The First Trends of Trump’s Nuclear Policy Emerge: 27 March 2017

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As the Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counter-Proliferation of the National Security Council, Chris Ford plays perhaps the most important role in the US Government for defining the Trump Administration’s upcoming Nuclear Posture Review.

Speaking at a keynote at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference on Tuesday, a conference with which the bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting Ford is very familiar for having attended in various official roles in recent years, he laid a few breadcrumbs for those of us speculating about the ‘real honest-to-God bottom up’ review.

He talked eloquently but confirmed little. As each issue was addressed, the audience was told that though much might stay the same (nuclear security was singled out as being on track), all policies will be reviewed and that we would need to wait. Nevertheless, it’s possible to read between the lines.

Most worryingly of all, Ford stated that the review ‘will question whether traditional US fidelity to vision of nuclear-free world is viable reality,’ undermining 50 years of the non-proliferation regime. Such an assertion could have been deliberately placed to shake up the nuclear policy elite, but at the very least it demonstrates how far reaching the review will be.

Later, with the statement, ‘the President will not accept second place in the nuclear weapons arena,’ Ford seemed to rule out any further unilateral cuts in the US arsenal and parity with Russia seemed to be considered a bare minimum. However, the phrase carries concerning echoes of controversial strategic superiority or dominance thinking, and it has been reported that thinkers within this school, such as Keith Payne, are advising the President’s team.

In a 2014 paper, Mr Payne attempts to collapse the distinctions between strategic deterrence and nuclear warfighting: ‘Organizing forces into such categories—deterrence/stabilizing or war fighting/destabilizing—was a Cold War, balance-of-terror construct with little meaning outside of that context. Nevertheless, these categories remain entrenched in popular discussions of the subject as terms of art and as the measures of merit for strategic forces.’

Such a turn towards strategic dominance would have profound effects on the international strategic environment, and statements should be monitored closely for more corroborative evidence. Moreover, nuclear policymakers interested in maintaining strategic stability should be alert that these arguments will need countering if they are given the opportunity to advise the Administration.

Further on, there was a hint, for example, that the Trump Administration may be more interventionist in cases of non-proliferation. As Ford put it, ‘enforcing compliance and defending arms control are two sides of the same coin,’ and failing non-proliferation policies – such as the Obama-era strategic patience with North Korea – are set to be ended (though their replacements may not be better).

The only issue area on which Ford was able to speak with confident authority was the Ban Treaty negotiations, which start on Monday. Calling advocates ‘fundamentally unserious’ about disarmament, Ford asserted that the Trump Administration will bring more diplomatic instruments to bear than Obama in deterring allies from attending or supporting the negotiations.
In the White House

A few blocks over, Donald Trump continues to militarize the Administration. Last week, Trump announced six Pentagon appointees to fill crucial positions within the Pentagon, which have until now been empty.

Significantly, the six nominees draw heavily from the George W. Bush administration and many have previously worked closely with Mattis. All this supports the argument that Trump’s nuclear weapons policy is likely to at the very least follow, and may supercharge, Obama’s nuclear modernisation and development anti-ballistic missile capabilities.

The nominations also strengthen the growing link between the Trump administration and defense contractors. Patrick Shanahan, Trump’s choice for the second in command at the Pentagon, served as the vice-president for Boeing’s Missile Defense Systems. He will likely give impetus to the forthcoming Ballistic Missile Defense Review which is set to accompany the Nuclear Policy Review. This is likely to drastically increase the US’ BMD capacities, as well as integrate ‘left-of-launch’ offensive strike capabilities into the US’ Missile Defence strategy.

Nearly every appointee is deeply connected to US military-industrial complex and has worked with defense contractors in some capacity. As William Hartung, the Director of the Arms & Security Project at the Center for International Policy has said, ‘In short, the Trump Proposals are an armsmaker’s dream come true.’

Another worrying appointee is David Trachtenberg, who has been nominated for Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Defense Policy. He is likely to head up the forthcoming Nuclear Policy Review. Trachtenberg has decried the 2010 Nuclear Policy Review, promoted developing new nuclear strike capabilities and has called Russia ‘belligerent, anti-American and dangerously provocative.’

Disturbingly, Trachtenberg has argued that the US should develop nuclear dominance over Russia and that the concept of strategic stability is ‘a throwback to the Cold War notion that vulnerability is stabilising and defences are provocative.’ This view grossly misunderstands Russia’s legitimate concerns over the US’ nuclear modernisation. Only last week, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reiterated that Russia were willing to discuss nuclear arms reductions, as long as they included ‘not only strategic offensive weapons.’

Since the US abrogation of the ABM Treaty, Russia have had legitimate worries that the US were developing capabilities to nullify Russia’s second strike capabilities. It appears Trachtenberg will do little to ameliorate these concerns; he has advocated developing space-based defences, deploying new missile interceptors and capitalising on new tech to undermine Russia’s capabilities. Furthermore, last week US Strategic Command confirmed that they see the integration of space as integral to deterence. This will only increase unease among those who expressing concern over the direction of the US policy.

All of this lends credence to the arguments that the upcoming US Nuclear Posture Review could have deeply destabilising effects on the non-proliferation regime. Due to the high number of military appointees, it is all too easy to see how new defense projects could spiral out of control. All the while, potential US ‘adversaries’ would be further pressed to modernize and develop asymmetrical nuclear capabilities lest their second strike capacity be undermined. Not since the end of the Cold War have nuclear arms control efforts been so needed.

Dispatches on the Washington Nuclear Front Line are published fortnightly. The last dispatch is available here: Nuclear Ascendency: The Emerging Importance of Nuclear Weapons for Trump’s Foreign Policy Coalition: 8 March 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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