Trump’s Nuclear Weapon Policy: A loose cannon in the White House?

Following President-elect Donald Trump’s comments on
U.S. nuclear capabilities over the holidays, 2017 begins with worrisome
questions about his intentions.

By: /
3 January, 2017
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump (L) to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Recent utterances by President-elect Donald Trump on U.S. nuclear weapon policy have sent shock waves over the past two weeks through the international security community. Calling for the U.S. to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” his comments have prompted new concerns based on both his personality and his eventual policies.

How would this man respond to an international crisis or provocation? Would he seek paths of escalation or de-escalation? Would he rely on professional counsel or make his own decisions based on his mood that day or his selective, idiosyncratic processing of information?

These concerns are not entirely new. “Would you trust this man with the nuclear codes?” Hillary Clinton asked during the election campaign last year. The question resonated as Trump’s temperament, his impulsiveness and quickness to anger seemed ill-matched to the cool sobriety one would want to have in a Commander-in-Chief. 

Beyond his own personal suitability to be at the apogee of the decision-making chain for the use of America’s nuclear weapon arsenal, there are fundamental issues of policy that the President-elect has upturned in his own inimitable fashion.

Each new administration normally conducts a nuclear policy review in recognition of the strategic importance of defining the approach to be taken towards nuclear weapons. These reviews are major studies involving representatives of the chief governmental departments and agencies concerned and refined through an iterative process overseen by the National Security Council. President Barack Obama’s administration issued its “Nuclear Posture Review” in 2010 a good year and a half into its tenure. It set out key priorities and themes for the administration in conducting its nuclear weapon policy.

“Trump has tossed off a comment as alarming as it is ambiguous.”

This public product is crucial not only for guidance to the national security complex and for domestic awareness of policy, but also for global consumption as an authoritative statement of U.S. policy against which other states, especially other nuclear-armed states, will calibrate their own policies and postures. 

Obviously, such a vital element of U.S. national security is not to be treated lightly nor relegated to a one-sentence tweet one month away from inauguration. This is however what the President-elect has done with his out-of-the-blue statement that the U.S. “must strengthen and expand its nuclear capacity until such time as the rest of the world comes to its senses.”

Instead of maintaining an appropriate silence on this and other major themes of foreign and security policy until he is actually in office, Trump has tossed off a comment as alarming as it is ambiguous.

Is this an affirmation to pursue an enlargement of U.S. nuclear forces despite decades-old efforts by successive U.S. administrations to reduce the number of nuclear arms? Will a Trump administration go beyond the already controversial US$1 trillion modernization program for nuclear forces that the Obama administration committed to? What exactly is the nature of the “coming to its senses” that the rest of the world is to achieve with respect to “nukes”: unilateral disarmament by other powers, ‘no first use’ pledges, renewed efforts towards universal nuclear weapon abolition? None of the above? The world is left guessing.

If his confusing pronouncement to the Twitter universe was not sufficiently destabilizing, Trump said in a media interview that the U.S. was ready for a nuclear arms race and would prevail and outlast any rival. Was this bellicose rhetoric actually signaling intent to launch a build-up of nuclear weapons and challenging potential adversaries (Russia, China, North Korea?) in this regard? Was it indicating a reversal of long-standing U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy as his earlier comments about the desirability of Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons suggested?

If the President-elect’s erratic pronouncements were only confined to domestic issues such as healthcare, those of us living outside the U.S. might have less cause for concern. However, the policies and programs linked to the use or threat of the use of nuclear weapons (a.k.a. deterrence) by the world’s leading military power affect us all. 

At a time of aggravated international tensions, the potential annihilation represented by the world’s stockpile of some 15,000 nuclear weapons (over 90 percent of which are possessed by the U.S. and Russia) concerns all humanity.  It is not a time to have a maverick in a position of supreme authority over the nuclear arsenal of his country. One can only hope that he will eventually be guided by advisors with a greater knowledge and appreciation of the uniquely devastating capacity of nuclear weapons and will acquire a modicum of prudence and self-control commensurate with the high office he will occupy.   

If the international community ever needed a further reason to hasten the pace of nuclear arms reduction towards the goal of a “world without nuclear weapons” professed by the outgoing Obama administration, it is the disturbing thought of President Trump in charge of the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal.

2017 will witness the first session (in March) of an unprecedented UN-mandated negotiation of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and the first preparatory meeting (in May) of the current review cycle of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). One hopes that by then a coherent and prudent U.S. position on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament will emerge from the Trump administration. 

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