Trump’s Threat to Nuclear Order


If you thought “repeal and replace,” or perhaps, “repeal and not replace,” was only a strategy for the botched Obamacare repeal effort, you’d be wrong. It seems to also describe the game plan of President Donald Trump and Republican hawks in Congress when it comes to the agreements and norms that underlie the global nonproliferation regime.

The Trump administration and Congress face critical decisions over the next several months that could have bigly consequences for the international nuclear order. These include whether to continue implementing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, what to do about North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear and ballistic missile programs, whether to salvage the longstanding arms control architecture with Russia, and how to chart a path forward for America’s aging weapons, including determining their role in U.S. strategy.

Since the dawn of the nuclear age over 70 years ago, rarely has the world faced as difficult an array of nuclear weapons-related security challenges as we are facing now. As the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon recently wrote, “The global nuclear order is wobbly. The nuclear safety net, thickly woven out of treaties to reduce nuclear dangers and proliferation prevention, as well as decreased U.S. and Russian force levels, is unraveling.”

And to make matters worse, rarely have we seen an administration and its supporters so determined to discard proven and effective nuclear risk reduction measures.

The president has expressed virulent hostility toward two cornerstone nuclear agreements negotiated by President Barack Obama: the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, and the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. Trump will likely declare in a major speech this week that the Iran agreement is not in the national interest. He has impulsively and recklessly threatened to respond to North Korean provocations with “fire and fury” and shunned diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang. He has also flirted with increasing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. And the Republican-controlled Congress is poised to pass legislation that would deal a major, if not mortal, blow to the U.S.-Russia arms control enterprise.

It is not an exaggeration to say that by the end of Trump’s first term, the world could be facing a new nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia, an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program capable of producing enough nuclear material for several nuclear warheads in a matter of weeks, a deployed North Korean arsenal of several intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with thermonuclear warheads, and a crisis of confidence in some allied capitals about the U.S. commitment to their security that prompts them to explore their own nuclear weapons programs.

If this future comes to pass, it would mean heightened risks of nuclear proliferation, increased odds of global nuclear competition, and, most unnervingly, greater possibilities for nuclear weapons use.

What can be done to head off these outcomes? Some might think building bomb shelters is the best option, though we think that energy would be misdirected. Instead, the American public, concerned members of Congress, and key U.S. allies have an important role to play in encouraging the administration to maintain nuclear risk reduction commitments that continue to benefit U.S. and global security and build on these efforts to further reduce nuclear risks.

A Broken U.S.-Russia Nuclear Relationship

Key pillars of the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control architecture, like the bilateral relationship more broadly, are under siege and their future in doubt.

The biggest threat is Russia’s alleged violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a cornerstone agreement that helped to halt and reverse the Cold War nuclear arms race and remove a significant threat to Europe. The United States has accused Russia of testing and deploying ground-launched cruise missiles in contravention of the pact, which eliminated all U.S. and Russian nuclear delivery systems with a range of 500 to 5,550 kilometers. Moscow denies it is violating the agreement, and instead has accused Washington of breaching the accord.

Meanwhile, both sides continue to retain nuclear force postures that would allow each country to launch hundreds of weapons within minutes of a decision to do so. Put another way, the fate of the world depends to a large degree on the good judgement of Trump and Vladimir Putin. The two countries are also in the throes of ambitious, multi-hundred-billion-dollar efforts to sustain and replace their nuclear arsenals at levels greatly exceeding any rational defense requirement. U.S. and NATO officials have expressed concern that Russia is developing new nuclear warheads and lowering the threshold for when it might consider using them.

For its part, the Trump administration has yet to articulate a clear policy toward Russia or bilateral arms control. Trump has said he would like to improve relations with Moscow and that the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals should be significantly reduced. However, he has also pledged to strengthen and expand U.S. nuclear capabilities, denounced New START, and reportedly responded negatively to Putin’s suggestion to extend that treaty.

New START is one of the few remaining bright spots in the U.S.-Russia arms control relationship, and at least some administration officials continue to see value in it. The treaty includes a comprehensive suite of monitoring and verification provisions that help to ensure compliance with the limits it imposes on deployed strategic nuclear forces. New START is set to expire on Feb. 5, 2021, but can be extended by up to five years without further Duma or Senate approval if both presidents agree.

Republican hawks in Congress, sensing an opportunity created by Trump’s nuclear bravado and Russia’s misbehavior, are seeking to cripple what remains of the arms control relationship. For example, in an attempt to counter Russia’s INF treaty violation, both the House- and Senate-passed versions of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would provide funding for research and development on a new U.S. road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile with a range prohibited by the treaty. The House bill would also prohibit the use of funds to extend New START unless Russia returns to compliance with the INF treaty.

Construction of a new missile for deployment in Europe would set the stage for the U.S. to violate the treaty and increase the risks of destabilizing U.S.-Russia nuclear competition. Moreover, connecting New START extension with INF treaty compliance is counterproductive. By “punishing” Russia’s INF violation in this way, the United States would simply free Russia to expand the number of strategic nuclear weapons pointed at the United States after New START expires in 2021.

