The news media are glued to the coronavirus every minute, day and night, and rightly so. But meanwhile, the world spins just as it did in “the before time”; other crises continue to churn their own disasters, and the Trump administration is handling them with its customary blend of indifference, clumsiness, and malice.
Let’s begin with another apocalyptic scenario in the catalog of nightmares—nuclear war, or, in its milder variant, the renewal of a nuclear arms race. New START, the U.S.-Russian strategic arms-reduction treaty, signed by then Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, expires in February 2021, and Trump has neither taken steps nor expressed a desire to extend it.*
In fact, he has done the opposite: He has appointed a man named Marshall Billingslea as his chief negotiator in nuclear arms talks that may take place during the U.N. General Assembly in September. Billingslea, currently the undersecretary of treasury for monitoring terrorist financing, is a former adviser to Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, Capitol Hill’s most fervent opponent of arms control during the last decades of the Cold War. Billingslea has said that any renewal of New START should include China—a position that is nothing but an obstructionist ruse, for three reasons.
First, China’s nuclear arsenal is about one-fifth the size of America’s or Russia’s, so it makes no sense to include it in talks between equals. If anything, doing so might galvanize Beijing to speed up its program. Second, China has no interest in joining the talks. Third, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said several times that he’s ready to sign an extension of New START today. It’s true that Russia has been building more short-range nuclear weapons, but not the types of arms limited by New START—intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers. Even critics who have accused the Russians of cheating on other arms treaties acknowledge that they are in strict compliance with New START.
No U.S. military officer has expressed a need or desire for a large nuclear arsenal. But without New START, the reins will be loosened. And without the treaty’s verification provisions, which allow intrusive inspections and forums for resolving ambiguities, fear and uncertainty could mount on both sides, leading one side or the other to build more, in case the other side is building more, which could spawn a self-fulfilling prophecy—and off we go, into a new phase of the nuclear arms race, which has been halted for the past quarter-century and slowed down for the quarter-century before then.
Meanwhile, this week in North Korea, Kim Jong-un test-launched two more short-range ballistic missiles, in rapid succession. Also satellite imagery from late February revealed that rail cars parked at the country’s Yongbyon nuclear facility have departed, suggesting that they might be transporting material used in nuclear fuel production.
Trump seems unmoved by these developments. The missile tests violate U.N. Security Council resolutions and pose a threat to Japan and South Korea, but he has waved away such matters in the past, saying he would be concerned only if Kim tested long-range missiles, capable of hitting the United States, or if he actually set off a nuclear device. Trump is so unconcerned that he sent Kim a letter, offering to help North Korea resist the coronavirus—which is more than he’s personally offered New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Perhaps Trump made the gesture, hoping that Kim would reciprocate by not testing any more missiles; if so, he is still deluded about his preposterous friend’s true intentions.
Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan seems primed for a fatally disastrous turn. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Kabul this week to mediate between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who each claim to be the country’s president following the recent disputed election. After hours of discussion, Pompeo threw up his hands, flew home, and announced he would cut U.S. aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion. However, he stressed that he would not cut assistance to the Afghan military, as that part of the mission is still vital.
This makes no sense. First, the nonmilitary portion of U.S. aid to Afghanistan amounts to well under $1 billion, so it’s not clear just what Pompeo proposes to cut. (He provided no details in his announcement.) Second, it’s unclear what Pompeo is after: It would be one thing if he’d said there was no point throwing more money to prop up a government that couldn’t declare a president; but since he pledged to continue security assistance, utter abandonment doesn’t seem to be his goal.
Still, that may be what happens. Barnett Rubin, director of the Afghanistan Regional Project at New York University, notes that the country’s Soviet-backed regime collapsed, back in 1992, not because the USSR withdrew its troops but rather because it stopped sending money.
Maybe Pompeo thinks that, by threatening to whisk away money, Ghani and Abdullah will come to their senses, form a unified government, and beg him to return. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time U.S. emissaries have tried to exert leverage, to no avail. What do we want in Afghanistan? That’s still a question unanswered, and the place is unraveling amid the confusion.
Meanwhile … there is much going on meanwhile, but the coronavirus is smothering developments in all corners of the globe. It’s spreading to Syria and Gaza and Somalia, where thousands of refugees, bereft of medical care and unable to self-quarantine, are certain to die. It’s spreading to Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the crisis of the moment. There is no global arrangement, and no global leader, to meet it head-on. Since the end of World War II, the American president has been the one to assume that role. Trump’s abstention—and the absence of anyone else capable of stepping up in his place—only highlights how desperately a new leader, here or elsewhere, is needed.
Correction, March 26, 2020: This article originally misstated when New START expires. It’s in February 2021, not 2011.
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