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Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will hold their first summit on June 16, 2021. Photo: Getty Images.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will hold their first summit on June 16, 2021. Photo: Getty Images.

Biden needs to address nuclear weapons at his summit with Putin

Among many things the president needs to discuss with Russian leader, nuclear weapons should be a priority.

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Given President Joe Biden’s recent schedule, it seems foreign policy has become a top priority for him. 

On Tuesday, June 9 he traveled to the United Kingdom to take part in the G7 summit on Thursday. It was the first time the leaders of these countries met in person since the pandemic. 

Staying in Europe, Biden went to Brussels to join NATO allies to discuss a range of topics from Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine to his decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. 

On June 15, he will also participate in the first U.S.-EU summit since 2014, and  try to mend relations that were tested by his predecessor, Donald Trump. 

Punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum slapped on by Trump will be lifted by the end of the year. Biden will do this despite pressure from U.S. steel industry groups to keep them in place and China’s excess steel capacity, which drives down the material’s prices globally. 

His time in Europe will culminate in Geneva, Switzerland, where he will have his first summit with the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. 

The highly-anticipated meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, June 16 and both men are prepared for the dialogue, since they are very familiar with the world stage. 

Biden served as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations and as vice president he handled multiple international missions for the Obama administration, like lobbying for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for the Northern Triangle in Central America. 

Putin worked for the KGB, the Soviet Union’s security agency, and held national security posts under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. He has served as Russia’s head of state, either as Prime Minister or president, since 1999. 

The two men met numerous times when Biden was vice president, and in 2021 they have had two phone calls where they talked about Russian interference in American elections, as well as normalizing bilateral ties. 

Wanting to draw a clear contrast from the last U.S.-Russia summit will be key for the current American president. 

The 2018 summit in Helsinki, Finland was marked by Trump’s failure to strongly confront Putin.

He contradicted his own intelligence team and the FBI by saying he believed the Russian leader when Putin claimed that his country did not meddle in the 2016 election, which saw Trump triumph over Hillary Clinton. 

When asked by a reporter, Putin said he did want the former real estate developer to win in 2016 because of his emphasis on normalizing relations between the two world powers. 

Being more aggressive towards Russia will be Biden’s way of showing a clear change in tone in America’s diplomatic objectives, but that may be the wrong approach if he wants to tackle broader issues.  

Political commentators suggest the two will discuss cybersecurity after Russian hackers attacked American government agencies or the jailing of Putin critic Alexei Navalny, but the heads of state should find the time to look into continuing to lower their nuclear arsenals and lead on climate change. 

The two issues are more connected than some originally believed. 

Lasting Effects of Cold War

It’s estimated that Russia has over 6,300 nuclear warheads while the U.S. has 5,800. These figures are a dramatic reduction from the Cold War era. 

A study done by the Federation of American Scientists found that since the technology has existed, 125,000 nuclear warheads have been built. Ninety-seven percent of these were created by the two world powers alone. 

Nuclear stockpiles only got this high because the U.S. and Soviet Union were determined to win scientific and ideological battles over the other to prove their dominance in global affairs. 

The first and only time that the U.S. launched a nuclear weapon to attack another state was against two Japanese cities in World War II. 

1962 was the closest instance the world came to experience full nuclear war amid the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Cuba quickly aligned with the Soviet Union and abolished all private enterprises after self-declared Marxist-Leninist Fidel Castro overthrew U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista. 

President John F. Kennedy placed an embargo on the island and tried to invade it to take out their new leader. This led Castro to seek assistance from the Soviets, and nuclear missiles were sent to Cuba for their defense. Their weapons were now a few miles from the shores of Florida.  

A series of diplomatic negotiations between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin saved the world from certain annihilation.

The USSR agreed to remove its nukes from Cuba if the U.S. removed its weapons from Turkey while pledging to no longer attempt to invade the island. 

Rising influence from the USSR coupled with large communist and left-wing movements in Latin America turned the region into an ideological battleground. 

Several American presidential administrations supported right-wing dictatorships and paramilitary groups to prevent the Soviets from gaining allies in their hemisphere. 

In many cases, they went against the democratic will of a country to put a leader in place that was more friendly towards America and neoliberal trade policies. 

