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A New Nuclear Arms Race: As NATO Marks 70th Anniversary, Threat of Nuclear Confrontation Grows

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Commemorations—as well as protests—were held last week to mark the 70th anniversary of the formation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. President Trump used the anniversary to push for NATO countries to increase military spending. During an Oval Office meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump demanded Germany and other NATO countries increase their military spending from 2 to 4 percent of GDP. The push for more military spending could benefit U.S. weapons manufacturers including Boeing. This comes as Acting Pentagon Chief Patrick Shanahan is under investigation for improperly advocating on behalf of Boeing, where he worked for 30 years. We speak with Joe Cirincione, president of the global security foundation Ploughshares Fund.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to continue our look at the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The alliance was formed April 4th, 1949. Commemorations, as well as protests, were held last are to mark the anniversary. President Trump used the anniversary to push for NATO countries to increase military spending. During an Oval Office meeting Tuesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, President Trump demanded Germany and other NATO countries increase their military spending from 2 to 4% of GDP.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have worked together on getting some of our allies to pay their fair share. It’s called burden sharing. And as you know, when I came, it wasn’t so good, and now it’s—they’re catching up. We have seven of the 28 countries are currently current, and the rest are trying to catch up, and they will catch up. And some of them have no problems, because they haven’t been paying and they’re very rich. But we’re looking at the 2% of GDP level. And at some point, I think it’s going to have to go higher than that. I think probably it should be higher.

AMY GOODMAN: The push for more military spending could benefit U.S. weapons manufacturers, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and others. This comes as Acting Pentagon Chief Patrick Shanahan is under investigation for improperly advocating on behalf of Boeing, where he worked for more than 30 years.

For more on this, we continue our conversation with Joe Cirincione, who I spoke to on Friday, the president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late and Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. I began by asking him to respond to President Trump’s demands that NATO countries spend even more on military weapons rather than education and healthcare—what some might say are the true markers of national security in a country.

JOE CIRINCIONE: We’re cursed in this discussion by a very narrow definition of national security. We’ve all come to accept that national security equals military forces and weapons, when, in fact, as you point out, a national security is more often determined by the health and welfare of its citizenry, the system of justice, whether citizens feel that they’re engaged in the country and have a role in the governance of that country. And spending on military is just one small part of national security, but this has become the test of whether a country is carrying its fair burden. So, burden sharing with NATO countries has been an issue in this town for decades. Republicans and Democrats have both harped on it, because it’s kind of an easy way for them to show that they’re tough, that they’re strong.

But let’s put this in perspective. What are we talking about here? The world as a whole, every year, spends about $1.7 trillion on military weapons and forces. One-point-seven. The United States and our NATO allies account for $1 trillion of that. So more than half of all global spending is spent by the United States and our NATO allies. The NATO allies alone account for about $240 billion. That’s what they spend. What are they spending it to guard against? Well, if you think that Russia is the main threat, Russia only spends about $66 billion every year on defense. In fact, its spending dropped by 20% between 2016 and 2017, the last year we have figures for. So, its spending is going down.

So why this demand for the NATO allies to spend more, when they’re beset with all kinds of problems that have nothing to do with military, all kinds of internal, economic, immigration problems, social justice problems, health and welfare problems? Why? Well, one, it’s simple. The 2% solution, it’s a simple mantra that is repeated. And, two, this directly benefits military contractors.

Who makes the money off of this? Well, most of the money that we spend in this country on defense, and that the Europeans spend, go to a relative handful of defense contractors: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, etc. And they lobby incessantly for these kind of increases, in Washington, in NATO headquarters, in the capitals of Europe.

And now we have the absurd situation where a 31-year veteran of Boeing, a corporate executive, Patrick Shanahan, is the acting secretary of defense. I mean, this is such an obvious conflict of interest, you would think that people would say, “Well, no, you can’t do that.” But, of course, this is Trump’s Washington, where oil industry executives are running the EPA, and pharmaceutical companies run the FDA, so it’s become accepted. But it’s not right. It’s not fair. And it distorts us.

And it’s dangerous. Just one last fact: If you take Trump at his word that he wants them to contribute 4%, well, that means you want Europe to double their defense spending, from about $230 billion to $460 billion. For what? To do what? What does this go towards? We’ve lost track of the real security needs we face, and we’ve become obsessed with spending more and more on military weapons that in fact have only a minor role to play in the national security of a country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general. How unusual is it, Joe, that he addressed a joint session of Congress? Let’s play the clip of this moment.

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: NATO allies must spend more on defense. This has been the clear message from President Trump. And this message is having a real impact. Of the years of reducing defense budgets, all allies have stopped the cuts, and all allies have increased their defense spending.

