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The Rising Risk of Nuclear War Under Trump

The president and the Pentagon have different national-security doctrines, but they've found a dangerous common ground.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to foreign policy, especially on Russia, the Trump administration is a cacophony of discordant voices. While the president seeks friendly relations with President Vladimir Putin and mutes points of disagreement, prominent members of his administration are pushing for a radical re-orientation of America’s global strategy: a return to the Cold War framework in which Russia and China are treated as major threats to U.S. security.

In his introduction to a policy document called the Nuclear Policy Review, released on Friday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that Russia is adopting “military strategies and capabilities that rely on nuclear escalation for their success.” He added, “These developments, coupled with Russia’s invasion of Crimea and nuclear threats against our allies, mark Moscow’s unabashed return to Great Power competition.”

The phrase “Great Power competition” echoes the administration’s recently released National Defense Strategy, which argues, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” In plain English, this means that America should focus on defending itself against Russia and China, rather than fighting interminable wars in the Middle East. As Thomas Wright, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, noted in The Atlantic last week, this new policy reflects “a bipartisan consensus ... between mainstream Democratic and Republican foreign-policy experts that [President Barack Obama] had under-reacted to Russian and Chinese assertiveness.”

But if Mattis and the broader American foreign policy establishment see Russia and China as the main threats, Trump is more concerned with terrorism, North Korea, and illegal immigration (which he sees through a national-security prism).

It has become abundantly clear that President Trump does not buy his own administration’s strategic shift toward great power competition,” Wright wrote. “Compare the new strategic doctrine to three of President Trump’s recent speeches—one that launched the National Security Strategy, his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, and yesterday’s State of the Union. In each, there was at most a single, obligatory, passing reference to rivals like Russia and China, with little elaboration.” Wright persuasively argues that America has “two competing national security doctrines—Trump’s and that of his national security team. They are now operating in parallel universes.”

The risk of these dual doctrines is not just incoherence. It’s that they reinforce each other in dangerous ways, making a major international conflict much more likely.

Trump’s America First policy alienates traditional allies like South Korea, Japan, and Germany, who don’t know if a U.S. president who openly disdains alliance systems can be trusted. Such countries now have an incentive to pursue foreign policy agendas outside America’s orbit. This emboldens regional powers like Russia and China, who see the Trump era as a chance to expand their influence in the world. The America First policy, in that sense, isn’t the opposite of a Great Powers competition policy, but creates the preconditions for such a world.

America First and Great Power competition find common ground on the terrifying issue of nuclear weapons. Hawks like Mattis are pushing for America to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons to intimidate Russia and China, a policy Trump has bought into on nationalist grounds. “A new nuclear policy issued by the Trump administration on Friday, which vows to counter a rush by the Russians to modernize their forces even while staying within the treaty limits, is touching off a new kind of nuclear arms race,” The New York Times reported on Monday. “The Pentagon envisions a new age in which nuclear weapons are back in a big way—its strategy bristles with plans for new low-yield nuclear weapons that advocates say are needed to match Russian advances and critics warn will be too tempting for a president to use.”

Taken together, America First and Great Power competition are combustible: an erratic president given to threatening nuclear war against North Korea, combined with a foreign policy establishment that’s pursuing an arms race that will give the U.S. nuclear weapons that are more tempting to use, because they are supposedly more tactical and limited. And this is taking place in a world where, because of Trump’s instability, all sorts of powers—great and small—are jostling for advantage.

Although Trump and Mattis speak in different tongues, both are voicing militarily aggressive doctrines that increase the chance of conflict. What’s missing from the conversation is defenders of liberal internationalism, of the type that Obama articulated, which would seek security not in nuclear intimidation or nationalism but through international alliances and treaties. The Democrats, not without reason, have been eager to make hay about Trump’s possible collusion with Russia. But as a result, they’ve softened their criticism of those in the administration, like Mattis, who are pushing the Great Power agenda. This silence might make short-term political sense, but heightens the risk that the Trump administration’s two-faced foreign policy will lead the U.S. into a great and disastrous war.