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#5166, 4 November 2016

IPCS US Election Special

Trump's Nuclear Policy: Global Implications
Chintamani Mahapatra
Rector and Professor, JNU, & Columnist, IPCS

The US is experiencing one of the most turbulent, contentious and vitriolic political campaigns in the race to the White House in its entire history. Negativities have engulfed the US so much that the entire world has been affected.

While several countries are raising diverse questions, the weightiest concern within the US and in the rest of the world is the future of the global nuclear order. What would be the effect on that order if Donald Trump becomes the next US President? The US is the first country to make a nuclear weapon, the first and only country to have used the bomb during the Second World War, the pioneer in efforts to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, and, above all, the most powerful nuclear-capable country in the world. The pervasive disquiet related to his views and policies on nuclear weapons thus are unpretentious.

President Barack Obama has backed the idea of a nuclear weapons free world, at least in principle. Will Trump endorse the idea of a world rid of nuclear weapons? The Republican presidencies historically have shown less faith in non-proliferation policies and have tilted towards strengthening the country’s preparedness to handle any nuclear offensive. Will Trump do the same or spend more time and energy in nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia? China has always conveniently kept itself aloof from US and Russian efforts for nuclear arms control. More recently, it has been spending billions of dollars to expand and bolster its nuclear arsenal. In the perceived march of China towards super power status, will Trump take steps to rope in China for arms control negotiations?

How will a probable Trump presidency handle the Iranian nuclear question? His campaign has repeatedly condemned the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. He has called it a deal that has financially benefitted Iran, that has made room for Iran to walk out of the deal after fifteen years and make the bomb, and that this has made Israel more vulnerable. Will Trump nullify the agreement? Will he renegotiate the nuclear deal with Tehran? Will Iran agree to join hands? If not, will Trump resort to military means to end Iran’s nuclear programme? How will a Trump administration handle North Korean intransigence on the nuclear proliferation issue? North Korea has repeatedly defied the US, members of the Six Party Talks that negotiated several times with Pyongyang for a Korean Peninsula nuclear free zone, and has intermittently conducted nuclear and missile tests in order to thumb its nose at the international community.

Much more significant will be a Trump presidency’s policy towards Japan and South Korea. Will he adopt as policy what he campaigned during the election year and compel Tokyo and Seoul to fend for themselves in the defence and security fields in the face of a rising China that has been flexing its military muscles, and a North Korea that has been brandishing its nuclear and missile capabilities at the drop of a hat?

All these questions have preoccupied strategic analysts around the world, including those of the US. The fundamental development that is truly bothersome is the doubt expressed by a large number of people who have served as very high officials during the previous Republican administrations about the trustworthiness of Donald Trump as the Commander-in-Chief with the ultimate authority to take decisions on the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic hopeful for the presidency, has expressed her apprehension about the start of a nuclear war under a Trump presidency.

One can dismiss her concern as a mere campaign stratagem to belittle the intelligence of her competitor, but the overall views of Donald Trump during the campaign do raise serious questions about global nuclear stability under his administration. Of particular relevance is Trump’s idea to alter the decades-long time-tested US role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

If NATO disintegrates under the US demand for more burden-sharing and some of the powerful NATO members choose to espouse independent defence postures and abandon the collective security model, new nuclear weapons powers are likely to mushroom. Coupled with Trump’s call for Japan and South Korea to developing their own nuclear arsenals, if Germany and Italy follow the same, the global nuclear order will simply collapse. The NPT will be buried in the sand. Export control regimes may disappear. There may be nuclear winter without a nuclear war! Terror groups may find an easier path to acquire nuclear weapons/materials.

Such an analysis may be termed as doomsday scenarios that may not actually happen. But when the security of the world is in question, no scenario can be discounted. One would, of course, take refuge in the obvious argument that the US system will prevent the president from unleashing his ideas without checks and balances. And, of course, the Indo-US nuclear agreement will most likely remain unaffected under a Trump presidency.

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