AMY GOODMAN: “All allies have increased their defense spending,” Jens Stoltenberg, after meeting with President Trump in the White House, boasting of Trump’s influence. I mean, think back, Joe Cirincione, to the beginning of the Trump term, when he was slamming NATO, and now claiming credit for them all pouring money into weapons purchases.


AMY GOODMAN: Has NATO caved to President Trump?

JOE CIRINCIONE: Well, they certainly have, I guess, caved rhetorically. The actual figures are not quite as rosy as the secretary general states. For example, Germany has slightly increased its defense spending, but it’s not going to come anywhere close to 2%. So it’s technically true, but it’s—what he’s basically doing is trying to come and repair the rift in the NATO alliance that President Trump has caused. This is not a European problem; this is an American problem. The president of the United States is causing this division, almost unprecedented in the 70 of NATO history.

So this is why he wanted to come. And it is—it’s very—I don’t think a secretary general has ever addressed a joint session of Congress. And he’s coming because the European allies are worried about the health of the alliance, not primarily because of defense spending, but because—about the attitudes and policies and temperament of the president of the United States. So he’s going directly to Congress to solidify these ties. And in the course of that, he’s trying to appease the president by saying, “Yes, Mr. President, your demand for increased spending is happening.” He’s stroking Trump, the way, unfortunately, our allies have come to believe they have to do in order to maintain good ties.

Was it successful? It was successful. But, unfortunately, I think, in so doing, he feeds into the military spending frenzy that has seized Congress. He got—when he made that statement, he got a standing ovation. Democrats and Republicans stood up and applauded more defense spending.

And this is what’s happening in this country. The president has submitted a budget for $750 billion for military spending—$750 billion—a big jump from the approximately $720 [billion] that we were spending last year. What do the Democrats do? They say, “Well, we’re not going to give you $750 [billion]. We offer $736 [billion].” That’s their plan, $736 [billion]. So, both Republicans and Democrats, unfortunately, are feeding into this frenzy to spend more and more on weapons, at the expense of domestic expenditures.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe, you’ve written several books, one of them Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, and Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. Do you think it’s too late? And what do you think needs to happen?

JOE CIRINCIONE: All the arrows are pointing in the wrong direction, so nuclear storm clouds are gathering. For example, John Bolton, the national security adviser, has been very successful in sabotaging talks with North Korea. The one benefit of the Trump presidency might be that he could negotiate a solid deal with Kim Jong-un. It now appears, according to reports this week, that at the Hanoi summit John Bolton sabotaged those talks by presenting a list of unacceptable demands, an all-or-nothing offer to the North Koreans that caused them to call off the talks.

He has killed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. This is a Ronald Reagan treaty, that successfully pulled out and destroyed 3,000 nuclear weapons from Europe. You may have been covering this in the ’80s, Amy. When we were pouring nuclear weapons into Europe, massive demonstrations. The biggest rift in the NATO alliance until this point was that crisis. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated a treaty. Bolton never liked it. He killed it.

And why did he kill it? He used the excuse of a Russian violation, which I believe is real but the kind of thing that can be fixed within the treaty framework. And what—but why did they kill it? Because there are elements in the U.S. military and the defense industry that want to build new nuclear weapons that were prohibited by that treaty, to deploy against China and to put into Europe.

So, weeks after we announced we were withdrawing from the treaty, it was revealed that the Department of Defense is starting manufacturing, research and development and production of a new ground-launched cruise missile, a so-called GLCM. You may remember this phrase from the ’80s. It was GLCMs and Pershing IIs that we were pouring into Europe. And so, Secretary General Stoltenberg sought to assure the Congress that NATO would not accept a new intermediate nuclear forces nuclear weapon in Europe.

So Bolton is doing this a little cleverly. It’s like a Trojan horse. It’s going to be a conventionally armed ground-launched cruise missile, a conventionally armed GLCM, that will go into Europe, perhaps in the next couple of years. But, of course, you can easily swap out the conventional warhead for a nuclear warhead. So I think they’re planning to put these weapons in to avoid the kind of mass demonstrations, and later, possibly, equip them with nuclear weapons.

This is the kind of Cold War policy that we thought was behind us. We thought the arms race was over. It’s not over. We are in a new arms race. Every single nuclear-armed country is building new nuclear weapons and heading towards a confrontation point. You’ve got to be a real optimist to think that you can keep thousands of nuclear weapons in fallible human hands indefinitely and something terrible is not going to happen. I am very worried about the direction of the arms race, the direction of our policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late and Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. To see Part 1 of our interview, go to democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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