The Doomsday Machine Part I: Nuclear Proliferation and the Trump Administration

 /  May 12, 2017, 2:05 p.m.


The date of October 27, 1962 registers as an unremarkable one; but on that day, a man named Vasili Arkhipov quite literally saved the world by single-handedly averting a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Arkhipov was a Soviet officer aboard a submarine sent to the coast of Cuba during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. An American destroyer, unaware of the fact that the submarine was in fact armed with a 15-kiloton nuclear warhead, began to drop depth charges onto the Soviet vessel. Because it had been days since he had last received any communication from the Soviet command, the submarine’s exhausted captain had no way of knowing that the depth charges were merely practice rounds, intended to signal that the submarine should surface. Instead, he assumed that nuclear war had broken out between the United States and Soviet Union (a not unreasonable assumption in light of the dramatic tensions between the two superpowers at this point in time), and, in the heat of the moment, ordered the submarine’s nuclear weapon to be launched. Had he been successful, a full-out nuclear confrontation would have been unavoidable. Arkhipov, however, insistent in his level-headed conviction that the apparent threat was not a genuine one, refused to let the launch go through. Thanks to his cool head, the world was spared nuclear armageddon.

This incident throws into sharp relief the frightening way in which the future of the planet can rest in the hands of a single individual. It is hardly comforting, then, that the person now responsible for the world’s largest nuclear arsenal seems to lack a basic understanding of the force with which he has been entrusted. Whenever President Donald Trump has attempted to talk about nuclear weapons, he has exhibited his characteristic blend of equivocation and ignorance. Although he now has control of the nuclear briefcase, his exact position regarding the various aspects of nuclear policy remains unclear.

One of the most important components of American nuclear policy, and American foreign policy more broadly, is the country’s approach to nuclear proliferation, or the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear states. A foreign policy that encourages the spread of nuclear weapons flies in the face of America’s decades-long commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. The United States has long recognized the awesome destructive capability of nuclear weapons, and has accordingly worked to minimize their distribution and to eliminate the possibility of their use. Speaking in front of the United Nations in 1961, John F. Kennedy eloquently articulated this stance: “Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.” Similarly, in 1983, Ronald Reagan declared in front of the Japanese Diet that “our dream is to see the day that nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth.” Most recently, Barack Obama delivered a speech in Prague in which he reiterated America’s “moral responsibility” to uphold its “commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The policy of the United States has consistently, if not unfailingly, aligned with these lofty ideals. As the world’s foremost nuclear power, America’s ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968recognized today as the capstone achievement of the global non-proliferation regime—was instrumental in providing the agreement with a degree of credibility. The NPT’s record of success, as is to be expected from any multilateral treaty, is checkered, the most notable blemishes being India, Pakistan, and Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, the treaty set an invaluable precedent for global cooperation on nonproliferation efforts. It paved the way for further agreements such as the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), CTBT (Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty), and New START, all of which have been signed by the United States (the CTBT has yet to be ratified by the Senate).

Trump has threatened to overturn the decades of progress made by the United States in global non-proliferation efforts. While his administration has yet to initiate any concrete changes with regards to proliferation policy, the wealth of inflammatory, and contradictory, rhetoric from the president has made the White House’s intentions frighteningly unclear. Trump’s ability to reverse course at the drop of a hat and blatantly contradict himself is on full display every time he talks about nuclear proliferation. In particular, Trump’s confused ramblings in response to Anderson Cooper’s line of questioning during the second presidential debate provide an illustrative example of his thought process regarding nuclear weapons:

COOPER: So if you said, Japan, yes, it's fine, you get nuclear weapons, South Korea, you as well, and Saudi Arabia says we want them, too?

TRUMP: Can I be honest with you? It's going to happen, anyway. It's going to happen anyway. It's only a question of time. They're going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely. But you have so many countries already, China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia, you have so many countries right now that have them. Now, wouldn't you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons? And they do have them. They absolutely have them. They can'tthey have no carrier system yet but they will very soon. Wouldn't you rather have Japan, perhaps, they're over there, they're very close, they're very fearful of North Korea, and we're supposed to protect.

COOPER: So you're saying you don't want more nuclear weapons in the world but you're OK with Japan and South Korea having nuclear weapons?

TRUMP: I don't want more nuclear weapons. I think thatyou know, when I hear Obama get up and say the biggest threat to the world today is global warming, I say, is this guy kidding? The only global warmingthe only global warming I'm worried about is nuclear global warming because that's the single biggest threat. So it's not that I'm a fanwe can't afford it anymore. We're sitting on a tremendous bubble. We're going to beagain, $21 trillion. We don't have money.

Based on this exchange, it is close to impossible to determine what it is that Trump thinks about nuclear proliferation. In fact, Trump himself doesn’t seem to be quite sure, considering that he manages to reverse course from asking “wouldn't you rather, in a certain sense, have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?” to, as part of the same answer, “no, no, not proliferation. I hate nuclear more than any,” as well as “I don't want more nuclear weapons.”

Trump’s intermittently nonchalant attitude towards proliferation was on display again in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:

BLITZER: You're ready to let Japan and South Korea become nuclear powers?

TRUMP: I am prepared to, if they're not going to take care of us properly, we cannot afford to be the military and police for the world.

And again, in an interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, in reference to Japan:

TRUMP: Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea.

WALLACE: With nukes?                                                                                        

TRUMP: Including with nukes, yes, including with nukes.

That Trump was able to tweet the following, even after these remarks, evinces a somewhat amazing lack of self-awareness: “The @nytimes states today that DJT believes ‘more countries should acquire nuclear weapons.’ How dishonest are they. I never said this!” Perhaps Trump had in mind the portion of his interview with Cooper in which he claimed, “I don't want more nuclear weapons.” But of course, that only begs the question of why he endorsed on multiple occasions the acquisition of nuclear weapons by US allies, and why he espouses a foreign policy platform that greatly increases its possibility.    

