Relocations: The other existential threat

Anti-nuclear weapons activists in Australia hoisted a banner to protest their government's refusal to endorse a UN nuclear disarmament treaty in 2017. Photo via Voice of America
November 24, 2022

I would have welcomed a call by Donald Trump to intensify concern about nuclear annihilation

By Herbert Rothschild

Right after Donald Trump finished announcing his 2024 candidacy for president, news organizations began to point out the many lies that, predictably, his speech contained. The most egregious was, “They say the ocean will rise one-eighth of an inch over the next 200 to 300 years.” That was the most egregious because the claim ludicrously underestimated what anyone who speaks on the subject predicts. And most egregious because the threat from rising sea levels and other climate-related catastrophes is so great that Republican leaders must stop obstructing efforts to address it.

Herbert Rothschild

Trump made that claim in what at first seemed an effort to refocus attention on the threat that nuclear weapons pose to our future. “The Green New Deal and the environment — which they say may affect us in 300 years — is all that is talked about. And yet nuclear weapons, which would destroy the world immediately, are never even discussed as a major threat.” I would have welcomed a call to intensify national concern about nuclear weapons. Regrettably, Trump said nothing about what he did in office about that threat or what he would do if returned to office. So, the issue fell back into his grab bag of assertions about Biden’s failures and the pressing need for the nation to recall its savior.

Trump’s record on nuclear weapons policy was poor. His most publicized action was to withdraw from the Iran deal, which had induced Iran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons. That mistake was never undone. When we reopened negotiations, Iran told the Biden administration that the necessary prelude to reinstating the agreement was again to lift the U.S. sanctions that had been lifted as part of the original deal but which Trump had reimposed. After all, their negotiators pointed out, it was the U.S. that had withdrawn from the agreement. No, the Biden administration said. First Iran had to undo the steps it had taken in the interim to restart its program. A stalemate ensued, and now talks essentially have ended.

Less publicized were Trump’s decisions to withdraw from two other agreements. In 2019 he ended the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a pact with Russia that banned deployment of nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The INF, signed in 1987, was the first step to ending the Cold War. In 2020, Trump also withdrew us from the 1992 international Treaty on Open Skies. It requires a nation that is party to the treaty to allow other party nations to conduct a certain number of unarmed reconnaissance flights over its territories each year.

The Biden administration has done nothing to undo these decisions. Granted, it would have been impossible to get two-thirds of the U.S. Senate to ratify any arms control agreement. Regarding the Open Skies treaty, however, the way Trump exited from it defied Congress’s legislated requirement. “I strongly believe that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the treaty is a violation of domestic law,” Bob Menendez, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at the time, pointing to a provision in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the administration to justify a withdrawal four months before any formal notification of withdrawal could be given. President Trump “brazenly” ignored the law, Menendez asserted, and encouraged President-elect Biden to rejoin the pact after his inauguration (The Hill, 11/22/20). Biden hasn’t.

The one quite extraordinary initiative Trump took was to hold face-to-face talks with the leader of North Korea. His three personal meetings with Kim Jung Un, in tandem with wider-ranging diplomacy between the two Korean governments, were very promising. Kim Jung Un’s openness suggested that a less egotistical president with more understanding of, and patience for, sustained diplomacy might make real progress. The Biden administration has shown no interest thus far.

Under each administration, the Department of Defense must issue a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Trump’s, issued in February 2022, was more schizophrenic than most about nuclear weapons as part of our arsenal. Thus, “The deterrence effects they provide are unique and essential to preventing adversary nuclear attacks, which is the highest priority of the United States.” But the document listed an array of non-nuclear attacks that could constitute grounds for a U.S. nuclear response, among them attacks on the civilian population of the U.S. or its allies, even by a non-nuclear weapons state, in contravention of our obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). “The United States will apply a tailored and flexible approach to effectively deter across a spectrum of adversaries.”

Well, what about Biden’s NPR, released to the public last month? It contains much more positive language on arms control than Trump’s–“(M)utual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to achieving a key goal: reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy.” Like every other administration, however, Biden’s is unwilling to declare a “No first use” policy. Further, while far more hedged than Trump’s NPR was about using nuclear weapons other than to deter a nuclear attack, his NPR mentions using them in unspecified “extreme circumstances.”

We can feel more secure with Biden’s finger on the nuclear trigger than Trump’s, but Biden has signaled no desire to end the threat of nuclear annihilation. His NPR explicitly rejects the UN treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. Further, while Biden and leaders of other NATO nations have been careful to avoid letting NATO get drawn into a war with Russia over Ukraine, which would run a high risk of escalating to nuclear, that remains a real possibility. I worried that Ukraine fired the missile that fell on Poland last week to draw NATO into its war. Fortunately, no one reacted until its origin was determined. Yet, as UN Secretary General António Guterres remarked in August at the opening of the Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy.” 

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Email Rothschild at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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