Ignore the hysteria from the choice “experts” the media is eager to quote about the president’s-elect’s recent statement on nuclear weapons. Donald Trump is absolutely right to say “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” as he did via tweet on Thursday. Arms controllers immediately condemned his remarks and accused him of flirting with an arms race. Unmoved by the wave of condemnation, he doubled down on his position and said during an interview with MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
There are three major takeaways from the incoming president’s firm and gutsy stance on American nuclear weapons that go beyond the significance of nuclear weapons themselves.
First, adversaries are expanding their nuclear capabilities both in quantity and in quality—and they have been doing it right under our noses—even as we have decreased our nuclear weapons and have self-imposed limits on how to improve them. It would make a lot more sense for Americans in the business of trying to prevent nuclear proliferation, and ultimately, the horror of nuclear employment, to focus their energy on thinking about how we might constrain our foes, rather than looking for ways to constrain the United States.
Take just Russia, for example. It is Russia, not the United States, that has moved nuclear weapons to the center of its military strategy during the Obama era. Russian military doctrine has shifted to include the troubling “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, which means Russia would seek to de-escalate a strictly non-nuclear conflict with a “limited” nuclear strike. This would only actually deescalate a conventional conflict if Russia’s calculation is right and its enemy—most certainly NATO—chooses not to respond with a nuclear weapon, and instead relents to Russia. This outcome is unlikely. What is far more likely is a nuclear exchange, escalating to the unimaginable.
In addition to the change in military doctrine, Russia is in the middle of a serious nuclear modernization program. When U.S. officials talk about “modernizing,” they talk about patching together existing capabilities, rather than ensuring current capabilities are improved to meet the developing threats. In fact, President Obama has made it U.S. policy (at least under his administration) that the United States will not develop new nuclear capabilities. Russia does not tie its hands behind its own back for the sake of “stability.” Rather, it is constantly looking for ways to get the upper hand over the United States and our NATO allies.
Russia has also threatened U.S. ships in international waters, flown nuclear-capable aircraft into U.S. and ally airspace, and of course, has invaded and annexed a portion of a sovereign nation. It is also currently in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned an entire class of nuclear cruise missiles that are especially destabilizing because they can hold NATO allies at risk at a moment’s notice and with great precision. Russia’s deployed strategic nuclear weapons also number more than 200 above the New START Treaty. While the treaty’s restrictions do not go into effect until February 2018, it is certainly concerning that the Russians are comfortable expanding their forces under the treaty in the meantime while the United States currently deploys 200 fewer than the treaty permits.
Second, the president-elect’s refusal to back down from his original statement via tweet is stunning and must not be underappreciated. His critics condemn the statement, believing it is necessarily the result of sloppy thinking, dangerous carelessness, and a failure to consult the many “experts” (them). But Trump’s pattern of interest and prioritization in understanding nuclear weapons and preventing nuclear employment over the course of the campaign, taken with his unwavering commitment to his original statement in the face of criticism tells another story. Trump has been receiving briefings on the status of the global threats and has been seeking input from those he has tapped to provide the most-valued counsel. He wasn’t just casually pondering nuclear weapons and firing off a haphazard tweet. It certainly seems as though the incoming president has been convinced—persuaded by strong arguments—that the United States has inadvertently encouraged adversary nuclear investments because of, at least in part, a weak U.S. nuclear policy.
The adage “weakness is provocative” is true, and Trump is determined not to provoke. If neglecting to fully modernize the U.S. nuclear force, swearing off nuclear testing (even if we might need to do it to increase reliability and safety of our weapons), and refusing not to build new capabilities (even though our adversaries are) is having the effect of encouraging our adversaries and increasing the likelihood of nuclear conflict,
Trump doesn’t want to play by that guidebook, especially if the reason for doing so is “that’s the way we do it.” Not anymore, it isn’t.
Third, the president-elect’s nuclear commitment should finally, ultimately, put to rest the nonsense about Trump being an unwitting puppet of the Russian government. I mean this despite any nice or complimentary thing Trump might have already said about the authoritarian Russian ruler and anything Trump might say in the future. American unwillingness to invest in our strategic capabilities has hinged on a fear of what the Russians might do. Trump clearly understands that the Russians are already investing in ways to exploit U.S. weaknesses to coerce and deter us,
Perhaps Trump understands this better than any U.S. president since Reagan. When President Obama was running for reelection in 2012, he infamously mocked Governor Mitt Romney for calling Russia the United States’s number one geopolitical foe. And then Obama, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, launched the “Russia reset” policy that included kowtowing to the Russians on everything from missile defense deployments to the strictness of the Iran nuclear deal. It was Obama who was caught on the open microphone pleading with then Russian President Medvedev to give him more space on strategic issues because “[a]fter my election I have more flexibility.”
Trump appears to be taking a different approach than the Obama “speak softly and carry a bushel of carrots” approach to Russia. No doubt he is willing to work with the Russians where there are common interests, but the message is quite clear at this point for those whose judgement is not clouded by anti-Trumpism: speak softly and carry a big stick. And if Putin’s efforts to downplay the significance of Trump’s statements mean anything, he’s sensitive to that stick and would like to avoid it.
Imagine that. The United States is getting back in the deterrence game, preventing war, and ensuring that if our enemies still insist on war, we will win it.