Argument

A Nuclear Test Would Blow Up in Trump’s Face

The Trump administration doesn’t understand the brinkmanship concept its nuclear diplomacy is based on.

The Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility is seen at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation June 30, 2005 near Richland, Washington.
The Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility is seen at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation June 30, 2005 near Richland, Washington. T. Green/Getty Images

The last 42 months have offered a sobering window into the Trump administration’s philosophy on nuclear arms control. On display is its penchant for withdrawing from agreements rather than engaging in dispute resolution—be they the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or, most recently, the Open Skies Treaty. While many experts see this approach as ill-conceived and damaging to U.S. national security interests, the administration often frames it as a form of brinkmanship designed to signal resolve in an era of strategic competition. The intended message appears to be that the United States will no longer play ball unless its rivals—Russia and China—agree to abide by Washington’s rules.

The latest example of this tendency comes amid reports that the administration might conduct a “rapid” nuclear test to strengthen its hand in negotiations with China and Russia. Experts around the world have denounced this proposal as dangerous, foolhardy, and “catastrophically stupid.” As they point out, were the United States to test for the first time in nearly three decades, it would open the door for the resumption of widespread explosive testing. At the same time, it would undermine the nuclear taboo, hurt the credibility of the nonproliferation regime, and diminish support for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). While all true, these arguments are unlikely to sway this administration, which has shown little regard for existing norms or the disarmament machinery writ large.

What might give decision-makers pause, though, is the fact that a nuclear test is unlikely to be an effective signal in the current context. It would not help deliver President Donald Trump’s goal of a trilateral arms control agreement, but it would provide ample opportunity for misinterpretation and a response in kind. In the process, it would likely put Washington in a worse negotiating position than when it started, making it not only risky but also pointless to boot.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case, the first being that effective nuclear signals communicate a credible intent to escalate if the demands of the signaler are not met. If a U.S. rapid test is a signal intended to drive Russia and China to the negotiating table, it cannot then also be the consequence if they do not acquiesce. Conversely, if the prospect of a U.S. test is the signal and the test itself is the threat, then there is little reason to think officials in Moscow or Beijing will be especially compelled. Testing on U.S. soil would put the health and safety of American citizens in jeopardy, but it would not convey new information about U.S. capabilities that could change Russian or Chinese views on arms control.

Second, proponents of a rapid nuclear test may hope to signal that Trump is reckless in order to convince Beijing and Moscow to take his demands seriously. But more than three years into Trump’s presidency, his unpredictability is hardly news, and a nuclear test is more likely to paint him as a pariah than someone who defies convention. In the nearly three decades since the United States last tested a nuclear weapon, a robust international norm has developed against explosive testing, despite the CTBT not being in force. The only country that has tested in the 21st century is North Korea—and it has drawn widespread condemnation from the international community and the United States for doing so. If the administration wants to entice China to negotiate by promising it a seat at the “big kids table,” it should be wary of sending signals that diminish the cache of this proposition.

Third, U.S. doctrine already lays out in clear terms the circumstances under which it would resume explosive testing. While the United States has carried out more nuclear tests than any other country in the world, it hasn’t conducted any since 1992 and now uses subcritical test and computer models instead. The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review states unequivocally that the “United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.” By conducting a test now, what message would this send about the state of America’s nuclear deterrent?

Proponents of a U.S. nuclear test might feel confident that they could clarify the purpose of a test and eliminate possibilities for misinterpretation. Research and history show, however, that even the clearest nuclear signals can be read in unintended ways depending on the target’s priorities, cost-benefit analyses, and perceived threats. What is more, it is naive to think that Russia or China would accept at face value any U.S. rationale for a test when relations are rife with mutual suspicion, acrimony, and mistrust. Instead, Moscow and Beijing will draw their own conclusions about what a U.S. test is meant to signal and respond accordingly—a recipe for the end of arms control, not a new beginning.

Despite these risks, there will still be those in Washington who believe that conducting a nuclear test is worth putting U.S. national security—and the administration’s arms control objectives—on the line. That is because, for them, a test is not a signal designed to exert leverage on U.S. adversaries but rather a desirable outcome in and of itself. There are some in Washington who have long pushed for the United States to resume explosive testing and are happy to support arguments that could justify it. While these efforts have been ongoing for decades, they are more likely to gain support now amid renewed, but unsubstantiated, allegations that Russia and China are testing, too.

The trouble is that test proponents do not just exist in Washington. They have analogues in Moscow and Beijing who would relish an excuse to conduct explosive tests, too. In the last week alone, one Russian analyst has already stated that a U.S. nuclear test would enable Russia to withdraw from the CTBT by claiming that its national interests were under threat. By testing, the Trump administration would give a free pass to those in Moscow and Beijing who are pushing to do the same while enabling them to retain the moral upper hand.

In short, if decision-makers in Washington do choose to test, this attempt at brinkmanship will certainly fail to convince Russia or China to sit down at the arms control negotiating table. Instead, it will make it all the more likely that the very outcomes trilateral arms control seems to be intended to prevent come to bear—and soon. The good news, then, is that there is plenty of time to walk this ill-conceived and ineffective plan back from the brink. In this instance, restraint—such as it is—may be the most effective nuclear signal this administration could possibly send.

Sarah Bidgood is Director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury's Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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