Sixty years ago this week, U.S. President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at American University that transformed the nature of the Cold War, turning the insanity of nuclear brinkmanship into the relative safety of negotiation. Coming just eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world harrowingly close to armageddon, Kennedy noted the “ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers [on earth] are the two in the most danger of devastation.”
That, he said, had to stop—not to achieve some “infinite concept of universal peace and goodwill” but rather to secure “a more practical, more attainable peace.”
In an act of political courage for the time, Kennedy then delivered a unilateral concession to Moscow, saying the United States “does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so.” Astonishingly, given the hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet government broadcast Kennedy’s June 10, 1963, address in its entirety, and it was published by the Soviet newspapers Izvestia and Pravda. On July 25, 1963, after only 12 days of negotiations, a nuclear test ban treaty was signed.
Where is the political courage of yesteryear?
In a speech at the Arms Control Association’s annual conference on June 2, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan took a very different tack. Sullivan signaled—though he likely didn’t intend to—that there is little hope for restraining the threat of nuclear war in the foreseeable future. Sullivan conceded that there was no meaningful U.S. communication with either Russia or China, that Washington was engaging in tit-for-tat reprisals against Moscow by suspending day-to-day missile operations notification, and that the United States would continue to push for military dominance over both Russia and China for decades to come.
Sullivan, rightly blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for bringing nuclear brinkmanship back into the conventional war equation, said “the cracks in our post-Cold War nuclear foundation are substantial and they are deep.” But in the end, Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University, told Foreign Policy, Sullivan “offered nothing, no proposals.”
To be fair, the Biden administration is already being criticized by Republicans for proposing unconditional nuclear talks with both Russia and China. Indeed, U.S. President Joe Biden is clearly avoiding what may be his biggest foreign-policy fear leading up to the 2024 presidential election: the perception of being soft on China. That sort of political pressure at home, combined with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s apparent determination to rapidly build up his nuclear capability, suggests a long-term arms race.
Yet Sullivan did little to ameliorate those fears last week. On the contrary, he announced that the United States is pursuing an arms race in order to prevent an arms race.
“Together with our NATO allies, we’ve been laser-focused on modernizing the alliance’s nuclear capabilities,” Sullivan said, including “certifying our F-35 aircraft to be able to deliver modern nuclear gravity bombs. … Together, these modernization efforts will ensure our deterrent capabilities remain secure and strong as we head into the 2030s—when the United States will need to deter two near-peer nuclear powers for the first time in its history.”
Sullivan denied that he was calling for a new arms race, contending the Biden administration was taking a “better” approach rather than a “more” one. “The United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them,” he said. But Sullivan was basically telling the Chinese and Russians that Washington will continue to insist on precisely what both Beijing and Moscow have said they can no longer accept: U.S. hegemony in the global system.
As a result, Bunn said, “I’m fairly worried that we have a level of hostility that is the worst since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
There is no question that Putin is mainly responsible for bringing back the nuclear threat, beginning with his “escalate to de-escalate” policy—that is, threatening nuclear war to prevent conflicts from getting worse. Humiliated by the fierce Ukrainian resistance to his invasion, Putin has also repeatedly hinted that he could use nukes, announcing he was moving tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus and suspending participation in the New START treaty, Moscow’s last major arms control pact with Washington. Without giving any evidence, Putin also declared that Washington was considering breaking the moratorium on nuclear testing, saying, “If the United States conducts tests, then we will.”
But beyond decrying Putin’s rhetoric, no one is doing much about the fact that the major powers are slipping into a new era of nuclear brinkmanship—one in which no one knows when a conventional war might become a nuclear one. “That’s the trajectory we are on,” said Lynn Rusten, of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
While both the United States and China have forcefully said nuclear weapons should be off the table—most recently with Xi seeming to oppose Putin’s Belarus plan—their actions speak somewhat differently. A battery of recent war games indicate that the United States, under current conditions, would probably be unable to deter a Chinese invasion or blockade of Taiwan with conventional forces; and the Biden administration has been notably reluctant to implement the “no first use” pledge Biden made during the campaign. Following China’s snub of an offer of talks last week between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, Sullivan said he had no immediate answer about the prospects for a long term nuclear arms race. “We have not as of yet seen [China] willing to engage in that discussion,” he said in response to a question at the June 2 conference.
