From Trump to Biden: Existential threats

November 16, 2020

The Trump administration will come to an end on the 20th of January when Joe Biden is sworn in as the new US President. When Trump took office, we here at PAX were as stunned as everyone else. A number of my colleagues shared their thoughts on what the Trump administration might mean for PAX´s work (see the blog series “Trump’s Troops”).

Now that the end is in sight, it’s time to see if our concerns were justified, and to look ahead at how we think the Biden administration will handle the post-Trump era.

Working on issues of existential threat – nuclear weapons, climate change – gives a person an interesting perspective when it comes to temporal changes like US Presidential elections. Sure, the world was hanging on a thread last week, watching to see which way the political winds would blow. But why aren’t we looking at the hurricane wind battered coastlines, or wondering if the man with sole authority to launch nuclear weapons would send a radioactivity tinged vapour into their homes?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists summed it up best last year when they said that they could no longer measure the risk of nuclear annihilation or climate change disaster in minutes. Instead, they moved to measuring the risk in seconds. One hundred seconds, to be precise. That’s how dire this group of eminent scientists determined sees the current situation.

The facts support this claim. Trump, his administration and his Republican cronies showed utter contempt for the multilateral cooperation which has proven to keep the world safe. Out of the starting gate they pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, which itself was a modest enough proposal, but one which had universal support. Not only that, but they sought to undermine other efforts to protect the environment, including decades old agreements protecting national parks, wildlife refuges, and the arctic. Direct assaults on environmental protections were only mirrored by direct attacks on multilateral arms control.

In fact, the Trump administration pulled out or significantly undermined nearly all nuclear arms control agreements. First the Iran deal, an agreement between Germany, France, China, Russia, the UK, the US, and Iran designed to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The deal was working. Inspectors were on the ground, and Iran’s nuclear weapons programme was halted. But then the US pulled out, and the rest of those involved have been trying to find ways to keep this six-way bargain from collapsing ever since. The current US plan is to put maximum sanction pressure on Iran to try and force their hand and prevent the others from returning to the negotiating table after the current US administration leaves office. For the Iranian people, who are the ones bearing the sanctions burden, this next couple of months could have disastrous consequences.

Of course, there is also the fraying bilateral agreements between the US and Russia. The tearing up of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement combined with Republican desire to build more and more nuclear weapons of all types, means short-range missiles could dot the world, able to annihilate their targets in about 20 minutes. The end of the Open Skies Treaty means no more independent checking of the other side’s intention, and the failure to extend the new START treaty means we’re on the cusp of a completely unchecked, unguarded nuclear arms race.

But not all is lost.

The incoming Biden administration has already committed to re-joining the Paris Climate Accord. It is likely to look for a transition from a carbon fuelled economy to one that moves towards carbon neutrality. And one can imagine that extending new START and coming back to the multilateral fold will be an early effort from an incoming administration that recognises none of these challenges can be handled alone, and multilateral cooperation is the only way to address the threats to everyone’s existence.

See Susi Snyder’s blog from the start of the Trump administration

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