Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, executive director of The RedLines Project, is a contributor to CNN, where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today” and translator of “An Impossible Dream: Reagan, Gorbachev, and a World Without the Bomb,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
As images of President Donald Trump meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were plastered all over newspapers and TV screens, this week seems a good time to assess just how much less safe the world is in Trump’s third year as President.
Many nations are edging toward developing or improving a host of nuclear forces, leaving the world restrained from Armageddon only by a fraying understanding of the horrific consequences.
There are few more constraints we can load onto North Korea now that talks between Trump and Kim have broken down. Already, the United States has imposed heavier sanctions than the United Nations has implemented, with little sense that China will refrain from vetoing any further new global sanctions.
Yet every evidence suggests that Kim is building a major new underground missile facility, large enough to accommodate its Hwasong-14 missile, capable of reaching Chicago, even New York or Washington, with its 10,000 km range. First tested six months after Trump was inaugurated in 2017, North Korean news reports observed that this missile could “strike anywhere on earth,” and analysts believe it is capable of carrying a nuclear payload.
Most troubling? Satellite images suggest North Korea may be developing a new secret missile facility deep beneath the mountains of central North Korea large enough to accommodate the Hwasong-14. Even President Trump acknowledged in his post-summit news conference that “we know every inch of that country” – though that doesn’t seem to have given the President any pause to walk out on Kim.
The only restraints now on North Korea going forward will have to come from its neighbor, China. Beijing hardly wants an unpredictable, fully-nuclearized neighbor but seems unwilling to take the kind of measures needed to put a brake on Kim’s moves. The only move that China fears more is the utter collapse of the Kim regime and millions of North Korean refugees pouring across the frontier.
In Iran, one of the few remaining restraining influences on Iran’s nuclear program, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, resigned on Monday. While the next day, President Hassan Rouhani refused to accept the resignation, there is no sense that the pro-nuclear forces that likely impelled Zarif to take that action have been defused.
Zarif has long been seen as the principal proponent of Iran continuing to respect the agreement that has prevented it from developing a deliverable nuclear weapon. Now, Trump has sought to torpedo the accord.
Zarif worked closely with European officials who have insisted on the need to keep that agreement in force. Still, in the wake of the restoration of American sanctions, there are powerful forces within Iran agitating for a breakout from the agreement and headlong dash toward a nuclear capability.
“Without Zarif at the helm of the Foreign Ministry, overt nuclear escalation may well be entertained by those in Iran who want to contest the Trump administration’s resolve on Iran,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Post, noting that the real power within Iran is the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has long advocated for a resumption of a nuclear weapons program.
The Kingdom is, more than ever, still lusting after a nuclear capability. The nation’s powerful Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has said publicly that if Iran develops its own nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia will immediately acquire its own. The Trump administration has considered selling Saudi Arabia civilian nuclear plants that could easily be re-programmed to develop fuel for nuclear weapons, as a US Congressional report suggested.
Pakistan, with its own significant nuclear arsenal and as a frequent recipient of Saudi financial largesse, has long been seen as a potential quick source for a nuclear weapon for its fellow Islamic nation. Last week, bin Salman swept through Pakistan with $20 billion worth of “contracts” for its new Prime Minister, Imran Khan. Also meeting with Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Crown Prince emphasized how important it was to strengthen military ties between the two countries.
Shortly thereafter, the worst conflict since 1971 broke out between India and Pakistan, each with substantial nuclear forces. India says it launched air strikes into Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Pakistani says its air force then shot down two Indian warplanes, while India claimed to have shot down a Pakistani jet that responded. The immediate issue is India’s charge that Pakistan is supporting the militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, which India labels a terrorist organization implicated in suicide bombings on its territory.
Khan observed that neither country could afford any “miscalculations,” warning that further escalations could spiral out of control. Pakistan is especially sensitive. It has held that since the arrival of the Trump administration, the US has begun to tilt toward India and away from Muslim-controlled Pakistan, creating a dangerous imbalance in South Asia.
While both countries have long possessed substantial nuclear arsenals, Pakistan has embarked on a program to add nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to its naval forces in apparent retaliation against India’s deployment of its first nuclear submarine. Trump has done little to defuse any such nuclear buildup or tensions between the two powers.
A new Cold War nuclear showdown seems to be brewing since Trump’s move to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that was one of the highlights of Soviet-era superpower diplomacy. Though perhaps only marginally observed, it offered at least a degree of restraint on a relaunch of a debilitating nuclear arms race that Russia is more capable of shouldering now than under the weak and nearly bankrupt Soviet regime.
Indeed, on the immediate heels of Trump’s move to withdraw from this treaty and a gesture of disdain over the New START strategic treaty regulating ICBM missiles, Putin has showed off the weapons of just such a new arms race – hypersonic nuclear missiles. And he even threatened a new “Cuban missile crisis,” placing these missiles on ships or submarines off the US coast.
The only element of the east-west nuclear treaty system that still remains in force is the 2010 New START agreement that is due for renewal in 2021, with National Security Adviser John Bolton opposed to its extension. “This is the most severe crisis in nuclear arms control since the 1980s,” Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute, told The Guardian.
In short, the collapse of the North Korean talks has only highlighted the dangerous and unstable fault lines, many deeply interdependent, where we suddenly find ourselves. It is time that Donald Trump begins to understand the stakes and rein in his desires to shake up a world that is already profoundly shaken.