Chile is an example, since the C.I.A. spent millions of dollars to support the opponent of socialist leader Salvador Allende and then funded a national newspaper that antagonized his policies. 

He was deposed in 1973 through a U.S.-backed military coup and military general Augusto Pinochet took power. This ended 50 years of democracy in the Andean country. 

The Chilean people returned to democracy in 1990, but for more than three decades afterwards, they lived under the 1980 constitution written under the Pinochet dictatorship. In October 2020, 78% of voters approved a referendum to write a new constitution by a convention. 

Similar U.S.-led efforts in Central America resulted in civil wars and the destabilization of societies, the effects of which can still be felt today. In the Northern Triangle, sectors of their economies are left underdeveloped and it forces many to migrate to the U.S.  

Proxy wars in the region between the two largest nuclear powers also broke out as their form of indirectly confronting one another. 

Mutually assured destruction (MAD), a national security strategy in which if two self-preserving states engage in full-scale nuclear warfare it would result in the annihilation for both, explains why another attack hasn’t been launched. 

Aside from the cost the U.S. immigration systems bear from the remnants of the Cold War, the American taxpayer is also paying a price. 

Plans to maintain and modernize America’s nuclear arsenal will cost nearly $50 billion per year over the next decade.

Expanding use of Nuclear Energy 

But how does all of this relate to the battle against climate change?

The U.S. is the second largest global emitter of carbon dioxide, accounting for 15% of the world’s output. The Russian Federation is fourth and their share is 5% of global emissions. Together, they are responsible for one fifth of the problem. 

Although currently spearheading the problem of global warming, both have the ability to lead on a global response given their nuclear infrastructure. 

Nuclear energy is the cleaner zero-emission alternative to carbon and the radioactive isotopes in nuclear weapons can be converted into energy. 

After the signing of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), the U.S. and the Soviet Union removed about 80% of all nuclear weapons then in existence. Much of the material has been used for nuclear fuel, but this still leaves more than 13,000 warheads across the globe. 

In 2021, both leaders of these powers have shown that they are committed to working on both of these fronts.

Putin spoke during April’s virtual summit on climate hosted by the U.S., and addressed his country’s progress with nuclear energy.

“45% of our energy balance is low emission energy sources, including nuclear energy and nuclear power plants have near zero emissions levels as is well known… Russia is interested in boosting international cooperation to find ways to effectively combat climate change as well as all other fundamental challenges and problems we are facing today,” he said. 

In a phone call president Biden had with the Russian leader days after his inauguration, the two agreed to extend New START, an Obama-era accord that followed START I. 

The new agreement called upon all nuclear powers to commit to disarmament and use the materials from their warheads to spearhead clean energy projects that would confront the issues of nuclear proliferation and climate change in one move. 

Large multilateral agreements on nuclear weapons have been reached before. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are proof of this. 

Nuclear powers that have not signed either accord are Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan. Getting these countries to comply with a deal will be challenging given the fact they are poorer states and their weapons provide a form of regional dominance and security. 

Another problem that may arise from this is the failure to promote the widespread use of nuclear energy. The U.S. and Russia have experienced disastrous spills like the Three Mile Island accident and Chernobyl respectively. 

However, if this can be achieved, it would be a huge step in the world's most powerful nations uniting through diplomacy to save the planet. 

Competing with China

If worked on cleverly, it could also satisfy another one of Biden’s goals he mentioned before leaving the G7 summit. 

“I propose that we have a democratic alternative to the Belt & Road Initiative and they [leaders of other G7 countries] have agreed to that. That’s under way and we agreed to put together a committee to do that,” he said. “We’re going to insist on high standards for a climate friendly, transparent alternative to the Belt & Road Initiative.” 

The Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) was proposed by Chinese leader Xi Jingping in 2013. It is a globe-spanning plan that has the People's Republic of China invest in many developing countries mainly through massive infrastructure projects. 

It is an attempt from the rising power to build its influence in the global south and offer competition to the liberal international order, which is mainly composed of the U.S., Canada and the EU. 

China has an advantage in the sense that it does not have the same colonial past or interventionist foreign policy that many countries from the liberal international order carry in the developing world. 

For these reasons, many governments in Latin America have welcomed investment from the Sleeping Giant. 