Trump’s most fully formed opinion on the issue seems to be his insistence that the United States pays too much money subsidizing the defense of its allies, like Saudi Arabia and Japan. Yet what he does not seem to understand (as brought to light by Cooper’s questioning) is that scrapping those security guarantees will vastly increase the probability that those countries develop nuclear weapons in order to defend themselves. Viewed in this light, Trump’s claim that “I don’t want nuclear weapons” appears to be born out of ignorancehe simply is not aware that the consequence of his proposed policy would be to encourage proliferation. And yet, when Cooper raises this possibility, Trump’s flippant response suggests that he does not view the spread of nuclear weapons as a serious security riskor that he believes the risk is justified so long as the United States is able to save some money.

In the current international arena, the states with the technical capability to construct nuclear weapons lack the incentive to do so, thanks to the United States security umbrella, which eliminates the security-based incentive to proliferate. But this is precisely the factor which Trump’s foreign policy threatens to upend. States desire nuclear weapons as a response to an external threat environment; when a state perceives a potent security threat, it may turn to nuclear weapons as a means of coping with that threat. But there are many different costs associated with the construction of a nuclear weapons program, so in lieu of constructing their own nuclear weapons, states may instead rely on security guarantees from a nuclear ally. This “nuclear umbrella” deters aggression against a client state, thereby playing the same role as a domestic nuclear program and negating the need for nuclear weapons in the first place.

South Korea illustrates this dynamic nicely. As a wealthy industrial nation whose foreign policy is defined by its adversary to the north, South Korea possesses the ability to develop nuclear weapons should it choose to. However, this desire is currently held in check by its alliance with the United States. Indeed, South Korea’s nuclear policy has been a direct function of the strength of America’s security assurance throughout its history. Whenever the United States has wavered in its commitment, South Korea has threatened to nuclearize. For example, in 1970, Seoul’s initiation of a military nuclear program was an explicit reaction to Nixon’s Guam Doctrine, which pulled thirty thousand US troops out of South Korea. Thus, history demonstrates that if the United States were to rescind its security assurance, as Trump has threatened to do multiple times, the resulting fear and insecurity would likely prompt Seoul to develop its own nuclear weapons in order to defend itself against North Korea. This would very likely cause a domino effect to ripple throughout East Asia, triggering regional competitors like Japan to nuclearize as well. Similarly, Saudi Arabian nuclearization would cause alarm throughout the entire Middle East and would almost certainly jettison the progress made by the Obama administration’s nonproliferation agreement with Iran.   

Trump’s approach of abetting, if not actively encouraging, the spread of nuclear weapons carries many dangers. Intuitively, one would suspect that a greater number of ready-to-launch nuclear weapons in the world would multiply the possibility of their use, deliberately or otherwise; and a wealth of scholarship corroborates this suspicion. One of the chief dangers of nuclear proliferation concerns the possibility of a nuclear exchange as a result of strategic miscalculations. Newly constructed nuclear arsenals are in a uniquely vulnerable positionthey lack missile defense or second-strike capabilities, and are thus very susceptible to destruction by an enemy strike. This is the quality which renders them uniquely destabilizing.  

Nuclear superpowers like the United States and Russia don’t have to worry about this problemtheir arsenals possess the crucial trait known as “survivability,” meaning that they can’t be destroyed by a single military strike. This is accomplished by the structure of the nuclear arsenal: in the case of the United States, the “nuclear triad” (aerial bombers, silos, and submarines) ensures that even if one of the legs is taken out, there still remain two other legs with which the United States can retaliate. The impossibility of completely neutralizing America’s nuclear arsenal and foreclose the possibility of nuclear retaliation discourages a rival nuclear power like Russia from attempting a preemptive strike (taking out all three legs of the triad at once is not an option, since submarines are nearly impossible to detect). Thus, while the mutual threat of nuclear devastation prevents either country from initiating a preemptive nuclear strike, the arsenals of potential proliferators would lack this quality. This leaves these new nuclear powers in a volatile position and all the more susceptible to strategic miscalculations.

Take Iran as an example: if it were to succeed in crossing the nuclear threshold, its nuclear force would, at least in the beginning, start out as a small and vulnerable arsenal of only a few warheads. Building a survivable nuclear arsenal takes time, expertise, and resources, all of which are in short supply for new nuclear powers. When you throw into the mix the fact that Iran’s chief nuclear rival, Israel, also lacks a survivable nuclear arsenal, the entire Middle East begins to look like a powder keg waiting to explode. What happens when an inevitable geopolitical crisis erupts between the two bitter enemies? The more contentious the crisis, the closer it veers to the possibility of nuclear use. It does not even have to be the case that either side actually intends to use nuclear weaponsthey only need to think it within the realm of possibility that the other side could use nuclear weapons. When both nuclear arsenals are vulnerable enough that they would be permanently destroyed by a surprise strike, launching one’s own preemptive attack to stave off that possibility begins to look eminently rational. These “use it or lose it” pressures might compel a state to launch its nuclear weapons in a moment of crisis rather than risk seeing them destroyed.

But of course, even if proliferators are able to reach the point of survivability without a disaster erupting, the threat posed by nuclear weapons hardly dissipates. The world is rife with geopolitical instability, and if the parties in question were to acquire nuclear capabilities, the possibility that they might be used to engage in games of nuclear brinksmanship over these conflicts is very real. These states will be playing with fire, with potentially disastrous consequences for the world.

This article will be continued with Part II.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Alex Kong


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