Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: How Biden Can Achieve a First in Arms Control: A Verifiable Nuclear Warhead Freeze

By James E. Doyle, 12/15/20, The Bulletin

In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States and Russia were nearing an arms control agreement that would freeze the number of nuclear warheads on each side and extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for a year.

Although the report proved to be incorrect in its conclusion that Russia and the United States were about to reach their first nuclear arms control agreement in more than a decade, the simple fact that the United States and Russia were formally negotiating an extension to New START was grounds for optimism. What was most remarkable was that the sides were discussing a verifiable freeze on the total number of nuclear warheads in their arsenals. This has never been done before. In fact, neither side has ever told the other how many nuclear warheads it possesses.

Nuclear arms control agreements up to now have only directly limited the nuclear warhead delivery vehicles (land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and aircraft) and not the warheads themselves. New START, for example, limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by each side to 1,550 and the number of deployed delivery vehicles to 700. It entered into force in February 2011 and will expire in February 2021 unless both sides agree to extend its duration by up to five years. New START does not, however, cover thousands of non-deployed or non-strategic nuclear warheads on both sides. That is, a warhead is considered a warhead under the treaty only if it is deployed—even though each side has thousands that are not deployed.

October was a long time ago. Since then, negotiations led by the Trump administration have collapsed, and Joe Biden has become the president-elect. All indicators suggest he intends to extend New START without any new conditions.

But that does not rule out the possibility of an agreement to freeze or reduce warheads in follow-on talks. If such an agreement were reached—one that allowed both sides to know their total nuclear warhead inventories, and to verify a cap or reduction to those inventories—it would be a political, technical, and diplomatic achievement unprecedented in the history of nuclear arms control.

The incoming Biden administration is likely to pursue a world with fewer nuclear weapons and perhaps sketch the first steps on a road to zero. Verifying warhead inventories and their eventual dismantlement is essential to this objective. Overcoming the political and technical challenges of warhead arms control is a daunting task that will require expanded and sustained effort.

Fortunately, scientists and strategic planners in several nations possessing nuclear weapons have been investigating the practical requirements of nuclear warhead arms control for more than 25 years, and much progress has been made. Several candidate technologies and procedural approaches for verifying the storage and dismantlement of nuclear warheads exist. However, these potential solutions need further technical development to be successfully used in the context of a future international treaty. To make nuclear warhead arms control a reality, President-elect Biden’s national security team will need to launch a strategic verification initiative and coordinate the cooperation of the US interagency community and key international partners.

The challenges of warhead arms control. It remains profoundly in the security interests of the United States, Russia, and the rest of the world to aggressively develop a safe and reliable means to verify a potential nuclear weapons freeze and additional reductions to global nuclear arsenals. First, because of their immense destructiveness, the effects of nuclear weapons cannot be limited to the nations that use them in a potential conflict. The use of even a handful of nuclear weapons would cause worldwide human suffering. The risk of nuclear war remains unacceptably high and has been joined by a nexus of global threats, such as pandemics, climate change, and terrorism, against which nuclear weapons provide no defense.

Second, the United States and Russia, as members of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, are obligated along with all nations possessing nuclear weapons (except India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, who are not party to the treaty) to work toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Third, 50 nations have already declared their willingness to make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal under international law. They did so by ratifying the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty will enter into force in January 2021. None of the states possessing nuclear weapons has joined the treaty. However, as more countries join on and become bound by its terms, the more powerful their argument will be that their millions of citizens are being unjustifiably endangered by the tiny minority of states that claim the right to possess and use nuclear weapons.

Thankfully, the number of nuclear warheads in the world has declined significantly since the Cold War, down from a peak of approximately 70,300 in 1986 to an estimated 13,410 in early 2020. Nearly all of these reductions in nuclear warheads have been unverified—they were declared to have taken place by the countries that built them, but never confirmed by any international authority.

