During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson provided some of the first concrete indications of the incoming Trump administration’s positions on nuclear weapons issues.
By and large, to the extent that Mr. Tillerson represents future stances of the Trump administration, his testimony was very encouraging on nuclear questions. This is particularly good news, since President-elect Trump’s post-election comments on U.S. nuclear weapons and capabilities have been more harmful than helpful.
Shortly before Christmas, the President-elect tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
The next day, Morning Joe reported Mr. Trump saying: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Tillerson gave a more supportive position on nuclear arms control.
For example, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen asked Tillerson whether he supports continued adherence to the nuclear reductions treaty known as New START:
SHAHEEN: One of those areas that we’ve been successful on is the New START Treaty back in 2010, which this committee supported and the Senate supported, which ensures that Russians have to reduce their nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles and it’s given us more access to on-site inspections. Do you believe that continuing to support those efforts is important for us?
TILLERSON: Yes, Senator. I think, again, this is an area where we have to stay engaged with Russia, hold them accountable to commitments made under the New START and also ensure that we are in a position to meet our accountability as well.
In response to written questions submitted by Senators, Tillerson reiterated that commitment: “In general, and with respect to New START specifically, the United States should abide by our international commitments-provided, of course, that our partners continue to fulfill their obligations as well.”
Shaheen also coaxed a response supporting continued engagement with Russia on nuclear negotiations.
SHAHEEN: The five most recent U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, have negotiated agreements with Russia to ensure strategic stability and to reduce nuclear stockpiles. I think you said this morning earlier that you do support the New START Treaty, which is the most recent of those agreements. But more broadly, do you support the long-standing bipartisan policy of engaging with Russia and other nuclear arms states to verifiably reduce nuclear stockpiles?
TILLERSON: Yes, I do.
Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey asked about suggestions from the President-elect that he would be comfortable with Japan and North Korea building their own nuclear forces. Tillerson made it crystal clear that he did not agree.
MARKEY: Do you agree with President-elect Trump when he said, quote, “it wouldn’t be a bad thing for us if Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia acquired nuclear weapons?”
TILLERSON: Senator, I don’t think anyone advocates for more nuclear weapons on the planet.
MARKEY: Donald Trump said it would not be a bad thing. Do you agree or disagree with that?
TILLERSON: I do not agree.
The former ExxonMobil executive reiterated that position in his written responses: “As I said in my testimony, the proliferation of nuclear weapons – in Asia or anywhere else – is not in America’s interests.”
Tillerson also committed to pursuing nuclear non-proliferation programs:
MARKEY: Would you commit to working vigorously to ensure that no additional country on the planet obtains a nuclear weapons capacity?
TILLERSON: Senator, I think if confirmed, one of the vital roles of the State Department to play in working in the National Security Council in an interagency way has to be the pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation. We just simply cannot back away from our commitment to see a reduction in the number of these weapons on the planet.
Senator Markey’s questioning also allowed Tillerson to give a more nuanced response to Trump’s talk of an expanded nuclear force. Tillerson committed only to maintain and update the existing stockpile of nuclear weapons.
MARKEY: President-elect Trump recently said on Twitter that in his view the United States must, quote, “expand its nuclear capability” when warned this could trigger an arms race, he replied “let it be an arms race.” Do you agree with President-elect Trump that the United States should welcome a nuclear arms race with Russia or with China? Would that be a good thing for the United States?
TILLERSON: Senator, I think as we’re pursuing nonproliferation, then we’re also pursing the enforcement of important agreements like New START, that we have to also approach those from a position of strength. I think in the context of some of the quotes that you’re running through here, the president-elect has also indicated a commitment to ensuring that the level of nuclear arms and capability that we are going to maintain under agreed treaties that those capabilities must be maintained and that from time to time that means we have to renew them and bring them up to date and ensure they are capable, otherwise we now have an asymmetric arrangement with the people we’re negotiating with.
The Secretary-designate touched on another critical issue in his written responses to a question whether he supports the resumption of nuclear testing: “I am not aware of any plan to resume nuclear testing. So long as the reliability of our nuclear deterrent can be guaranteed through other means, I think the moratorium has served us well. It would not serve U.S. interests to have Russia and China resume nuclear testing.”
In response to questions from Delaware Senator Chris Coons, Tillerson provided a cautious position on the Iran nuclear agreement, but he notably avoided any rhetoric about tearing up the agreement.
COONS: In your view as you reconsider the nuclear agreement with Iran, if we withdraw from the agreement unilaterally, how will we sustain the current level of visibility we have into Iran’s nuclear program and how would that make us safer or stronger?
TILLERSON: With respect to the recent agreement to limit Iran’s ability to advance or make progress towards development of nuclear weapons, if confirmed my recommendations and I think this is consistent with the President-elect is now, is to do a full review of that agreement as well as any number of side agreements that I understand are part of that agreement.
Senator Coons also induced Tillerson to correct a statement he made earlier in the hearing that nothing in the Iran agreement prevented Iran from purchasing a nuclear weapon from another country.
TILLERSON: Senator, if I could correct for the record, I misspoke. And during the break, I went and checked my source for that and confirmed that I misspoke, and that in fact, their commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty — the language that was in there about “acquire” some people quibble over but their commitment to the NPT was clear and I misspoke in that regard.
One other issue came up frequently during the hearing: what to do about North Korean nuclear and missile tests. In reply to a question from Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, Tillerson suggested that the U.S. needs to more thoroughly enforce sanctions and to be tougher with China:
TILLERSON: “In fact, that is the issue with North Korea; we have failed to enforce existing sanctions regimes, including that which is overseen by the United Nations…that’s why ultimately it’s going to require a new approach with China in order for China to understand our expectations of them, going beyond certainly what they have in the past which has fallen short…If China is not going to comply with those U.N. sanctions than it’s appropriate for the United States to consider actions to compel them to comply.”
Based on Tillerson’s comments on nuclear nonproliferation and the Iran nuclear deal, there is reason to be hopeful that the incoming administration might build on the progress achieved by the Obama administration on arms reductions and lower the nuclear temperature between the United States and Russia. These statements should also be considered in light of the statements by the President-elect and Secretary of Defense-designate General James Mattis that despite major disagreements with Russia, it is possible that the two countries may be able to negotiate on issues of shared importance.