person,” many Ukrainians have demonstrated that they do not want to risk their lives in this war — a share of the population that is getting larger and more vocal the longer the war has gone on.
Since the start of the war, when many fleeing Ukrainian men were stopped at the border and ordered to return to potentially fight, thousands of Ukrainians have defied the government’s ban on men aged between 18 and 60 leaving the country — to the point of spending large sums of money and even risking their lives to get out.
Many hunkered down in their homes to dodge enlistment officers, while tens of thousands signed a petition opposing increasingly aggressive conscription practices. Early last year, Ukraine’s parliament upped the punishment for desertion, which soldiers have this year admitted is still a growing problem.
By November 2023, the BBC determined that a total of nearly 20,000 Ukrainian men had fled the country to avoid being drafted, while the State Border Service revealed a month later that more than 16,500 had been stopped from leaving. At one point, the country’s law enforcement uncovered a massive scheme across nearly a dozen regions that gave out falsified medical certificates declaring someone unfit for military service in return for as much as $10,000.
These plans have engendered massive opposition, with protests by soldiers’ families that have taken place around the country since last year calling for a cap on the length of military service continuing and intensifying; earlier this month. One hundred women blocked a road and mistakenly attacked another woman due to rumors of draft officials coming to take the village’s men away.
“I don’t see the 500,000 more people ready to die,” admitted a former Ukrainian government minister and current army captain last November.
It increasingly appears that many of those who are most enthusiastic to keep the war going and avoid a negotiated end aren’t, as we keep being told, the Ukrainians who are most likely to be killed or wounded in the fighting. Instead they are politicians and commentators far, far away from the front line in other countries who view its attendant death and destruction as akin to a board game — or, in their words, as a “good deal,” a “bargain,” and a satisfying “investment” for their own countries.
In other words, it looks increasingly like all too many other U.S.-led wars.