There is reasonable confidence that the Russian reductions have indeed taken place because US officials have been able, by means of national intelligence, arms control inspections, and other cooperative agreements, to verify the dismantlement of thousands of missiles, submarines, and bomber aircraft that once carried the larger arsenals of warheads. The outside world has also been able to observe with satellite and other imagery the movement of highly secure convoys of trains and trucks taking surplus nuclear warheads to national storage sites and dismantlement factories. Additionally, Russia sold the United States hundreds of tons of highly enriched uranium that came from retired and dismantled nuclear warheads. Finally, these same intelligence capabilities enable US officials to see that Russia has not added to its stockpile of fissile materials for the construction of new warheads.

But there is still a good deal of uncertainty regarding Russia’s total inventory of nuclear warheads and whether it plans to manufacture more. Nor are US officials sure how many nuclear warheads are possessed by China, India, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Israel, or North Korea—and these countries, in turn, cannot independently verify the United States’ declarations of its warhead inventories.

Continue reading here.

Will Climate Change Provide an “Opportunity” for Russia?

Park in Moscow, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin, October 2015

Building upon some themes from my last post, I wanted to talk about some concerns that were triggered by another article pertaining to Russia, this time about whether there will be “opportunities” for Russia in connection with climate change.

The article in question takes one supposed benefit of climate change – warmer temperatures in some parts of Russia – and divorces it from the other effects that will likely come from climate change. Of course, this is not how ecology works as the natural world is an interconnected system. Sudden and extreme climate change will, among other things, also bring about new disease outbreaks in humans, animals, trees, and crops. How much will these new disease outbreaks cost Russia? There is no mention of this by the author. Furthermore, the Russian government has recently acknowledged that the effects of climate change are occurring in Russia at a rate that is 2.5 times the global average due to its geographical location. It also admitted that it will take enormous amounts of money to mitigate the likely infrastructure damage that will result in the coming years.

I understand that a lot of us are happy to see any western media articles that provide even a remotely positive characterization of Russia. Unfortunately, this particular article seems to be more in the tradition of trying to put a smiley face on climate change so that people will be lulled into thinking we don’t really have to do much about it, that we won’t have to significantly change our economic system or lifestyle in any meaningful way because scrappy farmers and capitalists will use technology to solve the problem. Corporate interests want people to think like this so we can keep the party that benefits them going as long as possible. As I reiterated in my last post, U.S. corporations are legally organized to maximize profit with no concern for the costs to humanity or the environment. As many articles over the past couple of years show, many climate scientists have stated that the rate and intensity of the problem is worse than they’d thought. This is simply not sustainable. As Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

This reminds me of the concept of progress traps – how new technologies that are supposed to facilitate progress often create several new problems that then have to be addressed, often with more technology, creating a vicious cycle. This was discussed by historian/anthropologist Ronald Wright, in his book A Short History of Progress. In that book, “Wright illustrates how various cultures throughout history have literally manufactured their own end by producing an overabundance of innovation and stripping bare the very elements that allowed them to initially advance.”

Wright discusses the basic principles of his book in the interview below:

This is all to say that I’m deeply skeptical of the idea that the profound challenges of climate change are going to provide real “opportunities” for any country. It is much more likely that it will be a matter of which countries can do better damage control.

Putin Says He Hopes AI Could Not Run a Country, But Russia & Other Nations Still Pursuing AI Use in War

In early December, Russian president Vladimir Putin participated in a video conference about the future role of artificial intelligence (AI). During that conference, when prompted with a question about whether AI could run the country someday, Putin said he hoped not and explained the shortcomings of AI. As reported by the private Russian news agency, Interfax, here was his response:

AI has neither a heart, nor soul, nor compassion or conscience, Putin said.

“All these components are extremely important in people who are vested by their citizens with special powers to make and implement decisions to the benefit of the country,” he said.

At times, presidents do have to make decisions which may not seem quite rational at first glance, Putin said. “They have to be based on history, culture, current practices, the aspirations and expectation of the country’s citizens. These social sector decisions sometimes seem irrational in the area of pension security, health care, and other spheres of human activity,” he said.

“For a human president, they seem and are justified, because he makes decisions in the interests of living human beings, not machines,” he said.

AI could be a good helper and teacher for anyone, including the head of state, Putin said.

“The role and significance of AI in public administration will doubtlessly grow. I’m very hopeful, Afina, that your colleagues will make relevant decisions with the realization of their responsibility, should they work with heads of state,” he said.

