Trump has recently conducted a number of extensive interviews outlining (or dodging questions about) his views on economics, domestic policy, policing, and foreign affairs. The two interviews I most recommend reading are this one and this one. They are hilarious and terrifying at the same time, and they are sure to keep you entertained. However, they also reveal Trump’s complete lack of knowledge regarding nuclear weapons. This is surprising given his erudite and eloquent response to Hugh Hewitt’s question about the nuclear triad: “But we have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ballgame… I think – I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.”
Yes. The devastation. The power. It is just so important to him. So it’s puzzling that he is so sanguine about the spread of nuclear weapons in Asia. Specifically, Trump has suggested that he would support Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. For a man who has said he is terrified of nuclear proliferation, this a strange policy to endorse because it is literally a policy of nuclear proliferation. Now, there are certainly scholars who argue that the risks of nuclear proliferation are overstated. Some even argue that proliferation might be good. The consensus in policy and academic circles, however, is that nuclear proliferation is unambiguously dangerous, even when the proliferating country is an ally of the United States.
First, nuclear proliferation can lead to dangerous arms races. Look at the Cold War for example. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. tested ever bigger warheads just to “out-stick” each other. India and Pakistan have also engaged in nuclear brinksmanship all in the name of deterrence. Once India tested its first nuke, Pakistan immediately rushed to develop its own nuclear capabilities to check Indian power. This dangerous dynamic has fortunately been avoided in the Middle East and Asia because of America’s security commitments in those regions. For example, Japan knows that if China nukes it, the United States will nuke China. The same is true with Saudi Arabia and Iran. In short, the U.S. has been able to contain spiraling nuclear arms races by providing a security umbrella over its regional allies, but it has been less successful at preventing proliferation among non-treaty allies. If Trump were to renege on Americas security commitments, it is likely that many new nuclear states would emerge.
This might not seem too bad on the surface. After all, Japan and South Korea are stable countries and are friends of the U.S. However, all nuclear states face a steep learning curve, even if they are highly developed. Countries must develop nuclear doctrines, they must build sufficiently secure nuclear facilities, and they need to do this all in a way that doesn’t spook other nuclear states. Even if Japan and South Korea are friendly to the U.S., relations are not as warm between them and China and North Korea. If Japan nuclearizes, China will likely end its NFU policy and place its forces on hair-trigger alert, making an accidental launch all the more likely.
Now, the odds of any given nuclear accident occurring are relatively low, but by adding more complexity to a region’s nuclear dynamic, proliferation makes the odds of miscommunication and miscalculation increasingly likely. Indeed, even highly experienced nuclear weapons states like the U.S. have experienced all sorts of nuclear accidents. If countries with over 70 years of practice under the belt can make mistakes, newcomers to the nuclear club will almost certainly experience some near misses.
Second, by increasing the number of states in possession of nuclear weapons, proliferation makes it easier for terrorists to gain control of WMDs. Now, I’m very skeptical that terrorists can actually obtain nuclear weapons. There are many safeguards in place, and even if one security measure fails, multiple redundancies usually mean there is little to worry about. Nevertheless, mistakes do happen. Back in the 70s, for example, there was a mix-up at an American airfield that resulted in a nuclear bomb being left out in the open, guarded by only one soldier. More recently, groups in both Belgium and the Netherlands were able to access American B-61 tactical nukes. Again, the odds of a terrorist acquiring a bomb are indeed remote. Nevertheless, there is a non-zero chance that a theft will occur. By increasing the number of bombs in existence, proliferation drastically increases the odds of nuclear terrorism, especially because new nuclear states usually haven’t developed or established the necessary safeguards.
Third, allowing proliferation will destroy the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Once U.S. allies are allowed to proliferate, it will be much easier for rogue states like Iran to argue that they deserve the right to go nuclear. After all, why do some states get to have the bomb while others don’t? Trump’s policy of selective proliferation creates a very slippery slope that would undermine the global security order that has helped keep the peace for the past six decades. Once we open the Pandora’s box of nuclear proliferation, we may not like what comes out.
Allowing close U.S. allies to enhance their own security via nuclear weapons seems like an obvious choice. However, like everything Trump says, this policy is clearly moronic and naive once one thinks about it for more than two seconds. If you believe that the world is better with fewer nuclear weapons floating around, then you intuitively realize that Trump’s plan is complete nonsense. American presidents from both parties have successfully limited the spread of nuclear weapons for over 60 years, let’s not let an orange clown undo their legacy.