Among the post-War American presidents, Republican heads of state were known to be dogmatically hawkish and conservative when it comes to national security policies while Democrats were relatively pacifist but also staunch advocates of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Republicans too believe in the privileged possession of nuclear weapons by a powerful few and denying this right beyond the P-5 club, but have also pursued big-ticket initiatives – be it the Strategic Defence Initiative, the multi-layered Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), or counter-proliferation – all of which fed the defence industrial base that they patronise, besides projecting American power globally.
Despite these distinctions in the two political ideologies, Americans, not to mention the rest of the world, are at their wits end when it comes to deciphering President Donald Trump’s strategic vision, which may defy even conventional Republican wisdom. Having promised politico-economic revisionism to a level unseen in post-War American politics, Trump was expected to impart dramatic shifts on every aspect of policymaking through approaches that he claimed would be revolutionary. Radical, one should say, were the actions that Trump foisted on areas like the climate change treaty, NATO relations, trade wars and military indulgences in conflict zones like Syria, among others. But what makes Trump’s decisions (and politics) calamitous is their precarious inconsistency, alarming rhetoric and tendency for short-lived positions, often with little care for their political costs or international consequences.
The case of nuclear policy is no different, and in fact sets up a new spectre: not of nuclear-armed despots thriving on brinkmanship, but the foibles of a maverick leader in the world’s most powerful democracy threatening to undo the strides made towards a post-proliferation world (and a disarmament momentum), and instead fuelling a new armament race. Having declared that US nuclear forces have become archaic and in need of a fresh lease of life, Trump had resolved to overhaul the nuclear weapons complex, mainly the development of new strategic missile platforms (to replace the Minuteman-III), and possibly also trigger a fresh round of nuclear testing that could imperil the fragile normative edifice prohibiting underground tests. While these actions have certain implications for global strategic stability, Trumpism promises greater havoc for global nuclear governance collectives with his whimsical handling of key nuclear flashpoints, be it North Korea, Iran or Russia. At stake also is the credibility of US diplomatic structures, which has traditionally shaped global nuclear normative mechanisms, and now finds its leverage being increasingly undermined.
Managing Kim’s mainstreaming
The dramatic de-escalation from the year-long brinkmanship over Kim Jong-un’s missile and nuclear adventurism, hastened by a historic hand-shake by the Korean leaders at Panmunjom, has set the peace process rolling but Kim’s actual game-plan remains an enigmatic puzzle. Post-Panmunjom, the North Korean leader has made all the right moves – whether it was meeting CIA Chief Mike Pompeo, sending an emissary to Washington or even striking a reconciliatory tone despite Trump’s impetuous withdrawal from the June summit – all indicating a keen desire to mainstream, if not another time-buying game.
It is, however, Trump’s tentativeness and lack of a vision that remains the spoiler. The sudden decision to withdraw from the summit over relatively minor rhetoric from Pyongyang and subsequent reversion to the original plan raises serious doubts about Trump’s political adeptness to realise a successful summit. Trump’s dilly-dallying has exposed the US position as a clueless actor in a theatre dominated by the two Koreas and China, with the Washington mandarins displaying anxiety about missing the bus or other players taking over the mantle. The last minute effort to salvage his position at the summit table has seen Trump omitting his hawkish Secretary of State, John Bolton, from the delegation to Singapore. With Kim Jong-un rejecting the economic aid-in-return-for denuclearisation formula, it is unclear what the US president has to offer in order to ensure a successful summit. Will Kim floor Trump with the demand for recognition of its nuclear status, à la the India-US nuclear deal?
Pushing Iran back to defiance
The appointment of John Bolton, a known Iran baiter, to head the State Department was a clear indication that Trump will follow up on his election rhetoric of abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump’s common refrain has been that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a ‘bad deal’, but without proposing what could be a better alternative. The JCPOA was intended to correct Iran’s nuclear deviance – namely, the violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement – and cannot include political goals like penalising Iran for supporting Yemen’s Houthi rebels, or checking its fledgling missile programme, which Iran has a right to pursue for its defence.
Having no credible reasons to sabotage this agreement, Trump seems to be trying to impress his West Asian allies, including Saudi Arabia, whose actions in Yemen have not been accounted for, and Israel, whose nuclear programme is primary catalyst for Iran’s nuclear deviance. That Trump’s action has caused irreversible damage to the laborious process to integrate Iran back into the non-proliferation mainstream is evident from the instructions of Iranian Supreme Leader, Aytollah Khamenei, to prepare to expand uranium enrichment capacity. While hopes are placed on the other parties to the agreement – Russia, China and the European troika – to secure the deal, the fact that some sections in Iran have hinted at the prospect of withdrawing from the NPT if the deal collapses exemplifies the coming crisis.
Dealing with a ‘muscular’ Russia
Trump’s relationship with Russia is peculiar, to the extent that the real cannot be distinguished from the surreal. Having proclaimed from the outset his fascination for Vladimir Putin, the investigation over Russian involvement in Trump’s electoral victory and his reiteration of the age-old animosity as driving the US strategic modernisation embodies the complexity of Trump’s Russia policy. Early this March, Putin startled the world by unveiling a new generation of weapon systems claimed to have capabilities of global reach, the ability to negate defence shields and the firepower to trigger a nuclear catastrophe. By affirming that these systems could render the US missile defences ineffective, Putin sought to position them as a response to the US deployments across the European hinterland, long supposed to be challenging the Russian nuclear deterrent.
It is, however, surprising that Putin sought to undertake this force projection when a friendly figure occupies the White House. Though Moscow had vociferously resisted George Bush’s East European BMD deployment plan in the previous decade (revamped as European Phased Adaptive Approach by Barack Obama), Russia’s technological response was then restricted to the Topol-M ICBM as capable of overwhelming any defences. Even if one assumes that more than a decade has gone into developing the new systems, their secret development progress as well as Putin’s choice of timing, when the US is in the midst of political upheaval, raises concerns on the real purpose of this posturing. Considering the subdued response from the Trump administration to this force projection, should we assume that the leaders in White House and Kremlin are feeding each other’s armament plans and conjuring up security dilemmas to further their domestic agendas?
What’s in store?
With the kind of tumult seen during Trump’s two years in office, one could easily expect a volatile phase of global nuclear politics in his remaining tenure. As in many other policy realms, Trump’s nuclear mission also seems to be aimed at reversing the legacy of his immediate predecessor, while having no notable contribution to the initiatives pursued by his Republican predecessor to curb proliferation, even if through proactive means. Rather Trump’s action is inclined towards potential policy disasters, which may include: an Iran break-out towards defiance of pre-JCPOA days; the severest blow to the NPT in its 50th year, if Iran decides to exit the cornerstone treaty; and a probable recognition of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal if Trump fails to persuade the country of the non-proliferation cause at the negotiation table.