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), bilateral trade grew 25 times, from $12 billion in 1999 to $306 billion in 2018, placing China as Latin America’s second-largest trade partner, after the United States. 

“Since 2005, Chinese policy banks have provided more than $141 billion in loan commitments to Latin America — exceeding, in several years, the lending of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America combined,” the Atlantic Council reports. 

The isolationist stance president Trump took towards the region, aside from acts like placing sanctions on Venezuelan oil and designating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, has only accelerated China’s presence in countries south of the U.S.  

His only trip to Latin America as head of state was for the 2018 G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires. 

In contrast, Biden visited 16 times when he formed part of the Obama administration, which is more than any other president or vice president in American history. 

Although the Chinese government says otherwise, the loans they provide to Latin American countries do seem to have geopolitical implications. 

Paraguay does not benefit much from the BRI because it is one of nine Latin American countries to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state and therefore China limits trade and diplomatic relations with them. 

Even as the region continues to struggle with containing cases of COVID-19, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay, will also not receive China’s Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine because they hold diplomatic ties with a state that China considers a breakaway province.

Xi Jingping’s plan has also been accused of leading to “Debt-trap Diplomacy,” when smaller economies can not repay Chinese loans and Beijing can then demand other concessions or advantages from them.   

China did take a risk in lending to Venezuela after its economy suffered from a global drop in oil prices in 2014, increased sanctions from the U.S., and political instability under the presidency of Nicolás Maduro.  

The South American country is home to the world’s largest crude oil reserves and during its dramatic economic ascent under populist leader Hugo Chavez, it was heavily dependent on petroleum sales to fund large social programs. 

With its inability to repay debts, China policy banks determined they would continue their investments through loan-for-oil-deals. 

Latin Americans do understand the risks that come with dealing with China, but their need for infrastructure and economic development makes the loans too hard to turn down. 

The world’s second-largest economy is also ravaged by internal conflicts. 

More than a million Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority mainly in the Xinjiang province, are being held in internment camps. It is the largest imprisonment of people on basis of religion since the Holocaust. 

Reporters Without Borders ranked China 177 out of 180 countries in their 2021 World Press Freedom Index. They cite censorship around information about the pandemic and jailing of press freedom defenders as recent examples for their low ranking. 

The ongoing trade war with the U.S. and cyberattacks against the American government have made both countries more adversarial towards each other.

Leaders in Latin America do not want the region to again become an ideological battleground between the U.S. and another world power. Washington can avoid this by heavily investing in nuclear energy projects in the region instead of waiting to launch another set of proxy wars. 

Several countries in the region have wanted to explore building nuclear reactors because it’s a cleaner energy source, but they lack the public or financial backing to proceed with these projects. 

As of 2019, there are seven nuclear reactors in Latin America, all in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. 

Argentina has the most with three in operation, and these reactors help generate about 5% of the country’s electricity. 

Bolivia is set to complete the first two phases of its nuclear research center by the Fall of this year with the help of Russia’s JSC Rusatom Overseas company,\ — a state corporation that seeks to promote nuclear technologies in the world market. 

After working with Putin on a new multilateral agreement to have nuclear powers convert their warheads into clean energy, president Biden should look into expanding nuclear energy projects in Latin America if he truly wants to offer an alternative to the BRI. 

Russia’s work in Bolivia proves that they too see potential for a successful nuclear transition in the region. 

America and Russia investing in nuclear reactors in Latin America would not only assist these developing countries in their fight against global warming, but the new industry would also bring high-paying and professional jobs. 

It would also lessen the brain drain on Latin America because their skilled engineers, chemists and physicists would no longer need to leave to the U.S. or Europe for work. 

If the Biden administration were to go through with such a mission, they could call upon their allies in the UK and France, since both are also nuclear powers, but Russia has a more robust infrastructure in the sector and already has a foothold in the region. 

“I think we’re in a contest, not with China per say, but a contest with autocratic governments around the world as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly-changing 21st century,” Biden said. 

The American president might have to be prepared to work with an autocratic leader, Putin, to make notable progress on tackling climate change and persevering their influence in Latin America against the rising threat of China. 

Wednesday’s summit between the two has the potential to find solutions to multiple global conflicts, but only if both leaders agree to set aside some of their differences.

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