I recently posted about Trump’s comments regarding nuclear proliferation. Needless to say, I was none too impressed. That being said, I realized that I hadn’t addressed another component of Trump’s nuclear philosophy: his belief that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable regardless of what the United States does. So, is there any merit to Mr. Trump’s views?
The short answer is no. Indeed, since the first bomb was dropped in 1945, only ten states have developed nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. South Africa has actually gotten rid of its nuclear arsenal, so the present number of nuclear states is nine. In other words, despite easy access to nuclear technology, only ten states have developed nuclear weapons over a 70 year period. That really isn’t all that many states, especially given the relatively rapid proliferation of other high-tech weapons systems like cruise missiles, SAM batteries, and ultra quiet submarines.
The lack of rapid proliferation is a testament to the United States’ policy of supporting nonproliferation. Using both carrots and sticks, the U.S. has managed to keep a lid on the spread of nuclear weapons. Security commitments, the NPT, and devastating sanctions have all played a role in ensuring that only a few states possess the power of the atom. It also doesn’t hurt that there is a broad consensus among the U.N. Security Council that the spread of nuclear weapons should be prevented.
To be fair to Trump, he is marginally more nuanced in his analysis. While history has demonstrated that proliferation is rare, Trump argues that the current weakness of the United States will encourage states who wouldn’t have otherwise considered proliferating to go nuclear. Trump’s argument is bizarre for two reasons, though. First, the U.S. is far from weak. America’s economy is comparatively strong, and its military is orders of magnitude more powerful than any other country. While Trump’s claims that America “doesn’t win anymore” might sell with his low-information supporters, it is not a statement based in reality. Second, America has been weak in the past. During the 1970s, for example, the U.S. experienced high inflation and low economic growth. Nevertheless, as Gerzhoy and Miller point out, the U.S. was still quite successful at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. From founding the Nuclear Suppliers Group to creating laws that imposed mandatory sanctions on proliferating countries, the U.S. worked hard to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. A weak America is still stronger than most other countries, and when it focuses on pushing a particular policy preference, it is often successful.
What is interesting, however, is that Trump might actually prove himself correct if he were to become president. By abandoning America’s allies and pulling out of international institutions and treaties, Trump would create the very conditions that beget nuclear proliferation, forcing a number of American allies to potentially acquire the bomb. After all, the reason so few states have nuclear weapons is that they trust that the United States will support them against their rivals. If Trump were to abandon America’s allies, countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia would no longer feel secure, and they would be far more likely to proliferate.
Nuclear proliferation is far from inevitable. However, preventing proliferation requires consistent and strong U.S. policy. If Trump were to abandon the principles of the U.S.-led nonproliferation regime, it would likely spell disaster for the security and peace of the world.