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Donald Trump’s challenge to the taboo around nuclear weapons should worry us all

Moves to develop low-yield nuclear weapons for battlefield use could increase the danger of escalating conflict.

Since their first devastating detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the use of nuclear weapons has been considered a taboo. Historically, US nuclear policy has aimed to ensure that these weapons are leveraged as part of a wider deterrence posture and their actual use would be limited to extreme conditions.

President Trump’s call for the development of new low-yield nuclear warheads challenges this policy and has led to concerns that the President is undermining the long-held taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. The recent reports on the draft Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) suggest that the US intends to expand the role of nuclear weapons and their potential use in the future. The review – if adopted in its current form – could stimulate a new arms race with Russia and further destabilize global security.

The current US nuclear policy relies on deterrence, which means persuading other states that the costs of military action against the US or its allies would be higher than the perceived benefits. But deterrence only works if states have a sufficient and similar level of understanding in regard to the enormous risks and a shared belief in deterrence postures. Efforts to increase the numbers and lower the threshold of use of nuclear weapons could paradoxically escalate the danger if they prompt other states to adopt similar measures.

In this instance, if the US decided to follow a nuclear approach based on the speedy deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons, this could be perceived as an existential threat to Russian nuclear forces, quite possibly leading Russia to react and develop even more new systems. An escalating, spiralling arms race that held the world to ransom during the Cold War was stabilised in large part through mutual and verifiable arms control – that lesson needs to be remembered.

Nuclear tensions are already escalating between Russia and the US. The US, for instance, identified the Russian violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2016 with the Russian cruise missile, Novator 9M729. Russia, however, has voiced concerns about the US’ modernisation programme. For instance, earlier last month, Mikhail Ulyanov, the Director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, stated that the B-61 modernisations (e.g. high accuracy) go beyond its purpose; making these weapons usable in the battlefield. The US modernisation also involves B61-12 bombs with earth-penetrating capability, which develops a new role and capacity for these bombers. Russia is also developing the new SARMAT missile (RS-28); its weight, the number of warheads it carries, and its speed, are all under question.

On the positive side, even though the suggested changes to the NPR are alarming, the reality is that the development of new nuclear capabilities will take years, even decades. The US Congress would need to put additional funds into the nuclear programme, which would require bipartisan consensus – one which may depend on new arms control and stabilisation negotiations with Russia.

One thing is clear: in developing new low-yield nuclear weapons, US nuclear policy would get closer to Russia’s nuclear strategy, which is to deescalate a conflict by actually escalating the military threats, including the possible limited use of nuclear weapons. This strategy is known as “escalate to de-escalate”.

Reframing the use of nuclear weapons in this way would be a great mistake – and one that has been made before. Instead, confidence-building measures, bilateral engagements, and verified de-escalation negotiations as part of a global nuclear non-proliferation leadership strategy is where the U.S. and Russia would be better focussing their resources and where, in the past, they have – individually and jointly – been effective and enjoyed considerable success.

Dr Beyza Unal is a research fellow in Nuclear Weapons Policy at the International Security Department of Chatham House.

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The UK is suffering from an extreme case of generational inequality

Millennials across the developed world are struggling. But the UK stands out. 


“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics may refer to her first trip to Hawaii, but they could just as easily apply to UK trends in generational living standards that the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission has uncovered. That’s particularly so in light of new analysis comparing these trends internationally.

While there are huge living standards differences between high-income countries, there is also much shared ground, with the financial crisis and demographic patterns putting pressure on younger generations’ living standards everywhere. But the UK stands out. With the partial exception of Spain, no other country in living memory has experienced as large a “boom and bust” in generation-on-generation progress across both incomes and home ownership rates.

On incomes, the millennials (born 1980-2000) who have reached their early 30s are just 6 per cent better off than generation X (born 1966-80) when they were the same age. This is very small progress indeed when compared with the progress older generations are enjoying – baby boomers (born 1946-65) in their late 60s are 29 per cent better off than the silent generation (born 1926-1945).

These sorts of slowdowns have occurred in most countries, but not to the same extent. In the US, millennials in their early 30s are doing 5 per cent worse than their predecessors, but this compares to relatively modest 11 per cent gains for generation X relative to the baby boomers. In fact, in the US – despite higher levels of income – the absence of generational progress is what stands out. Typical incomes in the US for those aged 45-49 are no higher for those born in the late 1960s than they were for those born in the early 1920s.

Back to the UK. The “had it then lost it” story is also clear when we look at housing. Our previous research has shown that young people in the UK face much higher housing costs (relative to incomes) than older generations did when they were making their way in the world. In a large part this is driven by the rise and fall of home ownership.UK home ownership rates surged by 29 percentage points between the greatest generation (born 1911-1926) and the baby boomers, but this generation-on-generation progress has been all but wiped out for millennials. Their home ownership rate in their late 20s, at 33 per cent, is 27 percentage points lower than the rate for the baby boomers at the same age (60 per cent).

This fall between generations is much smaller in other countries in which housing is a key areas of concern such as Australia (a 12 percentage points fall from boomers to millennials) and the US (a 6 percentage point fall). As with incomes, the UK shows the strongest boom and bust – large generation-on-generation gains for today’s older cohorts followed by stagnation or declines for younger ones.

Let’s be clear though, the UK is a relatively good place to grow up. Ours is one of the most advanced economies in the world, with high employment rates for all age groups. In other advanced economies, young people have suffered immensely as a result of the financial crisis. For example, in Greece millennials in their early 30s are a shocking 31 per cent worse off than generation X were at the same age. In Spain today the youth (15-30) unemployment rate is still above 30 per cent, over three times higher than it is in the UK.

But, if everything is relative – before the parking lot came the paradise – then the UK’s situation isn’t one to brush away. Small income gains are, obviously, better than big income falls. But what matters for a young person in the UK today probably isn’t how well they’re doing relative to a young person in Italy but how this compares with their expectations, which have been shaped by the outcomes of their parents and grandparents. It’s no surprise that the UK is one of the most pessimistic countries about the prospects for today’s young.

The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be like this. In other parts of the world and at other times, large generation-on-generation progress has happened. Building more homes, having strong collective bargaining and delivering active labour market policies that incentivise work are things we know make a difference. As politicians attempt to tackle the UK’s intergenerational challenges, they should remember to look overseas for lessons.