foreign policy

Why Nuclear Weapons Are Shaping Up As a Big 2020 Campaign Issue

Making nukes relevant again. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s announcement Tuesday that in 60 days it will pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia shifts the foreign policy landscape in three very big ways. It reopens one of the sorest spots in the U.S.–European relationship. It delivers another blow to the global consensus that nuclear weapons should be reduced and never used. And it creates, rather unexpectedly, a new policy front in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign.

The treaty, which bans nuclear-equipped weapons that hit targets between 300 and 3,000 miles from land-based launchers, was signed in 1987 in response to the worst political crisis to hit U.S.–European relations up to that time. The trick about missiles with that range is that, launched from the continental U.S., they don’t hit Russia; launched from Russia, they don’t hit the U.S. Launched from either, they target Europe. They made European countries first-tier targets and raised the specter of a U.S.–Soviet nuclear exchange that wrecked Europe but left North America unscathed.

As those missiles were developed, and their deployment debated, the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less than 40 years past. Cold War tensions remained very high. Opposition to the missiles’ deployment was strong in the U.S., but paled in comparison to Europe’s, where it brought millions of people into the streets. Washington worried about breaking NATO; meanwhile, although we didn’t know it, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was worried about the cost of the arms race breaking Soviet power. When Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met in Reykjavik in 1986 and pledged to work toward major reductions in nuclear weapons, setting in motion the talks that led to the INF Treaty the next year, they used high-minded rhetoric about nuclear disarmament to achieve practical objectives — financial and alliance management, as well as the stability that came from getting rid of weapons that would have had to be launched fast and irrevocably in the event of a crisis.

Thirty years later, Americans and Europeans, Republicans and Democrats, agree that Russia is developing weapons that violate the treaty. Moscow, in response, asserts that U.S. launchers in Central Europe break treaty rules as well. But many Europeans and Democrats, and even quietly some Republicans, say that quitting the treaty — and especially the effort to develop and deploy currently banned weapons that the administration also previewed this week — will land us right back in a transatlantic crisis.
The intervening decades have not altered basic geography — Europeans want assurances that the U.S. will not treat their homes as an expendable battlefield in a miliatry conflict with Russia. Comments made about the Korean conflict by Senator Lindsey Graham — “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here” — are not reassuring to those already on edge about this question.

Although nuclear weapons seemed obsolete to many after the Cold War, in fact three new nuclear states have emerged since the Soviet Union fell apart (India, Pakistan, and North Korea). China has ramped up its arsenal, Russia is modernizing its, and Washington is preparing to do the same. The goal of a world free of nuclear weapons seems much farther away than it did in 1986. This fact has produced both new interest among some countries in obtaining nuclear weapons, and new hostility among nonnuclear countries, which recently negotiated and signed a Ban Treaty aimed squarely at Washington and Moscow. The Trump administration says that it is leaving the treaty because “words have to mean something,” and Moscow is violating it. But Washington’s words also mean something to the rest of the world.

It looks as if congressional Democrats think they mean something to 2020 voters as well. The weeks since the midterms have seen a groundswell of leaders from the Establishment and progressive wings of the party — including some presidential hopefuls — calling on Trump to stay in the INF Treaty and put the brakes on plans to expand the American nuclear arsenal. The incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, has called for “a nuclear weapons policy that reduces the number of weapons and reduces the likelihood of any sort of nuclear conflict.” The leading Senate Democrats from the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Intelligence Committees released a letter this week calling on Trump to stay in the INF Treaty. And when Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a foreign policy speech last week that many saw as an opening salvo in a presidential bid, what issue did she pick to crystallize her critique of Trump as both corrupt and reckless? Aggressive spending on new nuclear weapons, while withdrawing from existing arms-control treaties.

The last time nuclear weapons played a role in a presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush wasn’t just alive, he was a candidate. But every single person who is fantasizing about the Democratic nomination shares the legacy that belongs to Reagan and Bush as well as JFK and every president since — that the safest way to deal with the greatest dangers is through international cooperation, and that the “freedom” to fire off a nuclear weapon of any size at will is no freedom at all. With Russia indicating that it will match Washington’s withdrawal and aim to match it in any new arms race — as well as nuclear worries continuing to bubble in North Korea and Iran — it looks as if Americans will have lots of opportunity to have that debate between now and November 2020.

Why Nuclear Weapons Are Shaping Up As a 2020 Campaign Issue