Michael KreponTrump and the Bomb (cont.)

Donald Trump’s narrow victory could bring a reprise of President Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” of deterrence – except on steroids. Nixon and Henry Kissinger believed that projecting an image of readiness to use nuclear weapons could provide negotiating leverage. They tested this assumption in the 1973 Middle East crisis and during the Vietnam War — with no apparent bearing on Hanoi and Moscow’s choices. Nonetheless, Trump’s reputation for belligerent behavior could reinforce caution by potential challengers. But if he is tested and brandishes the Bomb, the international standing of the United States will decline further, and some allies will scurry for cover. Alliance solidarity could crack if he uses his two favorite Generals, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, as his lodestar in dealing with nuclear challenges.

Previous presidents have choreographed implied threats, reassurance, strategic modernization programs, and adept diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers. Nothing in Trump’s personality and background suggest an ability to make these calibrations. His newly chosen National Security Adviser, General Mike Flynn, is unlikely to be much help in this regard. If Trump is challenged, much depends on whether or not his instincts are filtered through the reality of nuclear danger and leavened by wise counsel. If he responds to the cacophony of voices around him by accepting the advice of those with a bent for dismantling accords rather than negotiating them, nuclear dangers will continue to accelerate. But if he chooses capable national security advisers to butt heads with the ideologues, he might surprise doomsayers, as Reagan did before him.

Republican Presidents have far more leeway to take initiatives on nuclear weapons and treaties than Democrats. One way for Trump to surprise his critics and reduce nuclear dangers would be to call for the Senate to proceed with hearings and then consent for the CTBT’s ratification. No other move would so clearly upend the campaign image of Trump’s impulsive finger on the nuclear “button,” and no other step would do more to stabilize the wobbly nuclear order in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. China, India, Pakistan, and Israel could follow the U.S. lead because they can live without renewed testing. They are respecting moratoria and waiting for someone else to go first – either to renew testing or for the United States Senate to reverse its rejection of the Treaty during Bill Clinton’s presidency. The two main substantive reasons for opposing ratification – concerns over stockpile stewardship and monitoring – no longer apply. And for once, Russia isn’t an impediment, having ratified the CTBT on Boris Yeltsin’s watch. Russia’s continued fealty to the Treaty cannot be taken for granted, however,

Trump could also parlay a (perhaps brief) period of good will with Putin to agree on the next tranche of strategic arms reductions anticipated by the New START Treaty, while extending its intrusive monitoring regime through 2021. He and Putin could also reaffirm existing commitments not to engage in dangerous military practices when U.S. and Russian soldiers, pilots and sailors are operating in close proximity. If Putin wishes to change course, it would be easier for him to do so with Trump, rather than Hillary Clinton, in the White House.

On the other side of the ledger, the list of potential negative developments is daunting. The Great Unraveling of arms control will continue if Putin holds fast to his conditions for another round of nuclear arms reductions – most notably transitioning to multilateral reductions and constraining missile defenses, including those conveying alliance solidarity against Russian pressure tactics. Missiles that were supposed to be barred under the INF Treaty could, as reported, be produced and possibly deployed. The CFE and Open Skies treaties could continue to be hollowed out. The honeymoon between Trump and Putin could be very short if Putin continues to push back against NATO expansion.

If the docket of U.S.-Russian arms control shows no signs of improvement, divisions between the nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” will continue to widen, marked by the negotiation of a Nuclear Ban Treaty. A long negotiation on the FMCT in the Conference on Disarmament will only begin when Pakistan lifts its veto. As for the CTBT, at least some of Trump’s advisors will strongly oppose ratification on grounds that the United States may need to test again, despite a twenty-year record of successful stockpile stewardship. And even if the President-elect appoints pragmatists to key positions, they might choose to fight other battles. Trump was never asked about the CTBT during the campaign.

The Trump administration, like the Obama administration, has little by way of carrots to alter the trajectory of nuclear competition among Pakistan, India and China. Pakistan is competing harder than India; its reliance on nuclear weapons is growing to cover widening disparities in defense expenditures. Friction between India and Pakistan is on the rise. There could well be another serious crisis during the Trump administration sparked by extremist groups that continue to enjoy safe havens on Pakistani soil. The Obama administration made very little headway with China on nuclear issues, and Beijing could be inclined to test Trump.

