How President Trump Might Radically Rethink U.S. Nuclear Policy
Worried about Donald Trump having his finger on the nuclear button? Don’t be, yet. His penchant for upsetting the status quo could be just what we need.
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump was all over the map when it came to nuclear weapons. He would never use them first, he might use them against the Islamic State, and other countries should get them, too. Hillary Clinton talked mainly about what the nation should not do with nuclear weapons, namely, don’t let Trump anywhere near the nuclear launch codes. So much for that.
Now that Trump has won the election, he will need to get serious and specific about nuclear policy. The nation is facing real challenges on the nuclear front, few of which were ever mentioned on the campaign trail.
Yes, we heard about Russia hacking the Clinton campaign’s emails, but not that Moscow is refusing U.S. offers to continue the decades-long, bipartisan process of reducing nuclear arsenals. Trump noted that Russia was rebuilding its nuclear forces but failed to mention that the United States is, too, and plans to spend an unaffordable $1 trillion over the next 30 years to do so. Did either candidate lay out a plan to stop North Korea’s accelerating nuclear program? Nope.
It is time to elevate the nuclear policy discussion. With this in mind, Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, invited some of the best minds in the field to come up with 10 bold ideas to help make America safer and more secure.
Despite diverse backgrounds and perspectives, the contributors agreed on one basic point: Current nuclear policy is not working. Fresh ideas and major course corrections are needed.
President Barack Obama made progress on a few key nuclear issues during his tenure, such as the New START Treaty, the Nuclear Security Summits, and the Iran nuclear agreement. But, ultimately, Obama was unable to fundamentally change the way the bureaucracy thinks about the bomb. Obama’s advisors remained trapped in the Cold War.
The incoming Trump administration must approach nuclear policy as it did the election — by upending the status quo. Current policy does not reflect reality. Nuclear weapons are vastly overvalued in U.S. defense policy, with missions they cannot achieve and budgets they do not deserve. These weapons do not address the highest-priority threats we face, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and cyberattacks. And yet high costs for new nuclear weapons are crowding out funds needed to address more pressing needs.
Trump can break through this establishment thinking. To get on the right track, here is what the new administration can do:
Don’t hand Russia a veto. It is surprising but true that Republican presidents do a much better job of reducing nuclear arsenals than Democrats. Time will tell if Trump continues this tradition and if he can chart a better relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But if Moscow continues to oppose cooperation on arms control, Washington can reduce its nuclear forces independently, as former President George H.W. Bush did. In our new report, former Gen. James Cartwright, who served as commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, states, “[T]here is no reason to retain unneeded weapons just because Russia does.” Former Secretary of Defense William Perry argues, “[O]ur levels of nuclear forces should be determined by what we need, not by a misguided desire to match Moscow missile for missile.”
In fact, Washington would benefit by charting its own course: U.S. arsenal reductions would limit risks of accidental war, save hundreds of billions of dollars, and build support for nonproliferation efforts. In this vital area, Trump should not hand Moscow veto power over U.S. nuclear policy.
Scale back unneeded nukes. Delinking U.S. nuclear policy from Moscow would also allow the new administration to downsize Obama’s unsustainable, trillion-dollar plans to rebuild the nuclear force. For example, Cartwright and Perry propose that Trump could phase out intercontinental ballistic missiles, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) offer a plan to cancel the new air-launched cruise missile. The two members of Congress argue that Obama’s plan to rebuild the arsenal is “neither affordable, executable, nor advisable in order to maintain an effective and reliable nuclear deterrent.”
Trump may need to cut back on some of Obama’s programs to pay for the new things he wants to do, and this would be a great place to start.
Learn from Iran, engage with North Korea. Despite statements against the Iran deal during the campaign, Trump would be wise to support the successful agreement once in office and use it as a model for reaching out to North Korea, which continues its dangerous march to developing smaller weapons and larger missiles. Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow at New America, argues, “Diplomacy in the absence of trust is hard, but it’s not impossible.” The Trump administration must recognize that “strategic patience” has failed and lead a new push for robust diplomacy by trying to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table and reviving the Six-Party Talks. China must play a stronger role, too.
Disconnect the nuclear button. Trump won despite the fact that many voters do not trust him to be commander in chief of U.S. nuclear forces — with the ability to launch hundreds of nuclear weapons in about four minutes with no checks and balances by Congress or anyone else. That’s a problem, and one worth rethinking. Kennette Benedict of the University of Chicago argues, “We have no voice in the most significant decision the United States government can make — whether to destroy another society with weapons of mass destruction.” Trump could allay fears of his impulsive temper by working to expand decision time and build a rapid-fire process to bring congressional leaders into the loop before any president would decide to go nuclear.
Reduce nuclear investments in NATO. Trump has said that NATO “is costing us a fortune.” The new administration could scale back military investments by bringing U.S. tactical nuclear bombs stored in Europe back home. He also could delay the next phase of U.S. interceptor missiles, planned for Poland; neither program is needed for NATO’s security, and both increase tensions with Russia.
President-elect Trump will enter the White House at a historic moment for controlling nuclear dangers. Many of the old rules no longer apply, and rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is not an option. We need a new course away from the icebergs and a fresh look at U.S. nuclear policy. It is time for new thinking at the highest levels.
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images