International Policy Digest

Photo illustration by John Lyman
U.S. News /27 May 2020

The U.S. Should Avoid Nuclear Testing

In late May, Trump administration officials floated the possibility of new nuclear tests—the first conducted by the U.S. since 1992—with the stated goal of gaining leverage in trilateral talks with Russia and China. This is, to put it bluntly, a bad idea. There are at least five good reasons why the United States should avoid any new nuclear testing.

New Nuclear Tests Risk Further Damage to the United States’ Global Image

The Trump administration’s tendencies towards unpredictability and bullheaded machismo have already done significant harm to America’s standing abroad. The country has pulled out or threatened to pull out of numerous treaties and agreements, ranging from the dramatic withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran to seemingly nonsensical power plays, like the near-withdrawal from the Universal Postal Union. America’s alliances are increasingly strained, especially with partners in NATO, and the country faces a growing risk of being unable to make good on security guarantees to partners around the world.

Many of the international institutions the United States helped found and run are coming under threat of collapse or control by rivals. Perhaps the most prominent example in 2020 is China’s increasing sway over the World Health Organization, which comes as the Trump administration threatens to cut funding during the middle of a global pandemic.

In this light, nuclear testing of any magnitude is a move that positions the United States as a militant global power with little interest or skill at non-coercive diplomacy, with all the risks that entails. Relying on military force alone is an unwise strategy. The nuclear option in particular is a saber that can be rattled but never drawn, as its active use would likely lead to the kind of mutually assured destruction scenarios that defined the Cold War.

Moreover, nuclear testing would further unsettle the country’s already tenuous, messy relationships with its rivals and adversaries, namely China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and may harm relationships with critical allies and partners, such as Japan. While it may occasionally be necessary for the U.S. to employ some form of coerciveness in order to achieve its goals, the Trump administration has shown itself incapable of performing such realpolitik with finesse, and frequently finds itself outmaneuvered by adversaries as a result.

One New Test Begets More

Since the 1940s, it has rarely been just one country doing a single nuclear test involving a single bomb. At least eight countries have officially conducted nuclear tests, and none of them stopped at one. Once the U.S. government conducts a single test, there will inevitably come arguments for more, most likely to demonstrate both the military capacity of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the country’s willingness to use it.

Once a test has happened, there will be arguments that not conducting tests is a sign of weakness, and that each round of tests must be larger than the last. The rhetoric of this sort has been a mainstay in United States foreign policy circles since the beginning of the Cold War. Similar arguments have shaped the debates surrounding both torture and drone strikes. Trump’s own rhetoric, including his infamous call to execute the families of terrorists, is emblematic of it.

Nuclear weapons are not like conventional forces—the presence of just a few bombs is enough to level the playing field. If the U.S. conducts new nuclear tests, other nations will have an incentive to do the same and may be convinced that they have to in order to deter the U.S. from employing coercive tactics against them or their partners.

As an example, Russia, whether under Putin or his successor, might follow in Washington’s footsteps as part of a broader campaign to frame themselves as an alternative to the United States. China may also use any U.S. nuclear tests as a pretext to perform its own tests aimed at intimidating its neighbors, which in turn runs the risk of a regional arms race in excess of the ones that already exist. The notion of U.S. nuclear tests is already tied to alleged Chinese and Russian tests of low-yield nuclear weapons, and open testing by the U.S. would risk a cycle of escalation on all sides.

New Tests Will Cause Massive Damage to the Environment

While hazardous radiation from a nuclear explosion tends to fade within five years, the state of existing test sites proves that the long-term effects of nuclear weapons deployment can last for decades. Pacific nuclear test sites from the 1940s and ‘50s are still ten times more radioactive than Chernobyl and nuclear waste from those sites runs the long-term risk of poisoning parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Moreover, research suggests nuclear tests killed between 340,000 and 690,000 Americans through the effects of radiation poisoning. Atomic machismo is not worth the risk of a repeat.

Testing Means Increased Financial Commitments

The Trump administration has already put forth a request for a 25% increase in nuclear weapons funding even without an active testing regime. Any testing would necessitate an even greater increase, likely tens of billions of dollars, spread across several agencies and military branches.

This investment into nuclear weaponry represents an enormous opportunity cost elsewhere. That money will not be going into maintaining or improving U.S. civilian infrastructure, welfare, or education systems, nor will it flow into small business investments, public diplomacy, or civilian scientific research. Perhaps most importantly given the current COVID-19 pandemic, resources committed to nuclear testing will not go towards the struggling U.S. healthcare system.

Victory is Not Assured

There is a high likelihood that U.S. nuclear testing will kick off a new arms race with a host of new and potential competitors, some of whom will likely be better prepared, scientifically and financially, than the U.S. Such an arms race may, in turn, make it difficult to predict the future of existing alliances and relationships.

Compounding the potential risk of a new global arms race, the U.S. military is already overcommitted and its diplomatic corps hobbled by the Trump administration’s unreliability and lack of foresight, even when it is not subject to the demands of responding to a pandemic. The United States would be taking on tremendous new debts and its only reward would be a world with a higher risk of nuclear extinction.

Even with current tensions between the U.S. and other nuclear powers, it is much more likely that the country will be involved in another non-nuclear war. It would be more productive to channel that funding towards smaller, cheaper, more agile carrier strike groups, unmanned aerial vehicles, improved artificial intelligence, improved combat medicine, and better cybersecurity. In addition to improving force posture, enhancing non-nuclear deterrence, and building up future warfighting capability, advances made from researching these technologies would be much easier to transfer to the civilian market, thereby increasing the return on investment for U.S. taxpayers.

If the U.S. must increase defense spending, it should do so with an eye towards actively benefiting the people that the military is supposed to protect. Nuclear testing benefits no one.