Stopping and partially reversing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will require a united front including China, Russia, and America’s European and Asian allies. This will be a tall order, especially if the Trump administration seeks to renegotiate the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement. Trump signed up to the standard Republican critique of the Iran deal: that its scope — reducing and suspending Iran’s bomb-making capabilities for at least fifteen years — wasn’t good enough, and its financial incentives too generous. An attempted renegotiation of the Iran agreement could weaken, rather than strengthen the U.S. hand in dealing with North Korea. If Washington is unable to bring its negotiating partners on board a raft of new U.S. sanctions on Iran, the result will be a net loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs as well as diminished leverage in dealing with Kim Jong-un.

Trump’s lack of knowledge with the geopolitics of nuclear danger is cause for concern, but only two Presidents in the Atomic Age – Nixon and George H.W. Bush – could claim familiarity with these issues before entering the White House. Trump, however, is particularly unprepared, making his choice of advisors critical. The key question at the moment is whom else he will hire and which of these hires he will fire.

Note to readers: This post, like the last, is drawn from my November 20 essay in ForeignAffairs.com.


  1. Nik (History)

    Russia ratified the CTBT under Putin not Yeltsin.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    A direct counter to the campaign image of “impulsive finger on the nuclear button” would be for Trump to work with Congress to pass a law on the subject. For example, a law could require that any Presidential order for nuclear weapons use or nuclear strike must be seconded by one or more additional people.

    Trump does not have to admit that he himself would ever impulsively use nuclear weapons, he could simply express concern over the possible bad judgement of unknown future Presidents. A seemingly sane President might become “insane” with no check under current laws. Moreover, there are plenty of seemingly rational advisors who would urge nuclear weapons use under a variety of circumstances.

    If Congress ever debated legislation on the subject, it would be sensible to discuss other legal controls, such as whether to institute by law: no first use of nuclear weapons, no first strike with nuclear weapons, and/or no launch on warning with nuclear weapons. Right now, the Presidential authority over nuclear weapons is unlimited and unchecked by anyone.

  3. Mark Gubrud (History)

    “The Great Unraveling of arms control will continue if Putin holds fast to his conditions for another round of nuclear arms reductions – most notably transitioning to multilateral reductions and constraining missile defenses, including those conveying alliance solidarity against Russian pressure tactics.”

    You are putting the blame on Putin but in this Putin is right and the blame belongs here. Constraint of missile defenses is absolutely essential to future strategic nuclear arms reductions, as is made clear for example by this UCS Science & Global Security Webinar presented by George Lewis yesterday. And as warhead counts fall below 1,000 on each side, it becomes appropriate to bring in the other nuclear-armed states to at least begin the process of building a global nuclear arms control and disarmament regime.

    I agree that “conveying alliance solidarity against Russian pressure tactics” is essential in light of recent history but this was not the original justification for the deployment of missile defense in Europe nor does it make military sense if one fears possible Russian meddling in the Baltics, say, unless Russia’s ostensible concerns that these missile defenses are aimed at its deterrent are in fact justified. The reality is that, of course, these deployments have little effect on Russia’s strategic deterrent but are part of a global system that, as Lewis demostrates, threatens to grow over coming decades into something that could begin to impact Russia’s ability to retaliate after a US first strike; therefore Russia’s fears are not entirely unwarranted and rather than validate them and make further strategic reductions a nonstarter the US should be willing to at a minimum accept limits on further growth of missile defenses tied to further nuclear disarmament.

    The Great Unraveling of arms control advocacy in the US is precisely the lack of funded voices willing to criticize major US policies even when they are clearly and egregiously wrong. There is much to detest about Vladimir Putin but that does not justify irrational American policies that are, rather, serving to justify Putin’s militarism and nuclear saber-rattling.

  4. jimntexas (History)

    My impression is that Trump is the most dovish President-elect we’ve had since Carter. He’s made it clear he wants to cut defense spending (just ask the Boeing and Lockmart shareholders) and has equivocated on supporting NATO nations who might be attacked by Russia.

    This notion that he’s Major Kong, ready to ride an H-bomb into Red Square just doesn’t seem to fit the record.