Trump's Nuclear Rhetoric and its implications for European Security: 27 Feb 2017

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Trump’s Nuclear Rhetoric and its implications for European Security

Further questions were raised over the direction of US nuclear posture review last week. In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Trump opined that the US has 'fallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity' and pledged the US to be 'top of the pack' when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Trump decried New START, labelling it a 'one-sided deal', and vowed to broach the deployment of Russian Iskander cruise missiles in possible contravention of the INF Treaty with President Putin. This was followed by an announcement that he would make a new budget request to Congress for one of the 'greatest military buildups in American history'.

Trump’s comments have been met with bewilderment in the nuclear arms control community.  Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, accused Trump of 'tripling down' on nuclear policy. Global Zero charged Trump with starting a 'new nuclear arms race,' reversing decades of consensus that nuclear weapons reductions should be pursued.

Indeed, it is difficult to give substance to Trump’s statement. The New START Treaty would mutually restrict deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 in both Russia and the US.  While it is true that Russia outnumbers the US in deployed strategic warheads, the US maintains nuclear superiority because it surpasses Russia in advanced delivery systems.  In 2013 the Obama administration admitted the U.S. could maintain full strategic nuclear deterrence while reducing its deployed nuclear forces to 1/3 below the New START limits.  

Bellicose Rhetoric or Changing Policy

It is still too early to see how Trump’s rhetoric will be translated into policy.  Uncertainty remains while many senior in the Administration hold opposing views and few mid-level appointees in the Pentagon have been made. Trump has a penchant for undiplomatic language and there are concerns among European diplomats whether 'each tweet constitutes a political act or a joke'.

The direction of the nuclear posture review hinges largely two key questions: one, what does the US see as its biggest nuclear threats, and two, what does it envisage the purpose of the US nuclear arsenal in deterring these?

For now, the answers to these questions remains generally unaltered.  The Administration continues to emphasise the threat to international security posed by North Korea and Iran acquiring a nuclear capability. Indeed, the head of the IAEA noted this week that the Iran Deal was proving 'more robust than many people think'.  Despite Republican reservations about the deal, the prospect of US unilateral abrogation of a Treaty that retains strong support from all US allies would mean the blame would fall squarely on President Trump, and he would find it next to impossible to rebuild the international coalition to reimpose sanctions.  

Those comments from President Trump that appear to give new prominence to Russia in US security doctrines and that justify increased military spend are undermined by other comments that attempt to downplay the threat.

In contrast to the President, Secretary of State Tillerson has upheld support for New START, and clarified that the US would seek to upgrade its nuclear arsenal but not increase the role or number of its nuclear weapons. This essentially follows the previous consensus on the Hill in Washington. James Mattis, head of the forthcoming review, could also be a check. In his confirmation hearing, Mattis took a measured tone, reaffirming the conventional view that the value of nuclear weapons lies in deterrence. He referred to the possibility of evaluating emerging elements of the US nuclear arsenal such as the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon against its contribution to deterrence.

Still, others have defended Trump’s statement. Last Friday, former ambassador John Bolton, rumoured for a variety of appointments in the new administration, and Republican Senator Tom Cotton have supported Trump’s calls to scrap arms reductions treaties with Russia.

Trump’s new nuclear diplomacy

Trump’s recent statements on the US nuclear posture and New START can be interpreted three ways. One, Trump really believes in the weakness of the US nuclear posture and the disadvantage of New START, despite evidence otherwise.  Two, the statements are hot air, intended to speak to his core base support.  Or three, they are part of a negotiating tactic.  

Most likely, it is a mix of the three, reflecting a shift to a hyper-transactional form of diplomacy.  This style, extolled in Trump’s business negotiation playbook The Art of the Deal, endorses lurching to the extreme to reach a deal, praises the virtue of hyperbole and unpredictability, and places value in confrontation to preserve one’s strength. Trump’s recent statements could reflect a gut feeling, not meant to be translated directly into policy, but to be used as an extreme position to inform future negotiations.

This has dangerous implications for nuclear security and the non-proliferation regime. The purposeful introduction of uncertainty could undermine a regime that is built on credibility and seeks to build trust through reciprocity.  Indeed, this transactional approach has thwarted the US’s strategic aims in the past.  Two clear examples come to mind. First, in North Korea, where a lack of trust contributed to the breakdown of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Second, on the Iran Deal, where both the US and Iran hardened their negotiation position in the expectation of a future compromise.

Implications for Europe

Even if Trump’s comments are not meant to signal a reversal in US policy, the very statements could pose risks in themselves, especially to European allies.

Both Trump and Putin take a transactional approach to diplomacy, but this does not necessarily mean the two will be able to make deals. Some commentators have argued that their high stakes strategies will result in the US 'sleepwalking into a nuclear arms race with Russia'. According to this view, the US’s nuclear modernisation and nuclear posture review will be viewed as a 'sharpening of the U.S. nuclear sword and a strengthening of its nuclear shield, synchronised with a threatening build-up of America’s conventional force'. Trump’s comments could be read to signal that the US nuclear posture exists to win strategic dominance or even an all out nuclear war, not just for deterrence. This would feed into Russian anxieties about NATO expansion, ballistic missile defence, and current sanctions, and justify a robust response in the name of survival.

Last week's events cannot be detached from the ambiguity introduced over the US commitment to NATO and threat perception of Russia in the new administration. Trump and Putin put Europe between a rock and a hard place, and beg the question of how to respond. There is a need for Europe to develop a clear voice on future collective security and non-proliferation.  Despite any changes to the US nuclear posture, European states collectively through NATO have the means to influence US policy.  

Perhaps the risks highlighted could encourage European states to assess what regional security mechanisms would mitigate the risk of any conventional war going nuclear. It has been suggested that New START must be broadened to be truly effective. Europe could demonstrate leadership here alongside the US, as it did on the Iran Deal.

Whilst the exact direction of the nuclear posture remains unclear, it is increasingly clear that the stakes are high for Europe. Europe cannot afford to wait.

Dispatches on the Washington Nuclear Front Line are published fortnightly. The last dispatch is available here: Opening Salvos in the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Debate: 10 Feb 2017.

About the author(s)...
  • Maxwell Downman, Impact and Fundraising Officer is tracking political and nuclear developments in Washington, specifically the current Nuclear Posture Review and its implications for Europe .
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