If the INF treaty dissolves completely and New START is allowed to expire in 2021, there would be no limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces for the first time since the early 1970s. 

Unraveling the Iran Nuclear Deal

The multilateral nuclear deal the United States and its partners negotiated with Iran is unquestionably a success. But that has not stopped Trump from setting his sights on killing the agreement—if not outright, then slowly by a thousand cuts.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has dramatically reduced the risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. The stringent limitations on Iran’s enrichment activities combined with unprecedented monitoring and transparency measures creates high confidence that any possible effort by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons in the next 15 years or more would be detected promptly.

By every metric, Iran is meeting its commitments under the deal. The most recent quarterly report from the International Atomic Energy Agency points toward compliance, and the European Union said outright in late September that all parties agree there have been no violations of the agreement.

However, the metric for judging the success of the nuclear accord has shifted in Washington. Now, the deal is under threat for failing to meet goals it was never designed to achieve, such as halting ballistic missile activities and reigning in Iran’s support for terrorism. Trump is also taking aim at the fact that not all provisions in the deal are permanent—conveniently ignoring that few arms control and nonproliferation agreements are unlimited in duration.

As a result, the Trump administration, supported by some members of Congress, is pushing to renegotiate parts of the agreement. In this scenario, Trump would withhold a certification to Congress tied to the nuclear deal, on grounds that Iran is violating the deal, or that the agreement is no longer in U.S. national security interests. The plan seems to be to threaten to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions, pursue tougher non-nuclear penalties, and possibly, threaten military action to try and get a better deal—without offering Tehran anything in return.

But there is no legitimate case for withholding certification. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has admitted Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said last week that the deal benefits national security. This approach of withholding certification without good cause and trying to ramp up the pressure to squeeze out new concessions won’t work and risks killing the deal. Given the growing threat posed by North Korea, the international community can ill-afford a second self-inflicted nuclear crisis.

In addition to risking the deal, trying to coerce further concessions out of Iran shows blatant disregard for Washington’s negotiating partners, who have repeatedly said renegotiation is not an option. If the United States pursues this approach, it will have not only lost credibility in future nuclear negotiations, but also isolated itself and ceded leadership on nonproliferation efforts.

Inflaming the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

To be fair to Trump, his administration did not inherit an effective strategy for dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat. Obama’s policy, known as strategic patience, paired increasing economic and diplomatic pressure with an untenable approach to negotiations—a requirement that North Korea take steps toward denuclearization as a precondition for talks. This passive approach gave North Korea time to increase its stockpile of fissile material and advance its ballistic missile programs, a trajectory that is continuing under Trump.

But rather than seizing the opportunity for a fresh approach to North Korea, the Trump administration settled on a repackaged version of strategic patience, dubbed “maximum pressure and engagement.” To date, the administration has emphasized the pressure portion of the equation. This has included supporting additional multilateral sanctions at the UN and unilateral U.S. measures, such as the wide-ranging Sept. 21 executive order that target entities and banks that continue to do business and facilitate transactions with North Korea. The Trump administration’s approach also takes a tougher line on China, publicly chastising Beijing and targeting Chinese entities for violating U.S. restrictions.

If the focus on additional sanctions and implementation of existing measures were paired with full support for Tillerson’s calls for negotiations, progress might be possible. North Korea has not shut the door on talks, though it is emphasizing that denuclearization is not on the table while Pyongyang is under threat from hostile U.S. policy.

Trump, however, is undercutting Tillerson by publicly rebuking the secretary of state’s pursuit of talks as “wasting” time, and is instead engaged in an impulsive and reckless exchange of threats and counterthreats with Kim Jong Un. At his first U.N. General Assembly speech, Trump belittled Kim as “Rocket Man” and threatened to “destroy” North Korea if it continued its aggressive acts. The mixed messages sent by Trump and Tillerson are also sowing confusion in Pyongyang, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo as to what U.S. policy is and under what conditions the United States will agree to talks. In addition to obfuscating Washington’s position, vague threats also increase the chances of a North Korean miscalculation, such as mistaking a U.S. flyover of the peninsula for a preventative military strike, which could lead to military conflict.

North Korea’s nuclear advances in the nine months since Trump took office clearly illustrate that a pressure-only approach will not change Pyongyang’s calculus, and only increases the chances that Washington and Pyongyang blunder into a war.

Absent a sustained U.S. diplomatic effort to engage in talks without preconditions – paired with a reduction in inflammatory rhetoric—North Korea will likely stay on the path of expanding its fissile material stockpile and refining its ballistic missiles. This will continue to destabilize the regional security situation and, in conjunction with Trump’s past questioning of the value of the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea, could prompt these countries to take steps toward developing their own nuclear deterrents, engaging in conventional arms racing, or adopting more aggressive defense postures.

Trump and the Bomb

It is against this rocky backdrop that the Trump administration is conducting a Nuclear Posture Review that could add new weapons to the U.S. arsenal and increase their role in U.S. policy. The review, which formally began in April, is slated to be completed by the end of the year, (though this date could slip).

