President Donald Trump seems to be heading on diametrically opposed tracks with Iran and North Korea, both of which have long vexed the United States with their nuclear programs. On Iran, Trump has lived up to his hard-line campaign promises by withdrawing from from the nuclear agreement struck by President Barack Obama. Beyond that, major Trump administration figures, such as national security advisor John Bolton, openly advocate for regime change in the country. But on North Korea, the Trump administration is not only pursuing negotiations, but articulating positions that are notably less hawkish than previous administrations, Republican and Democrat alike.
“Look, we’ll have to see how the negotiations proceed,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday, “but make no mistake about it: America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into [Los Angeles] or Denver or into the very place we’re sitting here this morning, Chris. That’s our objective, that’s the end state the president has laid out, and that’s the mission that he sent me on this past week to put us on the trajectory to go achieve that.”
As foreign policy analysts like Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer and the New York Times’ Max Fisher noted, Pompeo’s words suggest the administration’s goal is merely to limit North Korea’s nukes from threatening the U.S. This negotiating position would allow North Korea to remain a regional nuclear power, with the ability to strike American allies like South Korea and Japan.
One way to explain the Trump administration’s harsh position on Iran and coddling of North Korea is to argue, as political scientist Daniel Drezner does, that Trump has no coherent foreign policy: He’s just winging it in the search for good headlines. Matthew Yglesias of Vox is equally skeptical of Trump’s ability to pursue a rational policy, arguing that Trump’s North Korea policy amounts to theatrical antics meant to garner positive press. Bashing the Iran deal earns Trump praise from Obama-hating Republicans, while making a deal with North Korea—even one that sacrifices the longstanding American goal of denuclearizing the communist regime—has even fueled talk that he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.
But there’s an underlying logic to Trump’s seeming inconsistency: He’s frankly acknowledging that nuclear powers like North Korea get more respect from the United States than non-nuclear powers like Iran.
In theory, the U.S. has long been committed to nuclear non-proliferation. But in practice, the world’s only superpower is always more willing to negotiate with fellow nuclear powers (such as Russia and China) while saving regime change for those nations which either didn’t acquire nuclear weapons or gave them up (Iraq and Libya). But traditionally this realpolitik has been combined with efforts to bring non-nuclear powers into accord with the international non-proliferation regime, as with the Iran deal.
Under Trump, even that modest effort at taming proliferation is now abandoned, to be replaced by a candid recognition that only those in the nuclear club deserve respect. This discounting of international systems, very much in keeping with Trump’s instincts as a nationalist, bilateral dealmaker, could easily ignite a new age of nuclear proliferation. While Iran so far has been cautious, it could look at the North Korean precedent and think that their wiser course is to develop nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia has warned that if Iran does so, it will too.
In Asia, if the deal Trump is pushing goes through, it would make perfect sense for Japan to acquire nuclear weapons, to counteract North Korea. This would be an especially logical outcome since Trump, by abiding North Korean nukes so long as they can’t reach the U.S., is washing his hands of his obligations to America’s allies in Asia.
As a presidential candidate in early 2016, Trump laid out a scenario whereby nuclear proliferation would be a positive development. Speaking with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, he seemed open to South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia becoming nuclear powers (although he backtracked on Saudi Arabia later in the interview):
COOPER: So you have no problem with Japan and South Korea having…
TRUMP: I thought…
COOPER: … nuclear weapons.
TRUMP: At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself, we have…
COOPER: Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, absolutely.
COOPER: You would be fine with them having nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: No, not nuclear weapons, but they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.
At the time, these words caused only a slight ripple. But they seem to prefigure Trump’s actual policy. In keeping with his disregard for non-proliferation policy, he is further developing America’s nuclear capability. The Times reported on Monday that “for the American arsenal, the initiatives are all going in the opposite direction, with a series of little-noticed announcements to spend billions of dollars building the factories needed to rejuvenate and expand America’s nuclear capacity.”
In the case of North Korea, Trump might have little choice but to accept its status as a nuclear power. This policy, though perhaps realistic, risks encouraging more proliferation—and it’s by no means clear he sees that as a problem. Trump might well win the Nobel Peace Prize for his North Korean diplomacy. But such an honor would miss the forest for the trees, as Trump’s broader nuclear policy could usher in a new era of ever more powers developing the deadliest weapons known to humanity.