The current Republican presidential front-runner, Donald J. Trump, has made campaign headlines for his extraordinary comments on nuclear weapons. His statements have prompted serious concerns among the foreign policy community, generating unease even in his own party.
For instance, in early March of this year, a group of over 100 Republican foreign policy and defense experts signed an open letter in opposition to a Donald Trump presidency, citing his policies as “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.” This bipartisan disquiet stems from the fact the Trump openly advocates for policies that break from the national security norms used since World War II.
Non-Proliferation or Proliferation?
One of the United States’ long-term objectives has been to stop the spread of nuclear weapons throughout the world. This can be seen through numerous arms control treaties signed with allies and foes. At one point, Trump seemed to agree with this longtime policy, saying in a Republican debate:
The biggest problem we have is nuclear – nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That’s in my opinion that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.
However, Trump’s stances are completely unpredictable, as he displayed during a town hall event with Anderson Cooper:
COOPER: It’s been U.S. policy for decades to prevent Japan from getting nuclear weapons.
TRUMP: That might be policy, but you know, it’s going to be a time to change because Pakistan has it, China has it.
COOPER: So you have no problems if Japan has nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: At some point we have to say, you know what, if Japan starts to protect itself against this maniac in North Korea, we are better off if South Korea is going to start to protect itself.
COOPER: Should Saudi Arabia have nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, absolutely.
Later, Trump backtracked on allowing Saudi Arabia the possibility of obtaining nuclear weapons, which led Cooper to ask:
So if you said, Japan, yes its fine you get nuclear weapons, South Korea as well, and Saudi Arabia says, we want them, too?
TRUMP: Can I be honest with you? It’s going to happen anyways, Pakistan, so many countries, Russia, that have them.
But in the past Trump actually spoke at great length about the dangers of spreading nuclear weapons, once saying:
We have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ballgame.
Yet, when asked a question specifically about the U.S. nuclear triad (strategic bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and land-based ballistic missiles), Trump couldn’t answer the question.
“Unpredictable” Nuclear Policy
Trump’s views on other aspects of nuclear policy are also problematic. At one point, he suggested that he might use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS:
I’m never going to rule anything out–I wouldn’t want to say. Even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t want to tell you that because at a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would use them. We need unpredictability.
Trump repeated this “unpredictability” logic during an exchange with Chris Matthews:
MATTHEWS: Can you tell the Middle East we’re not using a nuclear weapon…
TRUMP: I would never say that. I would never take any of my cards off the table.
MATTHEWS: How about Europe, we won’t use it in Europe?
TRUMP: I’m not going to take it off the table!
MATTHEWS: You might use it in Europe?
TRUMP: No, I don’t think so, but…
Here’s the problem: effective deterrence relies on predictability. Unpredictable nuclear policy means never ruling out a first strike in any situation and keeping allies and foes alike on edge. It would likely cause more countries to explore a nuclear option for themselves – a development Trump may welcome (or not, depending on the day). But this would also signal the end of 50 years of nuclear non-proliferation progress.
Cut costs – or Don’t
One of Trump’s main arguments against protecting allied countries with U.S. conventional forces, and by extension our nuclear arsenal, is the cost. When talking to Anderson Cooper about our nuclear commitment to Japan and South Korea, Trump said:
When you see all of the money that our country is spending on military, we’re not spending it for ourselves; we’re protecting all of these nations all over the world. We can’t afford to do it anymore.
But when it comes to nuclear modernization, which is set to cost up to $1 trillion over 30 years to update and modify our nuclear force, Trump has inconsistently said that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is old and weak, and later suggested that any cuts to the posture would be unwise – even though hundreds of U.S. nuclear weapons are housed in Europe.
Incoherent and Troubling
In the end, the Republican Party’s leading presidential candidate has an incoherent and troubling stance on nuclear weapons. Trump either doesn’t understand the issues, or he does but panders to whatever his supporters want to hear.
If Trump is ever to ascend to the highest office in the land, it’s imperative that he understands the difference between proliferation and non-proliferation, and recognizes America’s critical role in stopping the spread and use of nuclear weapons. Put simply, the safety of the United States and the world hangs in the balance.