Putin made some very good points about the limitations and even dangers of AI, which I don’t think are being considered nearly enough. I have heard it stated very succinctly that AI would make the perfect psychopath – having an intellect of sorts but none of the components that most human minds have that serve as potential brakes on destructive behavior.

I had a Lyft driver engage me in a conversation about AI several weeks back. He seemed to be – as many others are – enamored of the potential of AI to perform all sorts of neat tricks in our post-modern world. But he didn’t discuss any of the possible problems. I finally asked him how it would be possible to program empathy or holistic human experience into a machine. He admitted he didn’t know. I also asked him if he thought that human morality was keeping up with the pace of its technological advance. He confessed that he thought it wasn’t.

While it’s never fun to play the role of Debbie Downer, I was glad that I may have chastened his enthusiasm for AI long enough to think the implications through more thoroughly. It’s something that modern humans seem to have a real blind spot about. We’re very good at thinking to our short-term advantage and getting taken in by the bright and shiny and easy gratification, but not so much about the long-term, larger context, unintended consequences, etc. We also have institutions that encourage this kind of poor thinking, such as corporations that are legally structured to maximize profits with little-to-no concern for the long-term human and environmental consequences.

Unfortunately, Putin’s expressed understanding of the problems of AI hasn’t stopped Russia from pursuing AI in the context of war aka killer robots.

Granted, the nature of international military competition and the constant advancing of policies by the U.S. and NATO that unnecessarily increase tensions on Russia’s borders, surely contributes to this policy decision. The U.S. is certainly not shying away from the potential use of killer robots either.

However, the potential dangers of the use of autonomous AI machines by any country in this context should concern us all. Peace and human rights activists sounded the alarm about this in 2014 with an open letter signed by dozens of activists, including numerous Nobel Peace Prize winners, on the eve of a United Nations conference in Geneva, Switzerland that year to discuss the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), otherwise known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention, stating that the use of such technology in war was “unconscionable.”

In 2017, a high-ranking U.S. military general testified before the U.S. Senate that such weapons should be limited in warfare. Common Dreams reported at the time:

Gen. Paul Selva spoke about automation at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that the “ethical rules of war” should be kept in place even as artificial intelligence (AI) and drone technology advances, “lest we unleash on humanity a set of robots that we don’t know how to control.”

The Defense Department currently mandates that a human must control all actions taken by a drone. But at the hearing, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) suggested that by enforcing that requirement, which is set to expire this year, the U.S. could fall behind other countries including Russia.

Of course, General Selva ran with the Russia-as-bogeyman framing and suggested that other countries didn’t necessarily have the same moral compass that the U.S. did in such matters. While the U.S.’s track record in foreign and military matters for decades makes this notion tragically laughable. it is refreshing to hear a military man say that there should be limits on the use of this technology: “‘I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to put robots in charge of whether or not we take a human life,” Selva told the committee.”

Around the same time, Elon Musk also publicly sounded the alarm about this technology before a meeting of U.S. state governors:

Days before Gen. Selva’s hearing, Musk spoke at the National Governors Association about the potential for an uncontrollable contingent of robots in the future.

The inventor acknowledged the risks AI poses for American workers, but added that the concerns go beyond employment. “AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that,” Musk said.

He urged governors throughout the U.S. to start thinking seriously now about how to regulate robotics—before AI becomes an issue that’s out of humans’ control.

The very concept of AI arose out of the reductive idea of thinking about the human mind as an information processing unit or a computer. The problems with this framing of the human mind were discussed by Professor Theodore Roszak in a 1986 book called The Cult of Information. Roszak was a professor of psychology at Cal State Hayward (now called Cal State East Bay).

I graduated from Cal State Hayward and my father before me studied psychology there and took a class with Roszak in the 1970’s, which is how I came to be introduced to his work – which also included the development of the field of eco-psychology. Roszak was a brilliant but underrated thinker and in the video below he discusses the problems with using the model of a computer or information processing unit to understand the human mind. He makes some interesting and prescient comments about AI as well as this technology potentially having control of our nuclear arsenal.

Putin’s End of Year Press Conference

© Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

Putin held his annual end of the year press conference by video on Thursday. Putin took questions on a number of issues, from the Covid pandemic to how US-Russia relations might fare with the incoming Biden administration. You can read the transcript at the Kremlin website or you can read the highlights from TASS here.

