The 2016 presidential race has focused on economic policy questions like whether to raise the minimum wage and the potential pitfalls and benefits of free trade agreements. And whenever the conversation strays from domestic policy, it usually involves what the U.S. should do to defeat ISIS.
But according to retired four-star general Wesley Clark, the most pressing issue facing the next President could be a return of a cold-war style nuclear arms race with Russia. “Vladimir Putin has been tossing around casual references to nuclear weapons,” Clark warned during a panel on global risks at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday.
Clark reminded attendees that NATO once faced an existential crisis during the the late 1970s and early 1980s as it tried to confront the USSR’s nuclear modernization program. “It almost brought the alliance to its knees,” he said, arguing that the next president will have to confront the task of “rejuvenating” NATO so that it is able to confront the threat of a Russia that wants to build a nuclear arsenal powerful enough to deter Western powers from exerting influence on Eastern Europe. “I’m told that … Russia has moved ahead with research on third and fourth generation nuclear weapons—that is neutron bombs—with the idea of making a usable battlefield nuclear weapon.” He continued:
What we learned in the 1970s and 80s is that you have to be able to match or overmatch, for deterrent purposes, at every level of escalation. If the U.S. can’t match these battlefield nuclear weapons, and they have to rely on a submarine launched ballistic missile, do you still have deterrence? NATO is going to have to ask that question, and it’s going to be a very painful question. So the next president is going to have to deal with some very important issues.
Recent polls show that Americans are more concerned about the threat of ISIS and Iran than Russia, but General Clark reminds us that only one of these groups has the arsenal at its disposal to cause widespread harm to American interests.