The START of the end for Arms Control?

Art by Gabriella Turrisi

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 its 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?

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Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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Should the Biden administration "reverse course on China" in the hope of establishing a friendlier relationship, as diplomat Kishore Mahbubani argues in a recent Financial Times op-ed? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Michael Hirson take out the Red Pen to explain why it's not that simple.

And today, we are talking about the United States and China. The relationship between the two most powerful nations in the world is the worst it's been since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Pundits and policymakers alike all around the world are trying to figure out how Washington and Beijing can at least stop the bleeding because a reset is nowhere in the cards.

That's the topic of the op-ed that we are looking at today. It's from the Financial Times, written by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, and the title summarizes the key argument: "Biden should summon the courage to reverse course on China." Meaning, he should throw out the Trump era approach and open the door to more cooperation and kinder, gentler relations.

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