The Middle East Eye: US Sanctions Have Caused Iranians Untold Misery – And Achieved Nothing

man passing case of bottles
Photo by mostafa meraji on Pexels.com

By Negar Mortazavi and Sina Toossi, Middle East Eye, 12/7/20

“My young cousin passed away last week,” an Iranian Twitter user recently lamented. “She needed medication for her cancer that doctors said can’t be found.”

The tweet tragically went on: “Maybe she’d be alongside her little daughter now if she had this medicine and not under a pile of cold dirt.”

These heartbreaking words are from journalist Katayoon Lamezadeh, one of thousands of Iranians who have taken to social media to speak of how sanctions have upended their lives. Their stories reflect the devastating human costs of US economic sanctions that are often ignored by Washington’s foreign policy elite and largely unknown to the American public.

The assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is the latest in a long-running pressure campaign against Iran by the US and its allies such as Israel. However, in the case of sanctions, it is ordinary Iranians who are paying the biggest price. 

The onslaught of sanctions and covert actions on Iran during the Trump era has not elicited concessions from the Iranian government, but it has caused immense pain inside Iran. Today, Iran’s population is being crushed by the twofold blows of US sanctions and the Covid-19 crisis, all while under the yoke of an increasingly repressive government.

Read the full article here.

Stephen Wertheim, Author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy, Talks to Mehdi Hasan About Biden’s Foreign Policy Challenges

I’m not as optimistic as Wertheim is but this was an interesting conversation from a mainstream news program, considering that Wertheim is with the Quincy Institute – a think tank that advocates for a more restrained foreign policy.

I’ve heard good things about Wertheim’s book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy. It has been added to my ever-expanding to-read list. I’m not sure when I will get to it but, in the meantime, here are some excerpts from a review of the book by Daniel Larison at The American Conservative:

The U.S. embarked on a program of global supremacy eighty years ago, and American political leaders and policymakers chose this path much earlier than is commonly believed. To that end, they invented a myth of an “isolationist” America during the 1920s and 1930s, and that myth has been used ever since as the justification for dominance. In the earliest days of WWII before the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. policy planners were already imagining a world order with the U.S. at its apex, and they made sure to redefine internationalism so that it applied only to supporters of this new strategy.

Wertheim’s account of this period is compelling and insightful. It is a short volume, but it is very rich in detail. Policy planners were already discussing a U.S. role in terms of supremacy and domination in late 1940. Even before the U.S. was formally at war with the Axis, U.S. planners were drawing up proposals for what one analyst simply described as “world domination by the United States and the British Empire acting in close and continuous collaboration.” The blueprint for America’s postwar role was already being drafted before the U.S. entered the war. The objective, as Wertheim says, was “to maintain armed primacy,” and this was already the goal in 1941 before Japan attacked. This is very different from the standard interpretations of the period, as he makes clear: “Rather than react defensively and belatedly to an objective threat, as most narratives of this period presuppose, U.S. elites did almost the opposite. They expanded their definition of national security, deeming the United States to possess an overriding interest in avoiding ‘isolation’ within the Western Hemisphere.”

Global supremacy was not the logical or inevitable culmination of American history. It was the result of a series of contingent decisions that U.S. policymakers made during the 1940s that laid the foundations for U.S. foreign policy thereafter, and it required the complete reimagining of America’s place in the world.

Take an Exploratory Trip to Russia in 2021 with The Center for Citizen Initiatives

Church on Spilt Blood, Built at site of reformist Czar Alexandaer II’s 1881 assassination. St. Petersburg, Russia; Photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

We feel compelled to take as many Americans as possible to Russia in 2021.

WHY?  Today most Americans assume that Russia and Putin are our “enemies.” Our U.S. media has increasingly denigrated Russia and demonized Putin for more than a dozen years. This has been patently dangerous. Given the nuclear weapons between us, all media and rumors must be investigated.

TRIP PLANS:  We will take 100 Americans to Russia to explore the following:
What is Russia’s reality today? What do they think about their leadership? What are Russia’s intentions in the world? What issues are pushing our countries closer to nuclear war again and why? How to work with Russia as a rising power in our world? What are their concerns about relations with us? Finally, we need to know whether Russia is a threat to us, or not. 

