Shadow Government

5 Burning Nuclear Problems on Trump’s Desk

From North Korea to Russia to Iran, it's a dangerous world out there.


Nuclear weapons remain the most powerful weapons on the planet and how President Donald Trump’s team manages nuclear issues is critical to our security. These are hard challenges; none were perfectly addressed under President Obama’s leadership. But we made them a priority from day one. Whether or not the new team puts them at the top of the to-do list, here are five issues that will demand their attention before too long.

1. Dealing with a nuclear North Korea. This is a hard problem. I know. I’ve been working on it since the early 1990s, including when I was the U.S. government lead monitor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in 1995-1996. Despite America’s best efforts, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs could soon threaten the United States directly. Having crossed the nuclear threshold in the early 1990s, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has made clear possession of nuclear capabilities and advancement of missile technology are his definition of power and control. He will not willingly give them up. President Trump drew an early red line Tweeting that a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) flight “won’t happen”, practically daring Kim to test the new U.S. leadership. How President Trump’s national security team decides to address this creeping crisis — through deterrence, containment, enhanced pressure, or even military prevention — while reassuring our critical allies, South Korea and Japan, will be a key challenge. Kim will want their answer sooner than they think.

2. Nuclear relations with Russia. It remains unclear how President Trump intends to deal with Russia’s aggression in Europe and nuclear saber-rattling. During the final years of Obama’s term, we were increasingly concerned that any crisis with Moscow could spiral out of control and lead to early use of nuclear weapons by Russia. Putin’s paranoia that our goal was regime change was that strong. Why do you think we worked so hard to avoid a military accident over the skies of Syria? Softer words between Presidents Trump and Putin are nice but won’t ease Moscow’s fear that Washington seeks an ability to conduct a “splendid first-strike” that could eliminate most Russian nuclear missiles using advanced conventional weapons, leaving only handful to be mopped up by increasingly capable missile defense. How the White House navigates its desire to advance missile defense and military spending while defusing Russian nuclear fears also remains to be seen.

3. The nuclear future of Iran. Republicans made no secret of their hatred for the nuclear deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They may as well have called it ObamaDeal. Of course, now that we are out of office those who demanded the deal be killed don’t think it quite so bad. In reality, if the JCPOA is implemented it will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for decades, if not permanently. But the agreement requires constant care and feeding. And we have seen Republicans torpedo similar effective nonproliferation agreements before. The 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea — also negotiated by a democratic president and hated by GOP — froze that country’s nuclear program for 8 years, until Newt Gingrich’s Congress froze funds to implement the deal. Instead of begging for a new deal, North Korea developed new nuclear facilities and was off to the races. Repeating this death by 1,000 cuts with Iran would be the definition of insanity — doing the same but expecting a different result. Whether President Trump’s team will have their heart in preserving the JCPOA remains to be seen, but allowing it to collapse has predictable results.

4. Preventing nuclear terrorism. Among the many successes of the Obama administration, perhaps none is as underappreciated as the Nuclear Security Summit process. Over eight years, four summits and countless hours of hard, under-the-radar work, enough nuclear material for hundreds of weapons from dozens of countries is no longer at risk of theft by nuclear terrorists. But there remain many caches of nuclear stocks in places where it should not be allowed to remain. How Trump convinces these states with nuclear materials to comply with global standards and give up their goods is a key question. How he does it when he seems to also be willing to undermine our relations with allies and global partners is a better question.

5. Walking the razors edge on disarmament. How does the old adage go? You catch more nuclear diplomats with honey than with vinegar? There are an increasing number of countries that have grown impatient with the pace of nuclear disarmament — and for some reason. Several of these states have launched U.N.-sponsored negotiations to create a legally binding global ban on nuclear weapons. Now if the Trump team was irritated at the U.N. before, wait until they hear about this! But this centrist approach — to defend the step-by-step pace of disarmament that has reduced the number of U.S. nuclear weapons to a 50 year low — may not be popular with the Ban crowd, or with key actors in the new administration, but it has been essential to keeping wavering U.S. allies in Japan, Germany, Holland, and others from backing the ban movement. Losing allied states to the dangerous extreme of a global ban treaty could put the existing nonproliferation regime under pressure and weaken the norms at the very moment we need them most. How we get states like India, Pakistan, China, and North Korea to show nuclear restraint when we are throwing the old rules under the bus will be a pretty dicey proposition.

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There are too many ways in which nuclear weapon issues can go sideways. Accidents, mistakes, conflicts that get out of control — these can happen at any time, and no administration is ever fully prepared. But these five issues are real and persistent and will test the new team soon. Getting out of the gate cleanly — something they have not been able to do on foreign policy — is essential. Without it, the new team can find themselves playing Whac-a-mole with nuclear weapons. Not a great way to make America great again.

Photo credit: CHUNG SUNG-JUN/Getty Image

Jon Wolfsthal is director of the Nuclear Crisis Group. He was President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. Twitter: @JBWolfsthal

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