With a few notable exceptions, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have generally tried to restrain if not reverse nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons came into existence. But in the era of Donald Trump, that history may count for nothing.
President-elect Trump apparently has little time for his country’s fragile nuclear weapons deal with Iran, and his alarmingly permissive statements about the wider proliferation of nuclear weapons fly in the face of US nonproliferation policy since 1945.
US presidents have been trying to contain the spread of nuclear weapons since the dawn of the atomic age. There were missteps along the way: Dwight Eisenhower’s ill-considered “Atoms for Peace” programme ended up distributing nuclear technology around the world, contributing in particular to India’s pursuit of “the bomb”, which it eventually acquired in 1974.
Successive presidents – including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon – failed to halt Israel’s undeclared nuclear programme. Despite Jimmy Carter’s sincere efforts to restrain Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, an uptick in the Cold War in 1979-80 and the sheer determination of Pakistani leaders were too much to overcome.
Despite these failures, the overall thrust has been towards nonproliferation. The prospect of a West German bomb and China’s ascent to nuclear status in 1964 saw genuine moves towards an international nonproliferation regime, resulting in the landmark 1968 Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to this day the cornerstone of nuclear weapons control.
In the 1970s and 1980s, American leaders helped persuade Argentina and Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan that national nuclear programmes were not in their interest. The anti-proliferation mood continued into the 1990s, as South Africa voluntarily dismantled its six bombs, while Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine all gave up their Soviet-era weapons under the Lisbon Protocol, which the US was directly involved in brokering.
US nuclear weapons policy, then, has broadly tended towards antiproliferation. And while it’s far from the sole global arbiter of nuclear status, Washington wields immense power. But it seems Trump knows little of this history, and cares even less about it.
Throughout his campaign, Trump seemed unconcerned about the further spread of nuclear weapons. When asked about the prospect of Saudi Arabia going nuclear, he casually said that they would get a bomb anyway. This was a retrenchment to the alarmist predictions of the 1950s and 1960s, which deemed the widespread attainment of nuclear capability virtually inevitable.
At the same event, Trump supported the notion of Japan and South Korea gaining nuclear capability to defend themselves against China and North Korea, seemingly ignorant of both history, and the Japanese constitution’s prohibition of “the bomb”. This effectively abrogates US support of the NPT.
Like much of his rhetoric, Trump’s statements on proliferation are often contradictory. Shortly after winning the election, he denied via Twitter that he had said that more countries should have nuclear weapons.
And a year ago, he declared nuclear proliferation “the single biggest problem our country faces right now”. However, that was in reference to “having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon”. To whom was Trump referring? Of course, “some madman” is not just anyone. For Trump, the madmen reside in Tehran.
Tearing it up
By any reasonable standard, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the “Iran nuclear deal”, is the most important nonproliferation agreement of the 21st century. It blocks Tehran’s routes to “the bomb” and allows the Islamic Republic to begin reintegration into the international mainstream.
Trump, on the other hand, considers it “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen”. During the campaign he incorrectly claimed that the deal only made it easier for Tehran to eventually gain nuclear capability, and alluded to abrogating or redefining the deal when he takes office.
He is not alone: many House and Senate Republicans lambasted Obama over the agreement when it was struck, and vowed to do all they could to make sure it would never come to fruition. This tendency on the right is now in control of Congress, and will be ready to work with Trump once he takes office.
These views could throw off the world’s nuclear balance. For decades, scholars, politicians, and intelligence analysts predicted a “nuclear tipping point”, a situation where if one more nation obtained the bomb, the dam would burst and the world would go nuclear. None of these prognostications came to pass – but if Trump gets what seems to be his way, a tipping point might not be needed.
The nonproliferation regime is flawed, sometimes unfair, but ultimately functional. Under the Trump administration, however, the one nation that has done more to restrain proliferation than any other might yet destroy the entire fragile edifice.