The Trump Administration and Nuclear Weapons: A Legacy to be Defined

Stimson Spotlight

The Trump Administration and Nuclear Weapons: A Legacy to be Defined

Editor’s note: This analysis is part of Presidential Inbox 2017 — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the Trump administration faces during its first 100 days in office. Click here to read the full series.

By Cindy Vestergaard

The Challenge: The President-elect’s views on nuclear and strategic policy are largely unknown. Trump has said “it is a very scary nuclear world” and the biggest problem “is nuclear and proliferation.” But other than comments on ripping up the Iran deal or having a burger with the North Korean leader, there has been little on how a Trump presidency would address proliferation challenges. While many easily dismissed the notion of ‘diner diplomacy’ with Pyongyang; allies took notice of Trump’s statements on long-standing American alliances and the nuclear umbrella. From calling NATO ‘obsolete’ to suggesting South Korea and Japan develop their own nuclear weapons (a statement later denied), Trump’s message to allies was: do more to protect yourself or pay up.

The biggest challenge for the new administration will be to separate out the swagger from the literal. On the campaign trail, statements on nuclear issues were delivered with spontaneous bluster, followed by tweeted denials and contradictions that left questions on nuclear policy unsettled. He stated he would not be a ‘happy trigger’ and the last to use nuclear weapons. At the same time, he underscored unpredictability as his preferred approach to the bomb and therefore could ‘never ever’ rule out its use. He reassured he would be ‘amazingly calm under pressure’ and that the U.S. would have such a formidable and respected military that there would not be a need to nuke anybody. Details however are absent.

The Context: The majority of U.N. members are increasingly frustrated at the stagnant pace of international negotiations to further limit, reduce, and eventually abolish nuclear arsenals. The longevity of a system based on ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is being tested with many questioning entrenched inequities and too many exceptions to the rule. North Korea continues to test and develop its program while strained relations between the United States and Russia are chipping at their arms control commitments.

In the Middle East, President-elect Trump faces a particularly unsustainable and grim situation. A dizzying system of coalitions stretch from Syria to Yemen and Iraq with countries allied in one conflict opposed in another. Meanwhile ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah battle government forces, each other and an equally dizzying number of jihadi, insurgency, and opposition groups. Chemical weapons have also been used by the Assad regime and ISIS adding further disgrace to Syria’s ongoing war. With hundreds of thousands killed and millions fled, Syria has become the deadliest fight of the 21st century. As a whole, the Middle East has become more hardened and displaced.

There have been some positive steps. Four summits by heads of state have led to actions on securing the world’s nuclear materials, while a deal struck last year by Iran, the EU and six powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, U.K., U.S.) finally ended a twelve-year stand-off and is limiting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The Trump administration will find it difficult to garner support for retracting the deal. The result of considerable diplomatic effort, all partners have an economic and strategic stake in its success. Russia itself was important to many elements realized in the deal such as the removal of more than 11 tons of low-enriched uranium from Iran and the initiative to turn the Fordow uranium enrichment plant into a medical isotopes production center. Unravelling the deal could have the effect of pushing Russia, China and Iran closer together, further complicating U.S. actions in Syria. Add Pakistan to the axis and India’s unease will grow.

Pragmatic Steps: One of the first priorities will be to develop the administration’s agenda for nuclear weapons, the role they play in assuring allies and partners and in deterring enemies. The thirty-year, trillion-dollar program to maintain and update the nuclear triad put in motion by Obama and supported by Congress will likely continue, although there may be nuances. Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, stated in January 2015 before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. arsenal needs “tending to.” If its sole purpose is to deter nuclear war then, “we should say so, and the resulting clarity will help to determine the number we need.” He also asked if it was time to remove land-based missiles, scaling down the triad to a dyad, thereby reducing “the false alarm danger.” Although the next Nuclear Posture Review will take upwards of a year to draft, the presence of Gen. Mattis may inject some predictability into Trump’s otherwise unpredictable strategy.

Trump’s approach to Russia will also need to be clarified early on. Flattery alone will not be enough to ‘straighten out’ the bilateral relationship. European security relies on serious dialogue between Moscow, Brussels, and Washington — while talks on addressing ISIS and Syria will require sobering discussions on outcomes. There are common interests to focus on — such as ensuring Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, and Syria is disarmed of its chemical arsenal. Both also have a stake in ensuring North Korea does not become a direct nuclear threat — as does China.

While today’s nuclear order is multipolar and no longer simply a function of bilateral parity between Russia and the United States, agreements on nuclear (and chemical) weapons do not happen without them. At the same time, there is an increasing need for the United States to draw in China. As noted by my colleagues Alan Romberg and Yun Sun, if North Korea acquires the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon, U.S.-China dialogue is no longer an optional alternative.

Trump’s first 100 days will set the scene for the next four years. A steady hand is needed to guide American and global interests amidst the serious challenges of a complex nuclear world. U.S. leadership in bringing parties to the table to talk is unrivaled and required for momentum to strengthen global non-proliferation and disarmament. The President-elect must rise to the occasion, drawing on the pragmatism demonstrated in his business career, and move to strengthen norms and bilateral relationships that reduce the risk of nuclear war.

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Cindy Vestergaard is a Senior Associate with the Nuclear Safeguards program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. 

Photo credit: U.S. Government Work via Flickr