At the recent Geneva Summit, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint declaration containing strong echoes of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. It "reaffirm[ed] the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," and committed Russia and the U.S. to "an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust."
Reagan and Gorbachev took similar steps at their 1985 Geneva Summit. It was a time of acute nuclear dangers, which they succeeded in easing. Today, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock is at 100 seconds to midnight—the closest to the edge it has ever been. Can Biden and Putin turn it back, and make the world safer than it was in 1985? Time will tell, but history gives us hints.
The 1985 summit is worth studying as a precedent. I participated in a 2005 anniversary conference examining its impact along with former President Gorbachev, former USSR Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, former U.S. National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock. My job was to analyze from the external perspective of someone who hadn't participated in the deliberations of 1985 whether the world was safer then or in 2005. I argued nuclear safety had deteriorated since the 1985 summit.
In 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev traded in the currency of hope and trust-building. In 2005, President George W. Bush was trading in the currency of fear. Because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and related policies, fear was in ascendancy around the world. Hope allows trust to grow, creativity to be unleashed and progress to be achieved. But fear hobbles creativity and halts progress. In the years since 2005, fear and mistrust have grown in many ways.
Yet hope is still alive, and progress is still within reach. In fact, in some ways the distance we need to cross to achieve it is not as great as in 1985. Back then, political rhetoric was even more incendiary than today—remember the "evil empire"? There were several hot surrogate wars underway. Russia and the U.S. together had around 60,000 nuclear weapons. Trade between our nations was less than $3 billion annually.
Today, our two nations have fewer than 12,000 nuclear weapons, trade is around $35 billion, and we recently worked together to end the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We have compelling reasons to find common ground in several areas of global concern: climate change, agricultural disruption, biodiversity loss, the decline of the oceans, the pandemic and other global threats. These threats do not recognize national borders. All the military expenditures in the world cannot fight them. Only building trust and effective cooperation can.
This is fundamental to strategic stability in the 21st century. It must be rooted in human security, in stability of the climate, environment, food security and public health. However, that's not how states with nuclear weapons think of strategic stability. For them, it's a way to rationalize a dangerous, untenable status quo. In effect, their notion of reaching "stability" with nuclear weapons says to the over 180 nations that don't have them that the nine nations that do have them should be entrusted with determining global security.
Imagine a thought experiment in which nine nations with biological weapons were to say to the rest of the world, "None of you can use polio or smallpox as a weapon, but you can trust us to ensure global security by threatening to unleash the plague in our own national interest." That's the same logic behind the strategic nuclear stability model, where the nine nations with nuclear weapons (the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China, Israel, India, North Korea and Pakistan) pursue their own nuclear expansion programs, and the two nations with over 90 percent of nuclear weapons (the U.S. and Russia) claim to uphold global security based on their ongoing threat to unleash the unthinkable. This irrationality is stimulating a new arms race, and is obviously an incoherent, unworkable approach to stability. Yet it's the one nuclear weapons states are ostensibly pursuing.
One remarkable development in the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev summit was that they had the courage to throw this approach out. Their joint declaration stated, "Recognizing that any conflict between the USSR and the U.S. could have catastrophic consequences, they emphasized the importance of preventing any war between them, whether nuclear or conventional. They will not seek to achieve military superiority." The logic of this new approach wasn't tortured like the logic of conventional strategic stability; it was simple and clear, and it was the foundation for all the progress on easing nuclear dangers that came after.
This is the approach Biden and Putin need to take as the U.S. and Russia embark on strategic stability talks. Instead of each seeking to preserve military advantage, they should agree that neither side will seek military superiority, and that the whole point is to prevent any war between them, which could be catastrophic. The best way to start enshrining that idea, and building trust, is to adopt a No First Use policy, where they affirm they will not be the first to initiate a nuclear attack. That would build trust and confidence globally.
Last week a sign-on letter was sent to Biden and Putin urging them to take this step. It was signed by over 900 leaders from around the world, including numerous former foreign and defense ministers (among them former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry), as well as influencers such as Jane Goodall, Michael Douglas and Deepak Chopra. They pointed out there would be massive civil and political support for such a policy, which they pledged to help mobilize.
The U.S. and Russia adopting No First Use is a feasible, concrete step we can take toward averting war. It would make the world safer today than in 1985, and set the conditions for progress on nuclear disarmament. There are fewer obstacles in the way of such a measure now than then. The ideological conflicts and surrogate wars of that time aren't a factor now. All we need is for our leaders today to show the courage Reagan and Gorbachev displayed then.
Jonathan Granoff is president of the Global Security Institute, and senior advisor and representative to the United Nations of the Permanent Secretariat of the World Summits of Nobel Peace Laureates. He chairs the Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation of the International Law Section of the American Bar Association, and he is a fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Science. He testified as an expert before the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, Canadian Parliament and U.K. Parliament. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.