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18:03 2 December 2016

OPINION: Mr. Trump's nuclear challenges

By Sharon Squassoni
WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, Kyodo

Washington, D.C. thrives on political speculation, but this post-electoral season has provoked more anguish than elation.

Washingtonians engaged in their own version of "fantasy football" -- that is, speculating about who might be leading policy teams in key areas and what that means for the policy playbook -- are frankly perplexed about how policy might evolve under the new administration.

President-elect Donald Trump, who as a candidate ran a distinctly anti-establishment campaign that was notable for turning policy on its head, apparently likes it that way.

Uncertainty is more consequential in some areas than in others for the rest of the world.

There is no realm where Washington's influence is more outsized than nuclear weapons.

The world is banking on a steady hand governing the fate of 7,000 U.S. nuclear warheads and renewed collaboration with Russia to bring down the number of nuclear weapons in the two countries that hold 95 percent of the world's arsenal.

And the world is banking on the United States leading the crusade against nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism, as it has done for decades.

Keep the Iran deal? Yes, please. Reduce the North Korean nuclear weapons threat? Yes, please. U.S. leadership is essential to these goals.

Trump's version of U.S. leadership so far is little more than a principled commitment to unpredictability as a strategy. This may ultimately prove unworkable and frustrating for him when it comes to nuclear weapons.

The president must issue clear instructions and guidance to the military on the employment of nuclear weapons and he must sign off on nuclear war plans.

Allies will require reassurance regarding U.S. plans. Adversaries, in their own way, prefer predictability and stability lest a costly arms race ensues.

For its part, the United States has valued arms control as a tool to inject predictability and stability into nuclear weapons dynamics.

And Washington traditionally has placed great stock in building norms of nuclear nonproliferation to further enhance that predictability and stability.

Of course, how Trump proceeds on issues such as the current nuclear modernization program, nuclear strategy and doctrine, including how to implement extended deterrence, and how to handle North Korea's nuclear weapons and the Iran nuclear deal depends significantly on whom he chooses for his secretaries of defense and state.

From campaign statements alone, one could conclude that Trump will modernize nuclear weapons, negotiate with North Korea, withdraw from the Iran deal, and force allies such as Japan and South Korea to either shoulder a bigger share of their defense burden or go it alone with their own nuclear weapons.

Arms control with Russia might be possible in a new era of cozy relations between Trump and Putin.

And yet, campaign rhetoric is already being doused with the cold water of reality. Which of Trump's many campaign promises can he afford to keep?

It matters a great deal whether Trump's campaign musings revealed his openness to or his ignorance of the obstacles to unconventional policies regarding nuclear weapons.

If the former, he may be unpredictable enough to strike surprising deals but if the latter, he might find it difficult or not worth the effort to chart a significantly different course on some nuclear policies.

In fact, Trump may find a policy of benign neglect on nuclear issues expedient.

He can probably live with the current U.S. modernization plan (about 1 trillion dollars over 30 years with new platforms and essentially new warheads), which is more than adequate.

In addition, keeping the Iran deal would avoid having two competing nuclear crises on his doorstep -- Iran and North Korea.

The big question is whether Kim Jong Un will be open to negotiating with a Trump administration and whether denuclearization would still be a goal of those talks.

That would indeed be huge.

(Sharon Squassoni is senior fellow and director of the proliferation prevention program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.)




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