On Wednesday, Donald Trump will lay out his foreign policy vision in a speech in Washington, D.C. The speech has been advertised by the Trump campaign and others as an opportunity for the candidate to begin to discuss his policy proposals on international affairs and nuclear weapons proliferation. However, in prior appearances and interviews throughout the campaign, Trump has shown that he is erratic and reckless in temperament, unfamiliar with the basic responsibilities of American security and global leadership.
For one, he has put forward the idea that, despite U.S. efforts to prevent further nuclear proliferation, it is probably “going to happen anyway.” Trump has suggested that the U.S. is currently too economically and militarily weak to effectively deter allied nations facing regional threats (such as Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia) from developing nuclear weapons of their own. And, he told the New York Times Editorial Board that if the U.S. “keeps on its path, its current path of weakness, they’re going to want to have that anyway, with or without me discussing it.”
Arguably worse than his claims of resigned acceptance to the spread of nuclear weapons has been his active support of the further development of such weapons, as well as multiple statements suggesting how he would consider using them. In the same interview with the New York Times Editorial Board, Trump claimed that the U.S. “may very well be better off” if allied countries, like Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, developed nuclear weapons. And in a televised town hall on MSNBC, Trump wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons in Europe, saying, “I’m not going to take it off the table.” This followed an interview the week before with Bloomberg Politics, where he hinted at the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Islamic State.
Comments by a candidate leading the primary election of a significant American political party carry a certain weight, and should be addressed as such. For this reason, the Center for American Progress Action Fund conducted a study of major global nonproliferation efforts, and has found that, with American leadership, the threat of weapons of mass destruction has been successfully reduced over the past 30 years:
Since the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. has been directly involved in international efforts that have successfully limited the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The relatively widespread international consensus on the dangers of nuclear weapons has enabled the construction, over decades, of an international framework based on a series of agreements and treaties dedicated to reducing worldwide nuclear proliferation and their use, either as weapons or through testing, which can have harmful health risks and carry significant risk of misuse. In a testament to their success — and to the absolute absurdity of Trump’s theory of nuclear inevitability — the number of operational nuclear warheads throughout the world has decreased from a high of 64,452 in 1986 to 10,315 in 2015, and there has not been an above-ground explosion of a nuclear weapon since 1980, either from use as a weapon or for a test. To even further discredit Trump’s claims about nuclear weapons, evidence suggests that America’s current system of nuclear deterrence — in which our own military umbrella dissuades allies from developing nuclear weapons of their own — has helped to discourage further nuclear proliferation. A number of academic studies confirm that the U.S. historically has been able to reduce nuclear proliferation through a variety of alliance-based policies, such as security guarantees, sanction threats, and the concept of a ‘nuclear umbrella.’ A nuclear umbrella is the arrangement of an internationally-accepted nuclear state agreeing to defend a non-nuclear state, with the goal of limiting the amount of countries with nuclear weapons. Any efforts to move away from some of our official nuclear umbrellas with NATO and South Korea, or our unofficial agreements with Japan, Australia and others, could lead to the creation of additional nuclear weapons, which carry with them an increased risk of use.
Adding to this, recent comments by foreign leaders indicate that some of our allies would prefer to maintain and improve those existing alliances with the U.S. instead of developing nuclear capacity of their own. After Trump’s comments, the Prime Minister of Japan reinforced how much Japan values its current American alliance, and the Japanese Foreign Minister said, “It is impossible that Japan will arm itself with nuclear weapons.”
If the past is any indicator of the future, an outward-facing, alliances-based strategy (the antithesis of Trump’s vision) will continue to be the best path forward for immediate American security and a non-nuclear world. Instead of rhetoric advocating moving backwards toward Cold War-esque weapons escalation and nuclear proliferation under the guise of getting tough, we hope that candidates will begin to discuss ways to build on the progress we have made to rid our world of weapons of mass destruction.