Meanwhile, China continues to escalate, all without sharing any information about “the size and scope of its nuclear forces, or to provide launch notifications,” Sullivan said at the same event. “By 2035, [China] is on track to have as many as 1,500 nuclear warheads—one of the largest peacetime nuclear build-ups in history.”
U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific still relies, to a certain extent, on the Pentagon’s belief that the larger U.S. nuclear arsenal would be enough to deter escalation in the region. But Washington “did not fully appreciate the seriousness of China’s threats,” several experts found in a war game conducted last year by the Center for a New American Security. The experts projected that despite China’s stated no first use nuclear policy, in the event of a military conflict over Taiwan, Beijing might detonate a nuclear weapon off the coast of Hawaii as a warning. In an after-action assessment, Stacie Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser wrote, “The war game ended before the U.S. team could respond, but it is likely that the first use of a nuclear weapon since World War II would have provoked a response.”
Meanwhile, Biden continues to push Putin up against the wall, repeatedly breaching his own administration’s red line by escalating arms aid to Ukraine—most recently agreeing to help Ukraine deploy F-16 fighter jets. Amy Woolf, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that Putin’s unwillingness to deploy nuclear weapons so far may be an indication that “the currency of nuclear threats is diminished.” If so, that is a good sign. But it could also lead to a situation where the Russian leader may have little option but to admit conventional failure and ratchet up his nuclear posture and threats.
The Biden administration’s confident view seems to be that Putin has been bluffing on nukes, and that has encouraged no small amount of triumphalism: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week delivered a blustery speech in Helsinki—practically on Putin’s doorstep—declaring that the Russian leader’s war of aggression against Ukraine “has been a strategic failure, greatly diminishing Russia’s power, its interests, and its influence for years to come.”
But Blinken’s rhetoric carries with it uncomfortable reminders of famous last words. Putin and the Kremlin mandarins are never going to acknowledge strategic failure, and for an aggrieved and isolated leader such as Putin, it may be only a short walk from bluffing to blowing things up. Kennedy himself alluded to this danger in his speech 60 years ago, when he said that “nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” Such a course, he said, would amount to “evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy—or of a collective death-wish for the world.”
What most people don’t realize, said Daniel Ellsberg, author of the 2017 book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is that we have entered an era in which nuclear weapons are already, in effect, being deployed to change the nature of conflict. “[The United States] and Russia are using nuclear weapons right now on both sides, and using them deliberating and effectively,” Ellsberg, the famous Pentagon Papers leaker who recently announced he had only months to live at age 92, told me in a May 8 Zoom interview. “[The United States has] used them dozens of times in the past and continuously in NATO—the way you use a gun when you point it at somebody’s head in a confrontation. Whether you pull the trigger or not, you are using the weapon.
“Right now, if [the United States] were not threatening nuclear war,” Ellsberg said, “Putin would be bombing Polish supply bases. If Putin, on the other hand, were not threatening that if the U.S. becomes directly involved, he will pull the trigger on his tactical nuclear weapons, [the United States] would be flying air power in Ukraine right now. They’re keeping the war from getting bigger; very good—but at the cost of legitimizing the system.”
Adding to the tension is the new seeming willingness of North Korea to use its nukes preemptively, and Iran’s inching closer and closer to nuclear breakout—not only with nothing to restrain it, but also possibly with Russia now encouraging it. That, in turn, could encourage more proliferation, especially on the part of Saudi Arabia, which has grown increasingly estranged from the United States and is already pushing for a “nuclear Aramco,” referring to the giant Saudi state oil company.
China’s future posture poses just as great a danger. Worryingly, Washington and Beijing see the threat in entirely different ways, said Francesca Giovannini, executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. The United States wants to “compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues in the relationship,” as Sullivan put it in his June 2 speech, or to put in guardrails to “de-conflict” the region. But China would likely only be willing to discuss nuclear weapons in the context of the overall strategic relationship—including a concession by Washington to cede Beijing’s right to reclaim Taiwan and to consign the Indo-Pacific to China’s sphere of influence, Giovaninni said.
This will likely never happen. “The Chinese think that anything less than this will show weakness and just result in more U.S. bullying,” she said. That is a recipe for long-term stalemate—and more nuclear brinkmanship.
In his speech last week, Sullivan said the world was at an “inflection point” that demanded “new strategies for achieving the same goal we’ve held since the Cold War: Reduce the risk of nuclear conflict.” Instead, we seem to be inching inexorably back toward a time when, as Kennedy commented 60 years ago, any “two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, [can] decide to bring an end to civilization.”