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The Real Danger of Trump’s Nuclear Policy Isn’t Armageddon

The president may not stumble into a nuclear war, but he's setting the stage for a new era of proliferation.

National Archives/Getty Images

The fear that President Donald Trump is returning the world to the nightmare years of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation was an ever-looming threat, got more intense over the weekend with the news that the United States Air Force is preparing to put B-52 bombers on 24-hour alert for the first time since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. According to the news site Defense One, the Air Force is anticipating an escalation in its deterrence duties as part of a general shift in America’s nuclear posture, sparked by “North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear arsenal, President Trump’s confrontational approach to Pyongyang, and Russia’s increasingly potent and active armed forces.” General David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, told Defense One that “the world is a dangerous place and we’ve got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons.” Goldfein wants the military to ask itself questions like, “What does conventional conflict look like with a nuclear element?”

When it comes to the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal, it has been easy to imagine the worst-case scenarios under Trump. Republican Senator Bob Corker warned that the president might be stumbling on “the path to World War III.” Speaking on MSNBC, Vanity Fair writer Gabriel Sherman reported that “a very prominent Republican” was “saying that they imagine [Chief of Staff Jim] Kelly and [Defense Secretary James] Mattis had conversations about if Trump lunged for the nuclear football, what would they do? Would they tackle him? I mean literally, physically restrain him from putting the country at, sort of, perilous risk.” 

Trump and Mattis wrestling over the nuclear football is a scene worthy of Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove. The principal worry is that we live in a world where Dr. Strangelove feels more like a documentary than a black comedy. 

But the danger comes not just from Dr. Strangelove-style scenarios in which Trump lurches into the apocalypse, with his hapless military staff in tow. It also comes from a degradation of America’s nuclear policy, caused by a combination of Pentagon hubris and Trump’s punch-drunk diplomacy, which taken together would cause the other nations of the world to abandon diplomacy and put their faith in their own nuclear stockpiles. The longer-term danger isn’t that Trump blows up the world, but that he pushes the international system towards a world with many more nukes in many more hands. 

The dangers of America undermining nuclear non-proliferation predate Trump. As the world’s sole superpower, the United States has been torn between pushing for international agreements on nuclear issues and trying to maintain its hegemony at all cost. George W. Bush’s enthusiasm for missile defense led to a fraying of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which America withdrew from in 2002. Barack Obama’s nuclear modernization program, sold to the public on the promise of greater safety, intensified America’s ability to launch a successful first strike that could disarm a rival power

Obama’s modernization program did not end up creating a new era of nuclear competition, in part because it was coupled with the pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation in other areas, notably with Iran. Obama was able to argue to the Chinese and Russian governments that their main concern should be limiting the size of the nuclear club, not competing with other members of the club. 

But with Trump, we’re entering a very different era, where calls for modernization are coupled with a disregard for the diplomacy needed for non-proliferation. This is why Trump’s hostility toward the Iran nuclear deal, combined with his blustery threats against North Korea, present such a danger. Trump is in effect saying that America is pushing ahead with a new generation of more powerful nuclear weapons while also abandoning global leadership on non-proliferation. Given this toxic mix, there’s little reason for other nations, whether great or small, to abide by existing treaties.

Trump’s intemperate handling of the nuclear portfolio is entirely predictable. He has been talking about nuclear non-proliferation since the 1980s, when he offered himself unbidden as the man who should settle the standoff with the Soviet Union. But as analyst Cheryl Rofer rightly notes, Trump’s approach to nuclear issues has been consistently crude, with a few key themes persisting over the decades: that Trump is a great deal-maker, that other people make bad deals, and that America and Russia should team up against the lesser powers. These are not points that are likely to persuade other foreign powers, possibly not even Russia, to put their faith in the United States. (Putin’s Russia, after all, sees the value of the Iran deal Trump wants to jettison). 

Trump’s approach to nuclear issues is to make big threats that he can’t necessarily carry out. This is already encouraging other nations to think about acquiring their own nuclear weapons. Writing in The Washington Post, Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan argued that, since the U.S. won’t be willing to sacrifice its own cities to protect South Korea, South Korea and Japan should acquire their own nuclear arsenals. In a similar vein, former CIA Director John Brennan has warned that scuttling the Iran deal could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

One area where Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump find themselves in agreement is in believing that their countries are being held back by nuclear arms treaties. As Adam Taylor noted in The Washington Post, “Putin has spoken recently of the need to ‘strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces,’ while Trump reportedly denounced an Obama-era treaty that capped the number of nuclear weapons fielded by the two nations during a February call with Putin. Some people, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, worry that Washington and Moscow may ultimately end up scrapping these agreements.”

We’re used to worrying about the nuclear era leading to a sudden apocalypse: the mushroom cloud that ends the world. But there is a slower path to destruction: a world where international agreements are scorned, so the great powers push ahead with deadlier weapons while the smaller nations also acquire nuclear weapons since there is no reward for restraint. It is a world where so many more conflicts could end in nuclear war.