Did President-elect Donald Trump signal a new nuclear arms race in a tweet? Was he putting Russian President Vladimir Putin on notice that Trump wouldn’t be upstaged after the Russian leader called for boosting his country’s nuclear arsenal? Or was Trump being strategically vague to put Russia and other adversaries – China, North Korea, Iran – on the defensive?
Or … none of the above? Not clear.
Here’s what we know: On Thursday, Trump tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
On Friday, the president-elect said in a conversation with “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski that he would be OK with an arms race if the U.S. gains a stronger position against its adversaries, Politico reports. “Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,” Trump reportedly said.
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After the tweet-quake, Trump spokesman Jason Miller leapt to clarify:
“President-elect Trump was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it – particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes,” Miller said. “He has also emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.”
Putin has fired back that he wasn’t surprised by Trump’s stance and that Russia has no interest in a nuclear arms race. What’s going on here?
Trump’s intent is unclear because a tweet is not a policy. Being provocative and vague is not necessarily bad. Telegraphing your real intentions to adversaries such as Putin is an invitation to get sand kicked in your face.
A few months ago, President Barack Obama mulled whether to reverse long-standing U.S. policy and tell the world that America would never strike first with a nuclear weapon. He didn’t make that change. Smart move. Part of protecting America’s nuclear deterrence is keeping enemies guessing under which conditions the U.S. would unleash the world’s most fearsome weapon.
Obama famously spoke in 2009 of a world without nukes. But that was a fantasy based on a wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-we-all-got-along premise. We don’t. Nukes are here to stay.
In 2010, Obama announced plans to modernize and upgrade this country’s nuclear arsenal at an estimated cost of nearly $1 trillion over 30 years. That’s long-term work that is vital to this country’s security. The number of nukes – how many times you can kill an enemy – isn’t as important as the condition of those weapons. Aging nukes don’t inspire confidence.
No, we’re not for stoking a new nuclear arms race. Not after the U.S. and Russia have spent decades wisely whittling down the number of warheads in their arsenals.
A nuclear arms race might encourage other nuclear powers – archrivals Pakistan and India come to mind – to further expand their arsenals. It could divert attention from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s growing arsenal and give Iran even more incentive to go for the bomb once its nuclear deal with the West ends. Japan, Saudi Arabia and others might develop their own nuke programs.
Mr. Trump, again: Think before you tweet. Proliferation or an arms race lead in one direction: the increased danger that someone, somewhere, sets off a nuke.