RICHARD BUTLER. Trump and Nuclear Weapons

Jan 19, 2017

Trump’s stance on nuclear weapons is ignorant, inconsistent, confused. What he has proposed on nuclear arms control and proliferation will not be accepted. His latest offer to the Russians has no chance of serious consideration.  

The election of Donald Trump has caused and continues to reveal almost countless concerns. These largely rest on the perception that: he is unfit for the job, likely doesn’t have a remotely informed understanding of what it will entail and, may turn out to be unable to do it. This has, in turn, led to speculation about whether or not he will want to do it, for the duration.

From amongst the countless concerns, none is more serious than the unique responsibility he will acquire, on 20th January, for decision-making with respect to the use of US nuclear weapons.

The fundamental construct of this is well known; the President alone can authorize their release. What is by no means understood and certainly not thought about in the wider public, is how short the time frame could be between notification to the President that a situation has arisen in which he should decide to use US nuclear weapons, or not, and the point of decision to use them, or lose them. This time frame could be as short as 10 minutes.

This is the stuff of action movies, of which there has been many, and that’s a particular problem with Trump, because it has become apparent, particularly in recent months, that his reality is a movie, or more particularly a television series of which he is now, once again, the central character.

The ultimate heroic situation, decision to enter the nuclear codes, to be made in minutes, is unlikely to arise without being proceeded by other events unfolding more slowly; growing conflict, threatening military moves, weapons proliferation, for example, which escalate towards the crisis moment.

It is crucial that such events be handled carefully and without overt threats of a kind which exacerbate rather than mitigate tension.

It must be asked, in the light of what we now know about Trump’s penchant for bluster and bullying his macho needs; does such care seen likely to come readily to him?

Turning from such fundamental sources of concern, there are some specific attitudes towards nuclear weapons, which Trump has expressed in recent months, that deserve to be recalled.

These include: his insistence that the nuclear non-proliferation agreement done with Iran by the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the EU, a year ago, is unacceptable and that he will abrogate it; his stated belief that maybe it would be a good thing for Japan and the Republic of Korea to acquire nuclear weapons; his pledge to destroy the nuclear weapons program of the Democratic Republic of Korea; and, most recently his statement that he would propose, very soon, to Russia that it agree to nuclear arms control proposals for the US and Russia ( as yet unspecified ), in return for which he would recognize Russia’s incorporation of Crimea and lift the sanctions imposed upon it for its military action against and within Ukraine.

There are three specific points to make about this, in addition to the most obvious one: that it is all ludicrously ill-informed, internally inconsistent, not grounded in political reality, either domestically or internationally.

First, the US is not able to abrogate the agreement with Iran. It involves six other parties and none of them agree that it is a bad or dangerous agreement. They all want it to continue.

Secondly, the idea that there is “good” proliferation of nuclear weapons: -Japan, Republic of Korea – is completely unacceptable to the 189 members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ( this includes Japan and ROK), and illegal under the terms of the Treaty.

Thirdly, DPRK is a case in point. It illegally proliferated and left the Treaty. Its actions are of very great concern. But, Trump’s pledge to, basically bomb their program out of existence, would be a disaster for the Korean peninsula and author major conflict between the US and China.

With these as with all issues of foreign and national security policy, the hope is that Trump’s ignorance of the field and, his instincts, will be corrected by his senior staff.

This is a terrible situation to be in. It is filled with uncertainty and back-lit by a very great amount of negative experience in situations with similar features, for example, Cheney’s influence over George W Bush. And, on attitudes towards nuclear weapons and their utility, Trump’s nominations to the senior foreign policy and national security portfolios have been, preponderately, of persons with military background. The militarization of US foreign policy, which has been the abiding feature of the past 20 years, seems now set to grow even further.

On Trump’s proposal to Russia, to trade-off the situation with respect to Ukkraine and reductions in nuclear weapons, it would seem to be grounded in as little reality as his other nuclear weapons related proposals.

The strategic balance is a vastly larger issue than what Trump proposes to offer the Russians. It will be judged in its own terms. The Russians will not consider stopping and reversing their new strategic weapons development programs, which are central to their drive to recover super-power status, in exchange for baubles on Ukraine, which will likely come their way soon, because of a breakdown in EU cohesion on policy towards Russia.

Trump’s approach has more in common with second hand car sales than serious bargaining between sovereign states.

If he wants to address the danger now being posed by the new nuclear arms race, that is now taking place between the US and Russia, he needs to make serious proposals affecting the strategic assets of both sides, so that like would be traded for like and overall security enhanced.

Sadly, he is far distant from that, and his team and the Republican Party, are very likely, even more so. And, their internal politics are so distressingly puerile. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, is a person whose public platform, as a good Texas oil-man, when he was running for President, included abolition of the Federal Energy Department.

Why is this relevant to nuclear weapons? Under the US Atomic Energy Act, “stockpile stewardship” (the stockpile of nuclear weapons), is the responsibility of the Energy Department!

Richard Butler AC was Ambassador to the UN, and Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq. He led the UN negotiations in Baghdad with the Saddam Hussein government.

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