Trump Inexplicably Calls for a New Nuclear Weapons Arms Race
January 1, 2017
Dan Rather / Facebook & Madeline Conway / Politico
Commentary: Nuclear weapons are not a game. They are not a toy for the petulant and ill-informed to boast about on off-handed tweets. Yet, in a series of impromptu statements about nuclear weapons, Donald Trump is threatening to upend longstanding US nonproliferation policy, even as his advisers contradict him and muddy his intentions.
Nuclear Weapons Are Not a Game
Dan Rather / Facebook
(December 23, 2016) -- Nuclear weapons are not a game. They are not a toy for the petulant and ill-informed to boast about on off-handed tweets. They are not gaudy hotels and apartment buildings to line up to make yourself feel stronger and more important. They are a direct shortcut to the very end of life on earth as we know it.
I suspect Donald Trump knows very little about our nuclear posture, its history, and the delicate balance our presidents have been walking since the early days of the Cold War. This was a man who in a primary debate didn't seem to understand our nuclear triad. And that's "Nukes for Dummies" level.
Now recent tweets and comments suggest he's thinking of a new arms race. When Mr. Trump suggested that countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia develop nuclear weapons during the campaign his apologists told those of us who were worried, he didn't really mean it. Where are those voices now? Because whether he means what he says, or even knows what he means, really doesn't matter at this point. Just by Trump saying it, the world order that we have known is at risk.
He's not even president yet and he's plunging us into a potential crisis that no one really thought would come. Surely there are many Republican Senators and foreign policy experts who understand the dangers of his rhetoric.
Because the stakes with nuclear weapons are so high, that even slight changes in their status are cause for great concern. What Donald Trump is suggesting is at a level that would have us return to one of the most dangerous chapters in history.
Trump on Nukes: 'Let It Be an Arms Race'
Madeline Conway / Politico
(December 23, 2016) -- In a series of impromptu statements about nuclear weapons, Donald Trump is threatening to upend longstanding US nonproliferation policy, even as his advisers contradict him and muddy his intentions.
The president-elect had alarmed and perplexed some experts and others in Washington when he pronounced, without offering more details, via Twitter on Thursday that the US "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes."
He further escalated his call on Friday, telling the MSNBC program "Morning Joe" that he is fine with the country taking part in an "arms race" if it puts the US in a stronger position against foreign adversaries.
"Let it be an arms race . . . we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all," Trump said in an off-air conversation on Friday.
After the remark was reported on MSNBC, though, incoming Trump press secretary Sean Spicer pushed back and insisted that the remarks came from a "private conversation" with "Morning Joe" host Mika Brzezinski. While he told the "Today" Show's Matt Lauer that "there is not going to be" an arms race, he told CNN that Trump is not going to "take anything off the table," either.
It remains unclear where the president-elect stands, but given longstanding bipartisan support for preventing nuclear escalation, if followed through Trump's statements would represent an extraordinary shift in how the US approaches the role of weapons of mass destruction in its own defenses and throughout the world.
President Barack Obama has advanced a vision of "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
At first, after his Thursday tweet, Trump's own supporters had tried to downplay what it meant. It was unclear, for example, whether Trump was advocating the US increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal, which would be a major change, or if he was speaking of modernizing it. Such a suggestion would be in line with ongoing efforts and not necessarily controversial.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump's former campaign manager who was recently named incoming counselor to the president, told an irate Rachel Maddow on Thursday night that Trump may have meant the latter. Regardless, Conway insisted during the heated exchange on MSNBC, the tweet did not necessarily represent a policy change, but Trump "talking about keeping us safe and secure."
"There are a lot of people hiding under the bed right now because it doesn't seem like he knows what he's talking about on this issue," Maddow said.
"That's not fair," Conway responded, later adding, "He's not making policy on Twitter . . . . Again, perhaps he is also echoing what President Obama himself has tried to do here, which is get upgrades to our nuclear systems."
Jason Miller, a Trump spokesman, had also said on Thursday that the president-elect was talking about expanding nonproliferation efforts, not stoking an arms race.
"President-elect Trump was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it -- particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes," Miller said in a statement. "He has also emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength."
Trump's comments Friday, of course, seemed to directly contradict that.
The controversy started after Russian President Vladimir Putin called on his country to "strengthen" its nuclear forces. "We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems," he said earlier this week, according to multiple news reports.
But Putin at an annual news conference on Friday said Russia has no interest in a nuclear arms race and seemed to normalize Trump's statements, calling his tweet unsurprising.
"Of course the US has more missiles, submarines and aircraft carriers, but what we say is that we are stronger than any aggressor, and this is the case," Putin said, adding, "As for Donald Trump, there is nothing new about it, during his elections campaign he said the US needs to bolster its nuclear capabilities and its armed forces in general."
During the election season, Trump made contradictory statements about nuclear proliferation. He suggested that some countries -- including Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia -- should be allowed to develop them, despite efforts to prevent more countries from doing so. But he also told The New York Times in March that "it's a very scary nuclear world."
"Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation," Trump said at the time.
Trump's more recent comments about expanding America's nuclear capability go against decades of policy to reduce the stockpile of nuclear warheads and could potentially violate an arms control treaty with Russia. The US has a stockpile of roughly 4,500 nuclear warheads and nearly 1,500 deployed warheads (Russia's armaments are nearly identical, as both nations account for more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear warheads).
The US and Russia are due to meet nuclear reduction targets by February 2018 under the New START Treaty, which can be extended for another five years in 2021.
Experts remain confused and in some cases unnerved by the nature of Trump's foray into the nuclear weapons discussion. On Thursday, John Tierney, a former Democratic congressman and current executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, presented Trump's tweet as perilous.
"It is dangerous for the President-elect to use just 140 characters and announce a major change in US nuclear weapons policy, which is nuanced, complex, and affects every single person on this planet," he said in a statement, warning that an expansion threatens a nuclear arms race.
"The potential consequences of changing US nuclear weapons policy so drastically are simply unimaginable," he warned. "Current plans already call for spending $1 trillion over the next three decades to modernize and maintain the US nuclear arsenal, which the Pentagon has expressed concern about being able to afford. The President-elect will have to explain why any increase is necessary both financially and strategically."
Joseph Cirincione, the president of the global security foundation Ploughshares Fund and a nuclear weapons expert, called Trump's actions "bizarre, unprecedented and completely out of bounds behavior for a president-elect."
Incoming presidents usually wait until they take office to make pronouncements on a topic like nuclear policy, Cirincione said. Beyond that, he said he is alarmed by the cavalier attitude Trump seems to have toward as enormously sensitive an issue as weapons of mass destruction.
While Trump might see Twitter as a means to convey strength to his constituents at home, Cirincione said, "the rest of the world is watching," and other countries could respond with actions of their own.
"You can't use Twitter to make nuclear policy," Cirincione said. "Look, you should at least wait until you're president. But this is why -- this kind of view that he's breaking with convention, he wants to shake things up, I understand that, but not on nuclear policy. There are reasons why people spend days crafting the language of nuclear policy."
"These things can be very complicated," he continued, "and every word matters."