Michael KreponWhat Trump Decision is Likely to Increase Nuclear Dangers the Most?

Verse of the week:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

       — William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

What damaging decision of the Trump years is most likely to increase nuclear dangers? It’s hard not to dwell in the past, but there’s room for more nominations in the future.

Some might be inclined to place Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty at or near the top of your list. Withdrawal, rather than announcing steps taking compensatory action while calling for corrective action, would have kept more pressure on Putin while leaving NATO in better shape. But this seems to be water under the bridge now, because Donald Trump and John Bolton want to be rid of INF Treaty constraints as much as Vladimir Putin. 

Some of you would no doubt vote for the low-yield Trident warhead, a move that actually diminishes the U.S. nuclear deterrent while purporting to shore it up. This move make sense only to devotees of deterrence orthodoxy who believe that speed and assured penetrability is of the essence when crossing the nuclear threshold. Additional underlying assumptions include: that existing options on the first rung of the escalation ladder are insufficient; that escalation can be neatly controlled; and that the Kremlin won’t be overly alarmed by a Trident arcing toward the Motherland — assuming that Moscow’s early warning system is up to the task of detection.

Reminds me, in a way, of how nuclear orthodoxy was applied to the dilemma of finding a mobile MX basing scheme to close the “Window of Vulnerability.” Deterrence orthodoxy can be a straight jacket that fosters amazing contortions.

Of course, some of you would vote for Trump’s decision to walk away from negotiated constraints on Iran’s nuclear weapon capabilities. These restraints were deemed insufficient because they allowed money to flow to Tehran’s coffers to take unwelcome steps not prohibited by the agreement. So far, however, Tehran has not busted out of the nuclear constraints it agreed to, which suggests, heretically, that the Mullah-in-Chief hasn’t been in a hurry to produce a nuclear weapon since 2003.

This can change, which leads me to flag Trump’s permissive attitude toward Saudi Arabia’s misdeeds as as a cause for concern. What’s most likely to prod Iran to tear up its side of the nuclear deal struck with the Obama administration, Europe, China and Russia? Less than gold standard controls over Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program. Preventing proliferation in both Iran and Saudi Arabia requires potential nuclear suppliers to adapt a consensual approach to the gold standard. There is every reason to doubt Team Trump’s coalition-building powers. Yes, it’s early, but keep your eye on this one.

Moving along, there are indicators that Senator Tom Cotton’s trial balloon of including China in any extension of New START has found a sympathetic listener in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo is caught between hard right orthodoxy and the essence of his job, which requires some acknowledgement of ground realities. Never mind that China’s nuclear weapon inventory appears to be less than one-tenth that of U.S. or Russian operational stockpiles. All that’s required here is that the argument demanding China’s inclusion meets the bare threshold of public plausibility.  The ‘why not’ question requires compound sentences in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ political environment. The argument to include China isn’t nearly as strong as the “Russia is cheating!” argument for being rid of the INF Treaty, but demanding China’s inclusion might just get the job done.

I’m betting that ACW Founding Father Jeffrey Lewis would place Team Trump’s handling of the North Korea nuclear negotiations near the top of his list. We’ll see. I’ve been less exercised about this, but he may be right.

One last nomination, if I may: Beijing has proposed that the P-5 speak as one to endorse the Reagan-Gorbachev mantra that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought. Team Trump has reservations. As do London and Paris. Moscow is silent. Ain’t that something?


  1. John F. Chick (History)

    Regarding the low-yield Trident, my understanding/assumption is that the purpose is to deter China and reassure local allies more than deterring Russia. China’s insistence on Taiwan unification and island-building in the South China Sea appear aimed at slowly establishing a Chinese sphere of influence and thus ending the almost complete freedom of U.S. maritime action in this part of the world.

    This particular debate reminds me of the historical debate between doctrines of sufficiency vs. essential equivalence, with the 2010 NPR viewing the TLAM as redundant and the 2018 NPR viewing the TLAMs retirement as a tempting opportunity and signaling a lack of commitment to defend Taiwan. As a devotee of deterrence theory, I tend to view the new low-yield Trident’s as most likely overkill, but why not give China a bit more to chew on in their calculations?

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