The thought of President Donald Trump’s fingers on the proverbial nuclear button is chilling to many national security professionals. In addition to a strikingly different temperament than the former occupant of the Oval Office, the Trump administration will bring a mix of continuity and change, seasoned with considerable uncertainty, to various nuclear weapons-related policies.
The president has weighed in on nuclear weapons repeatedly via his beloved Twitter and in interviews, debates, and speeches, albeit superficially, ambiguously, and often self-contradictorily. We have a firmer sense of his party’s priorities; Trump is likely to embrace many and will need to contend with others if he takes a different tack.
Both Trump and his party have suggested that our nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure are dangerously small and decayed, though much of this appears to be partisan posturing. Trump will inherit a long-term and costly effort to revitalize that infrastructure and replace all nuclear delivery platforms. Loose talk aside, tinkering around the margins is more likely than dramatic change. But even staying the course will require addressing significant budgetary challenges.
U.S. nuclear posture has long been linked to Russia’s, with the two sides reducing their forces in parallel via a series of strategic arms control agreements. But that process may have largely run its course. Deeper reductions hinge on addressing thorny issues like limiting missile defense capabilities, accounting for actual warheads rather than more easily verified delivery systems, and addressing shorter range tactical systems. The political will and trust this would require are largely absent at present.
One can imagine this being Trump’s “Nixon goes to China” moment, just as, relatedly, one could imagine our mercurial soon-to-be president taking a cue from Reagan and unexpectedly embracing nuclear abolition, especially if he could be convinced this would cement a grandiose legacy. Conversely, if the U.S.-Russian relationship continues to deteriorate—which appears plausible, notwithstanding our president’s apparent regard for Putin—none of this will be politically viable. And if potential crises or outright conflicts with Moscow emerge, they will play out in the shadow of both sides’ nuclear weapons.
Both Trump and his party have been deeply critical of the Iran nuclear deal, which rolls back and freezes Tehran’s efforts to bolster its nuclear weapons-related capabilities. Rhetoric notwithstanding, there is unlikely to be a better deal on the table. If it sabotages the current agreement, the Trump administration will face difficult choices in either accepting, while trying to contain, Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities or undertaking military action to try to degrade them, with uncertain and potentially counterproductive results. As for North Korea, it is likely to be at least as much of a headache for Trump as it has been for all his recent predecessors, and he is no more likely to find elegant solutions to its growing nuclear capabilities, and intransigence more generally, than they did. India and Pakistan are also plausible sources of nuclear-related crises, as is China, toward which Trump has signaled a harder line.
Finally, if we take the president at his word, he intends to renegotiate our alliances to either extract greater compensation for what he views as undue American burdens or force allies to fend more for themselves. He also cavalierly suggested that he would not be overly concerned if allies like Japan or South Korea responded by pursuing their own nuclear weapons. Yet despite such disconcerting statements, the basic structure of U.S. alliance commitments seems likely to persist for the foreseeable future. But such past and likely also future rhetoric is a fascinating, and scary, test of the conventional wisdom that our allies are acutely sensitive to the nuances of these relationships. For better but more likely for worse, we are about to enter uncharted territory.
About the author: Philipp C. Bleek a nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons proliferation expert at Dūcō, is Assistant Professor in the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies program and Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, both at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He previously served as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs. The views expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent any of his current or past employers.