CO-LEADING:  We are honored that Ambassador (ret.) Jack Matlock, our quintessential Ambassador, will co-lead our June 2021 delegation. Jack was the Ambassador to the USSR during President Reagan’s era. He created the strategy for the tense Reagan-Gorbachev meetings and still keeps a close eye on U.S.-Russia relations. He will give us morning lectures in Moscow and share insights with us throughout our fact-finding trip.

CCIs INTENTION:  To better understand the U.S.-Russia relationship and to make our research known to Congress members, business leaders, NGOs and fellow citizens, hopefully to stimulate wider debates among them all.

TRIP DATES:  June 20 – July 5, 2021, if COVID permits; if not, we will shift to September.

MOSCOW EXPERT MEETINGS:  Russian experts in ten different fields of expertise will provide two-hour lectures and Q&A’s with our group. They include former General Secretary and first President of Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev; Vladimir Pozner, Russia’s preeminent TV journalist; Vladimir Kozin, Leading Expert, Military-Political Studies Center, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and seven other experts TBA. Moscow days will be spent in discussions. Evenings we will explore Moscow with Russian friends. On June 25, we will board planes to Russia’s regions to continue our explorations.

REGIONAL CITIES:  In dyads, triads and singles we will meet regional Russians for four days. We will live in hotels or homes, as each wishes. Local CCI coordinators will introduce us to their professionals, counterparts, millennials and youth. We will visit businesses, housing complexes, kindergartens, schools, NGOs, and all important, their World War II monuments, which every Russian city has. WWII left Russia a devastated nation with estimates from 20 to 27 million dead. We lost some 500,000 soldiers with no damage to our homeland. Regional TV and newspapers usually want interviews with our travelers. Today’s Russians, even those far from Moscow, are well informed, open and ready to discuss questions if asked in a good spirit. Plan to build relationships, share ideas about how to create better relations between our youth, citizens and leaders. We ask travelers to document their experiences and complete CCI’s questionnaires each day.

ST. PETERSBURG:  Our first day will be a Report Out session. Sitting in two large circles facing each other, delegates will share their regional experiences, giving a wide variety of insights to the entire delegation. A videographer will record these sharings for YouTubes. Afterward, we will take a canal tour by boat at dusk. St. Petersburg offers inexhaustible choices starting with a city tour, Tsarist palaces, the Hermitage, Russian State Art Museum, private art galleries, elegant bridges, monuments, concerts, ballets, and the memorial to the “900 Day Siege of Leningrad.” We will meet with St. Petersburg’s entrepreneurs, professionals, millennials and students. Our Rotarians will visit with St. Petersburg Rotarians. 

TRIP GOALS:  To provide our travelers a 360-degree view of Russia with a wealth of personal encounters with which to ask questions, to comprehend the likenesses and differences between our two peoples and societies, all the while learning from the wisdom of the group through interactions. The most important question for us all is, “How can we bring these two nations closer together in the near future to avoid worldwide cataclysm?” During this process who knows what great ideas may emerge!

COSTS:  We offer low-economy for students, regular economy, mid-priced and 1st-class options. Trip costs range from $3200 to $8000, depending on choices of airfare, hotels and lengths of stay. A bilingual PR specialist in addition to our videographer will travel with us to document our experiences for later media and educational purposes.

HISTORY:  CCI was born in the early 1980’s when a tiny group of U.S. citizens in California feared that our nation was headed toward a Nuclear War with the USSR. We felt it critical to go to see the “Enemy.” See our history at ccisf.org.

Since 1983, CCI has created numerous multi-year programs across Russia that have supported the training and development of thousands of Russian entrepreneurs and NGO developers across 11 time zones. This explains why we have access to many Russians who are glad to meet our U.S. delegates.

Click here to see CCI’s official 2021 trip flyer.

Click here for CCI’s application for the June/July 2021 trip. (The CCI application will be downloaded to your computer where you can open it as a Word document)

If you have questions about the trip or the work of Center for Citizen Initiatives, email Sharon Tennison at sharon [at] ccisf.org.