Pandemic-Nuclear Nexus Scenarios Project
The US Election and Nuclear Order in the Post-Pandemic World
Leon V. Sigal
US power and prestige may have diminished in recent years, but the United States still plays a pivotal role in international institutions, alliances, and mass media, so who becomes its president and which party controls Congress matter a lot for the global nuclear order. However unlikely it is that Donald Trump’s expressed desire to contest the election’s outcome could succeed, whether the nation can avert a violent backlash among disappointed partisans is less clear.
Nuclear weapons are often thought to be the esoteric domain of experts. Yet one need only recall that although mass activism does not guarantee policy change, three of the most significant developments in recent decades – the ban on above-ground nuclear tests, the INF Treaty, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall – would not have happened without mass protests in many countries. And citizen involvement, organized by NGOs, can even facilitate monitoring of arms agreements and nuclear developments in some countries.
The public’s understandable preoccupation with COVID-19, economic distress, racial animus, and climate change leave scant scope for paying heed to nuclear risks, which makes mobilization of a mass anti-nuclear movement unlikely. Absent popular action, however, positive change to the global nuclear order will continue to be marginal and fitful. This makes the international milieu critical for the nuclear future – a milieu that a president can influence but not determine.
President Trump’s reelection is likely to have a pernicious effect on that milieu, hindering international cooperation to limit nuclear weapons and accelerating a qualitative arms race that could endanger crisis stability. Yet two of Trump’s more positive impulses are likely to continue. He is unlikely to increase the risk of an intense crisis leading to nuclear war because he wants to avoid U.S. involvement in any wars, not start new ones. He will also try to sustain negotiations with North Korea to curb nuclear developments there, though whether he is prepared to satisfy Pyongyang’s stiffer demands remains in doubt.
His opponent, Joseph Biden, will face those same demands. Personnel is policy, and the Biden administration will likely be staffed with officials who served under President Obama. That means a return to shoring up alliances and international cooperation. It also means continuity with Obama’s nuclear policies. Whether he will curtail Obama’s modernization plans is not clear, but in contrast to Trump, he will try his best to restore the JCPOA, which could head off nuclear weapons development not only in Iran but also in Saudi Arabia. He will also strive to save START, seek technical talks with China, and not abandon the Open Skies accord.
Biden, Trump, crisis stability, international milieu, JCPOA, New START, nuclear arms race, Open Skies.
About the Author
Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project in New York and has participated in Track II talks with North Korea for two decades. He was a member of the editorial board of The New York Times from 1989 to 1995. He served in the Bureau of Politico- Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, in 1979 as International Affairs Fellow and in 1980 as Special Assistant to the Director. He was a Rockefeller Younger Scholar in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in 1972-1974 and a guest scholar there in 1981-1984. From 1974 to 1989 he was a professor of government at Wesleyan University. He was an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs from 1985 to 1989 and from 1996 to 2000 and a visiting lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School in 1988, 2000, and 2018.