With coronavirus, racial tensions, climate change, and cybersecurity impacting our lives, it is easy to forget the other issues we face as a nation. Unfortunately, most problems get worse if ignored.
In the case of nuclear weapons, the Trump administration withdrew from nuclear treaties with Russia and Iran, and failed to establish an agreement with North Korea and or get China engaged in a serious discussion. So, today we live in a world with multipolar nuclear threats as tensions rise over economic and other issues.
Therefore, the Biden administration will need to add nuclear proliferation and arms control to its already packed and urgent agenda. There are two decisions regarding international nuclear issues that must be taken in short order. Both need to be followed by committed and difficult discussions and are likely to require considerable attention.
The most urgent arms control action is the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia that limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons on each side to 1,550. New START has been in place for five years and is set to expire on Feb. 5, unless agreement is made to extend it.
Trump insisted, and then reneged, on China’s inclusion in the treaty and then on adding other elements to the treaty. An extension decision has not been made.
President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Joe Biden have both indicated their support for the allowed 5-year extension. While snags are possible and differences of opinion exist, most experts support and have confidence New START will be extended.
But follow-on negotiations, to include other important issues the Trump administration recognized, will then be necessary and are likely to be both difficult to negotiate and monitor.
The second urgent action is whether and how to re-enter the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The JCPOA, commonly referred to as the Iran Deal, was agreed to by China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany in addition to the United States. However, since the U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018, Iran has increased the capacity and level of uranium enrichment thereby enabling Iran to produce a nuclear weapon in a few months rather than the year or more intended by the limitations in the Deal.
Again, Biden has said he would re-enter the JCPOA if Iran agreed to abide by its limitations and if additional negotiations could occur on other nuclear issues. Iran has said it would re-enter the agreement but would not negotiate any additional limitations. The matter needs attention before tensions rise further.
As if coming to agreement on existing agreements and negotiating more comprehensive agreements with Russia and Iran are not enough, there are still looming concerns about China and North Korea.
Fresh ideas are needed too for these engagements.
From open-source analysis, China has 200 to 300 weapons and will double that in the next 10 years. They have expressed a lack of interest in arms control until the U.S. and Russia reduce their weapons stockpile to a comparable level.
However, U.S. experts worry about the lack of transparency on nuclear capabilities and doctrine, and the potential for nuclear use in a crisis.
North Korea has now developed nuclear warheads small enough to fit on missiles, and missiles with enough range to target both the U.S. and our allies. In a Jan. 9 speech, Kim Jong Un vowed to advance his nuclear arsenal and declared the U.S. the biggest enemy of North Korea.
While these topics may seem esoteric, it is important that the U.S. public understands the issues and pays attention to government actions.
In New Mexico, we are fortunate to have two national labs with experts to generate some of the ideas and technologies that can advance new solutions to these important issues. With a thoughtful government approach, strong diplomacy, and engagement of the public and top scientists, progress can be made on these existential challenges.
Jill Hruby is a distinguished fellow at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and a member of numerous boards and advisory committees on national security issues.