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Opinion: Where does the U.S. stand on nuclear war with Russia?

The U.S. has worked to avoid nuclear war throughout history, but it’s prepared to act if Vladimir Putin uses nuclear weapons

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A damaged gas mask lies in the dirt in Ukraine.

A damaged gas mask lies outside Kyiv, Ukraine, March 31, 2022. Russia’s assault on Ukraine and its veiled threats of using nuclear arms have policymakers questioning how the West should respond to a Russian battlefield explosion of a nuclear bomb. The default U.S. policy answer, say some architects of the post-Cold War nuclear order, is with discipline and restraint. 

Vadim Ghirda, Associated Press

“In any case, the Americans would not respond disproportionately.”

Peggy Noonan, respected and influential columnist for The Wall Street Journal, made this statement regarding the possibility that Russia will use nuclear weapons in the continuing war with Ukraine.

Her startling statement has ambiguity, but implies that the United States would launch nuclear weapons only to the extent that Russia did so. That alone is a terrifying prospect, but one which must be considered given alarming public statements by President Vladimir Putin.

Putin, who prefers to view NATO as the aggressor in the Ukraine war, has stated further escalation of the fighting could introduce nuclear weapons. These distinctively destructive and horrific weapons have been off limits since the U.S. dropped two of them on Japanese cities to end World War II.

Contrary good news, generally ignored by the mass media, is that in January, Moscow and Washington quietly agreed to extend the New START treaty for five years, until 2026. This treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russia President Dmitry Medvedev, limits nuclear warheads on each side to 1,550, plus limitations on missiles and bombers.

Nuclear arms represented the highest-stakes arena of the Cold War. In response, governments created both nuclear and conventional weapons control agreements, and such efforts have continued since that global conflict ended.

The Trump administration proved erratic on nuclear weapons matters. Initial emphasis on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was unsuccessful. In August 2019, the administration withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, complaining of violations by Russia.

Nuclear summits involving large numbers of nations and international organizations were an important initiative of the Obama administration. The 2016 Nuclear Summit in Washington, D.C., concluded with a formal statement underscoring nuclear weapons control.

Unfortunately, Russia did not participate, reflecting Russia’s strained relations with other nations following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Nonetheless, the major conference reinforced the important, tangible United Nations framework to coordinate efforts regarding the threat of nuclear terrorism. Specifically, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, passed in 2004, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), provide a legal foundation for action and facilitate cooperation.

The first nuclear summit took place in 2010, also in Washington, D.C. Others took place in 2012 in Seoul, South Korea, and 2014 in The Hague in the Netherlands.

In 1986, during the Soviet-U.S. summit in Iceland, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan surprised staffs and the world by pledging to the abolition of all nuclear weapons. That utopian vision fostered a more practical result, the INF Treaty signed by Gorbachev and Reagan in 1987.

Reductions in nuclear weapons are desirable, but efforts to outlaw all nuclear weapons is fundamentally flawed. Destroying all known nuclear weapons would provide a decisive advantage to any power that secretly retains even a few.

Another benchmark in arms control occurred in 1972 when the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) led to treaties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union limiting both offensive and defensive missile systems.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, an initiative of President Dwight Eisenhower, facilitates peaceful nuclear energy and provides long-term restraint on nuclear weapons proliferation. Eisenhower, always comprehensive in vision, also achieved demilitarization of Antarctica.

In 1954, Eisenhower firmly vetoed use of nuclear weapons to support France, losing a colonial war in Indochina. In direct terms, he reinforced President Harry Truman’s refusal to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War.

Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”