Nothing has caused more angst during the current transfer of power in Washington than President-elect Donald Trump’s belligerent words about upgrading America’s nuclear capabilities. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” he tweeted on Thursday, “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” In a phone conversation a day later with Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Trump said, “Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
These comments go against decades of U.S. policy, by presidents of both parties, to reduce America’s stockpile of weapons. Even Trump’s own spokespeople were nonplussed by his statements, which they downplayed or even openly contradicted. “President-elect Trump was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it,” spokesman Jason Miller said in a statement, which is precisely the opposite of what Trump was referring to.
Some analysts have seen a contradiction between Trump’s nuclear ambitions and his often stated desire for America to have friendlier relations with Russia. Business Insider editor Josh Barro tweeted:
Putin himself doesn’t seem have interpreted Trump’s tweet in that way. In a news conference on Friday, he didn’t seem concerned about Trump’s words, saying, “As for Donald Trump, there is nothing new about it, during his elections campaign he said the U.S. needs to bolster its nuclear capabilities and its armed forces in general.”
Putin is fully justified in his complacency. Contra Barro, there is no reason to think that a new arms race would replicate the Cold War, with the U.S. using its economic superiority to force the Russians into a competition they are bound to lose. By Trump’s own account, the main global problem isn’t Russia but “radical Islamic terrorism,” Iran, and China.
More broadly, going back to at least 1987, Trump has believed that it is in America’s best interest to join forces with the Soviet Union to fight emerging powers. In a recently resurfaced interview from 1987 with Ron Rosenbaum, Trump laid out the case for the world’s two major superpowers to work as a team. “Most of those [pre-nuclear] countries are in one form or another dominated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” Trump told Rosenbaum. “Between those two nations you have the power to dominate any of those countries.” Trump then suggested that Pakistan, which at that point didn’t have nuclear weapons, could be prevented from doing so by the U.S. and Soviet Union’s “powers of retaliation.”
“You think Pakistan would just fold?” Rosenbaum asked. “We wouldn’t have to offer them anything in return?” Trump’s response was a chilling summary of how he thinks nuclear non-proliferation would work: “Maybe we should offer them something. I’m saying you start off as nicely as possible. You apply as much pressure as necessary until you achieve the goal. You start off telling them, ‘Let’s get rid of it.’ If that doesn’t work you then start cutting off aid. And more aid and then more. You do whatever is necessary so these people will have riots in the street, so they can’t get water. So they can’t get Band-Aids, so they can’t get food. Because that’s the only thing that’s going to do it—the people, the riots.”
Provoking instability and riots in countries that are on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons is a risky policy, especially if it is done with the stated goal of keeping America and Russia in a position to “dominate” the non-nuclear countries. For one thing, such a policy would create an incentive for non-nuclear powers to join the nuclear club as quickly as possible, so that they won’t be destabilized. Further, destabilizing a nation like Iran (surely one of the potential targets for such a policy) would inevitably create safe havens for terrorist groups and generate refugee crises, as we’ve seen with George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure.
Much has changed since 1987. The Soviet Union is no more, and its successor state, Russia, is a diminished global power. But Trump’s vision of the world has remained strikingly static. In the ’80s, as now, he sees the U.S. and Russia as status quo powers beset by turbulent upstart nations, and thus, as having essentially similar goals. Writing in Quartz, the journalist Sarah Kendzior argued such a friendship could lead to “the new mutually assured destruction: the two states with the most nuclear weapons in the world, both backed by authoritarian leaders, may be partnering against as-yet unknown shared enemies.”
A U.S.-Russian alliance, with both nations building up their nuclear stockpiles and intimidating emerging powers, has a certain superficial coherence. But in practice, it would be nearly impossible to execute. Putin doesn’t have the same list of major foes as Trump does. In Syria, they do seem to agree about the need to bolster the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war there. But on Iran, Putin supports the nuclear deal that Trump and his team seem eager to challenge, if not rip apart. Since 2014, Putin has worked vigorously to improve Russia’s ties to China, leading to increased trade and military co-operation; Trump is flirting with a trade war with China. While Putin might be happy to work with a more amenable U.S. administration, there’s little reason to think he’s would join an American alliance against China. As a practical matter, Russia’s ambitions are clearly directed towards regaining a sphere of influence in central Europe and the Middle East.
Putin and Trump both dream of their countries dominating the globe, as they did in the Cold War. That might be enough to start them on the road to friendlier relations. An arms race wouldn’t impede that. But in terms of agreeing on global issues, Trump might yet find that working with Russia is a bright idea that quickly runs aground of reality. And if relations sour after an attempted rapprochement, there could be a return to superpower nuclear rivalries. After all, both America and Russia will be building up their arsenals, and if they go back to viewing each other with distrust, then nuclear weapons would be a logical terrain for competition. Trump’s proposed reconcilement with Russia is a genuinely ambitious gambit, but one that could take him down the exact opposite path he is hoping for.