Updated: Aug 7
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ doomsday clock, which symbolizes how close the world is to global catastrophe, is presently at 100 seconds to midnight. This is the closest the clock has been to midnight in its history, due in part to the actions of the Trump administration in exacerbating the threat of nuclear conflict. Under the Trump presidency, the US has unilaterally withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (informally known as the Iran Nuclear Deal), retreated from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987, and refused to renew the New START Treaty. The New START Treaty in particular is known as “the last remaining bilateral treaty governing US and Russian strategic nuclear forces,” and is set to expire in February 2021.
Given the dire threat of a nuclear conflict, the Biden administration must make nuclear arms control a top priority. Upon entering office on January 20, 2021, the Biden administration has only two weeks to renew the New Start Treaty with Russia before it expires. The Biden administration must also re-enter the Iran Nuclear deal.
Biden, in order to significantly de-escalate the threat of nuclear war, must do far more than simply reversing the Trump administration’s catastrophic actions. The present threat of a nuclear attack does not stem from, as widely believed, a deliberate attack by an adversary like Russia; instead, the danger lies in the prospect of an accidental strike from a false alarm.
There have been several historical instances where false alarms of an imminent nuclear attack have brought the world perilously close to destruction. In order to significantly decrease the threat of a nuclear attack, the Biden administration must also implement legislation which ends the President’s sole authority to launch a nuclear attack. Moreover, Biden must establish a “no first use” policy and phase out American land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), having achieved its required 50 ratifications, is now set to enter into force in January 2021. However, the TPNW remains in a state of purgatory in spite of this achievement. Not a single nuclear power has signed or ratified the Treaty. In fact, the Trump administration has even urged countries to withdraw from the TPNW. It is likely that the Biden government will continue to adopt the same position as the previous administration unless pressured internally. Grassroots activists, in particular, must continuously pressure Biden to denuclearize and take steps towards a world without nuclear weapons as embodied within the TPNW.
Prime Minister Trudeau has been a staunch opponent of nuclear arms control. The reasons behind Canada supporting nuclear proliferation are multifaceted, but there is a probable connection to Canada’s role as a leading uranium producer. In fact, Canadian uranium was used in the only nuclear bombs dropped on civilian populations, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Trudeau government has also refused to sign or ratify the TPNW and has consistently opposed efforts to prohibit or eliminate nuclear weapons. Canada refused to join 122 other countries at the 2017 Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons. In December 2018, Canada voted against a UN General Assembly draft resolution for Strengthening Russian-United States Compliance with Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Trudeau’s actions lie in stark contrast to those of his father, Pierre Trudeau, who called for a “suffocation” of the nuclear arms race at the UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1978. In 1974, Pierre Trudeau’s government voted in favour of UN General Assembly Resolution 3263 calling for a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Conversely, the Justin Trudeau government has refused to call on Israel (the only nuclear power in the region) to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons which, if signed, would mark significant progress toward achieving the goal of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East—an aim which Canada previously proclaimed to support.
Canadians must work in concert with grassroots organizations and the American public to pressure their respective governments into implementing nuclear arms control policies and joining international efforts to limit nuclear arms. Only through a joint concerted effort can humanity hope to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.
Even though the threat of a nuclear attack is not actively discussed within mainstream society as it once was, organizations such as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, as well as politicians like former US Secretary of Defense William Perry, argue that the threat of a nuclear attack is greater now than it was during the Cold War. This somber point alone should compel every citizen on the planet to politically mobilize in order to help achieve a world without nuclear weapons.
To learn more:
As part of the Global Conversations podcast series, I recently interviewed Tom Collina, the director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, to discuss the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons. We also discussed his recent book which he co-authored with former United States Secretary of Defense William Perry, entitled The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump. To listen to the podcast, please click here.
The author is in the Masters of Global Affairs program at the Munk School of Global Affairs and an intern at Science for Peace.