Mr Biden has been keen on arms control since he first ran for the Senate, the same year that Nixon went to China. Last year he extended the New start treaty, which limits American and Russian deployments of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each. He has also tried to entice China into arms-control talks. And he has argued that America should shift to a doctrine declaring that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack.
Such a change now looks unlikely. China is fast building up its nuclear warheads. The Pentagon reckons a total in the “low-200s” in 2020 might reach 1,000 or more by 2030. America’s allies have lobbied hard for America to preserve “extended deterrence”, which leaves open resorting to nuclear weapons against superior conventional forces. Russia’s threats supply a powerful new argument. Mr Abe says Japan should think of hosting American nuclear weapons, as Germany does. This would be a big shift from Japan’s long-standing “three non-nuclear principles”: not making nukes, not possessing nukes, and not allowing nukes to be stationed in the country.
Like much of the new geopolitics, the effect on nuclear strategy around the world will depend to some extent on what transpires in Ukraine. “If Putin’s threat is seen to be successful, it could spur further proliferation,” says James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank. “If the threat ends up being seen as bluster because nuclear weapons are not usable, then it might end up actually reducing proliferation pressures.”
But some worries apply however the war ends. A wounded but victorious Russia may feel emboldened to further threaten nato; a Russia bogged down by a Ukrainian insurgency may want to lash out at those equipping Ukrainian fighters; a Russia which tries to topple its leader will be unstable. The early years of the cold war, notes Thomas Wright of Brookings, were filled with danger—from the Soviet Union’s blockade of West Berlin in 1948-49 to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962—before detente eventually brought greater predictability. As Mr Wright points out, “We are at the beginning of a new era, and beginnings can be dangerous.”
How the war in #Ukraine is changing geopolitics. Democracy v autocracy; Europe sheds its pacifist robes; Russia cleaves to China; nuclear escalation; and whether America can stitch together its alliances on the Eurasian "Rimland" https://t.co/6q4POINIzB
— Anton La Guardia (@AntonLaGuardia) March 3, 2022