Reports indicate that a number of revisions to existing policy are on the table, including development of new types of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, accelerating the Obama administration’s excessive and costly plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal, heightening ambiguity about the conditions under which the United States would contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, and letting New START expire in 2021. Most alarmingly, NBC News reported Wednesday that Trump told his military advisors in a July meeting that he wanted to increase the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to its Cold War peak of over 30,000 warheads. Both Trump and Mattis have denied the report.

Proponents of these steps argue that they are necessary to strengthen the credibility of deterrence and reassurance of U.S. allies in a more dangerous world. But in reality they reflect a naïve, reckless, and even theological belief in the power of nuclear weapons to leverage outcomes that they are not capable of effectively or safely leveraging. There is no evidence that assigning a bigger role to nuclear weapons will strengthen deterrence of adversaries or compel those adversaries to make different choices about their arsenals.

Moreover, the biggest threat to allies’ confidence in the U.S. commitment to their security is not the absence of additional nuclear war-fighting options, but Trump’s repeated assaults on the value of the U.S.-led alliance system and uncertainty in key allied capitals about what U.S. policy actually is on important foreign policy issues.

If included in the Nuclear Posture Review, the proposals the Trump administration is reportedly considering would be unnecessary and destabilizing, lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, and add to the already unsustainable price tag to sustain U.S. nuclear forces. And pursuing new, lower-yield weapons and heightening ambiguity about when they might be used would inflame already acute and widespread fears in the United States and around the world that Trump can’t be trusted with the nuclear codes.

Avoiding Catastrophe 

For decades, U.S. leadership has limited the spread of nuclear weapons, drastically reduced the global inventory of these weapons, brought about a halt to all nuclear testing by all but one state (North Korea), and created an informal taboo against nuclear weapons use.

But today the global nuclear order is under increasing strain due to the growing North Korean threat, stalled progress on global disarmament, rising tensions between several nuclear-armed states, and global technological advances in the missile defense, cyber, and space domains that are putting new pressures on nuclear stability.

Rather than hasten the unraveling of several longstanding nuclear risk reduction efforts, the Trump administration should maintain and reinforce existing arms control and nonproliferation measures.

This should include seeking to preserve the network of agreements that make up the bilateral U.S.-Russia arms control architecture, key pillars of which have their origin in the vision of President Ronald Reagan. Taken together, these agreements continue to constrain Russia’s nuclear forces, provide stability, predictability, and transparency in the bilateral relationship, and have only increased in value as the U.S.-Russia relationship has deteriorated.

The administration should confront Russia in direct talks focused on securing the removal of its noncompliant INF missile systems. It should also pursue, in consultation with allies, firm but measured steps to ensure that Russia does not gain a military advantage by violating the treaty. This could include punitive economic measures as well as further augmenting U.S. conventional offensive and defensive capabilities in Europe.

In addition, Trump should take Russia up on its willingness to begin talks to extend New START until 2026. Extending New START would be an easy win for the president. It would help head off unconstrained nuclear competition, strengthen U.S. and global security, reassure allies unsettled by both Trump and Putin, and set the stage for further nuclear reductions in the future.

To reduce global concerns about itchy nuclear trigger fingers, Trump and Putin should issue a joint statement reaffirming the 1985 statement by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states through diplomacy must also remain a central plank of U.S. strategy. That includes sustaining the Iran deal and developing options to build on the agreement. Negotiations for a follow-on agreement or a regional approach to expand some of the restrictions in the deal with Iran would strengthen regional and international nonproliferation barriers.

Washington also needs to rethink and retool its failed strategy on North Korea. Pursing a pressure-heavy approach that is not balanced by sustained diplomatic outreach will only feed North Korea’s justification that augmenting its nuclear arsenal is necessary for the security of the regime. Diplomacy has worked in the past to halt North Korea’s nuclear progress and can work again. Entering into talks without preconditions and examining what the United States can put on the table in return for North Korean nuclear concessions—such as rolling back joint military exercises with South Korea, offering security assurances, or providing limited sanctions relief—stands the best chance of halting North Korea’s advancing capabilities.

Finally, the president must recommit to the vital task of alliance management. Buttressing reassurance in the face of the growing North Korean nuclear threat and a more assertive Russia would be hard enough without contradictory messages about U.S. commitment to its allies and the administration’s policy for dealing with key nuclear challenges. The administration must recognize that the concerns of allies cannot be ameliorated by placing greater emphasis on nuclear threats and weapons and instead emphasize stepped-up dialogue, intelligence gathering, and, as appropriate, conventional military preparedness.

 The Trump administration’s nuclear policy is still being formulated, but a number of early indicators are cause for deep concern. U.S. diplomatic and political leadership, backed by military might, has been essential to reducing global nuclear weapons risks and stemming proliferation. While the existing network of agreements has been far from perfect, it has served U.S. security well. Walking away from effective measures to reduce the nuclear threat would be the height of folly and put us all at greater risk.


Kingston Reif is the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, where Kelsey Davenport is the Director for Nonproliferation Policy. You can follow them on Twitter @KingstonAReif and @KelseyDav.

 Image: CTBTO via Wikimedia Commons