The START of the end for Arms Control?

In a world wracked by pandemic, rising sea levels, and the scourge of cyber-attacks, it's easy to forget that there are still weapons out there that can kill hundreds of millions of people in less time than it takes you to read this article.

Why are we talking about nuclear arms control in 2020? After all, the Cold War ended 30 years ago, and few are old enough to remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It seems almost quaint to worry about nuclear weapons, or to imagine the crippling impact that Lyndon B. Johnson's "Daisy" campaign spot had on his rival Barry Goldwater in 1964.


Those weapons are still, of course, the most potent destructive forces that humankind has ever developed. Eight in ten Americans say it's important to preserve current arms control treaties. And three-quarters polled separately listed the spread of nuclear weapons more broadly as a top threat to US national security, tied with terrorism for second place overall behind infectious disease. (Cyber-attacks came third, just one point behind.)

But now the last remaining arms control treaty between the world's major nuclear powers – the US and Russia — is in danger of collapsing.

Negotiators from the two countries met in Vienna on Monday to haggle over if, and how, to extend the 2010 New START treaty, which limits the number of long-range nuclear weapons that each side can deploy to about 1,500 apiece and permits mutual inspections and monitoring of each other's arsenals.

Unless it's renewed again before February 2021, it will end. If that happens, there won't be any major arms control agreement or coordination between the two countries that own 90 percent of the world's nukes.

Trust is in short supply: last year, the United States walked out on the long-standing Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty — which had limited medium-range nuclear weapons — over concerns that Moscow was violating it.

So, now that the US and Russia have agreed to negotiate, what exactly does each side want? Russia wants to renew the existing treaty. The US has signaled openness to that idea, but Washington says any new pact must include China, a small but rising nuclear power.

Here's where things get tricky. China has so far refused to join. Why, Beijing asks, should a developing nuclear power – with only about 300 deployed weapons – cap its arsenal while the big players get to keep five times that many?

But if a new pact falls apart, all sides – including China — will be worse off. Why? Because what the countries would gain in leeway to develop their arsenals, they'd lose in transparency about what their rivals are up to.

This is why nuclear arms treaties still matter. Sure, limiting the number of nuclear weapons is important, but those caps still vastly exceed the number required to destroy the earth many times over. The real value of these treaties is that they give each nuclear power the right to see what their adversaries are up to. Less uncertainty means a lower risk of mistakes or accidents.

How does the threat of nuclear war rank for you? And what are the tradeoffs you see in trying to reach new arms control agreements?

In Italy, stacks of plastic boxes in supermarkets and stores are not garbage - they are collected and reused, thanks to a consortium that specializes in recycling them for food storage. How do these "circular" plastic boxes help reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions?

Learn more in this episode of Eni's Energy SUPERFACTS series.

Over the past few years, we've seen three major emerging powers take bold action to right what they say are historical wrongs.

First came Crimea. When the Kremlin decided in 2014 that Western powers were working against Russian interests in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to seize the Crimean Peninsula, which was then part of Ukraine. Moscow claimed that Crimea and its ethnic Russian majority had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries until a shameful deal in 1954 made Crimea part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Americans and Europeans imposed sanctions on Russia. But Ukraine is not part of NATO or the EU, and no further action was taken.

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"Neither America first, which is ultimately America alone, nor America the world's policeman," Sen. Chris Coons told Ian Bremmer in describing VP Joe Biden's approach to foreign policy should he win the presidential election in November. In the latest episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer, Sen. Coons provides details of how U.S. relationships with foreign governments and multilateral alliances could change in a Biden presidency. He also defended President Obama's track record, saying "I think it is a mischaracterization of the Obama-Biden foreign policy for President Trump to say that we were picking up the tab and fighting the world's wars and that we were disrespected." Coons stated that Biden would work to restore U.S. involvement in alliances like NATO, and shore up global support to pressure China on labor and environmental standards. The exchange is part of a broad conversation with the Senator about COVID response and economic relief, Russian interference in elections, and the 2020 presidential race. The episode begins airing nationally in the U.S. on Friday, July 10. Check local listings.

Jon Lieber, managing director for the United States at Eurasia Group, shares his insights on US politics:

How is coronavirus jeopardizing the legitimacy of a 2020 presidential election?

Well, what coronavirus is doing is a lot of states are worrying about people who aren't going to want to come to the polling places in the fall, and they're worried about a shortage of polling workers who are going to want to come out and volunteer to get sick by interacting with a bunch people in person. So, what they're doing is they're looking at making a shift to vote-by-mail. Most states allow some form of absentee balloting today. Five states just automatically mail you a ballot and they don't do any in-person voting. But the challenge here is that a lot of states are unprepared for the sharp increase that's expected. In the last election, 25% of ballots were cast by mail. You may see 50, 60 or even more percent of ballots cast by mail this time, which could overwhelm election administration, which happens at the state level.

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The United States and the European Union have comparable population sizes, but their COVID-19 death toll trajectories have diverged. As of July 8, the average number of new deaths every three days in the EU had fallen 97 percent since peaking at the beginning of April. The US number, however, has fallen only 67 percent over the same period. That means that although both regions' death tolls peaked with only two weeks difference, the EU has flattened its COVID-19 fatality curve faster than America. Some experts attribute the difference to EU countries' more robust public health systems and better compliance with mask-wearing and other social distancing measures.