What Trump Gets Right on Nuclear Security

Nuclear weapons are the great equalizer.

Donald Trump’s confession to the New York Times that he would not rule out using nuclear weapons, and to MSNBC that he saw advantages to their acquisition by U.S. allies, unleashed a barrage of criticism from across the political spectrum. Chris Matthews protested that “presidents don’t talk about use of nuclear weapons”; in USA Today, Mira Rapp-Hooper called his dismissal of how America’s nuclear umbrellas discourage proliferation to allies “cataclysmically dangerous”; Douglas J. Feith in National Review managed to lump Trump together with President Obama as the two individuals most subverting “American credibility” and encouraging nations to “‘go nuclear’ . . . perhaps irresistibly.” Japanese and South Korean officials felt obliged to reject Trump’s counsel publicly. Even Obama jumped on the pile, judging that Trump’s comments “tell us the person who made the statements doesn't know much about foreign policy, or nuclear policy, or the Korean Peninsula or the world generally.”

Needless to say, few members of the foreign-policy cognoscenti came to Trump’s defense. Even so, his remarks about why the United States opposes the spread of nuclear weapons were surprisingly insightful. Gene Gerzhoy and Nick Miller, in an otherwise scrupulous essay on what political science has to say about the matter, misconstrue what Trump meant when he suggested that Japan would renounce its three nonnuclear principles—not to possess, manufacture or introduce the weapons of mass destruction. “If the United States keeps on . . . its current path of weakness,” the candidate warned, “[Japan is] going to want to have [nuclear weapons] anyway with or without me discussing it.”

Trump was partly riffing on bipartisan attacks on Obama for questioning the wisdom of applying force on behalf of abstract goals such as maintaining “credibility,” a critique that gained popularity after he eschewed military action when Bashar al-Assad ignored his red line against chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war.

But Trump also added an economic forecast. With the nation’s debt exceeding $19 trillion and, indeed, the country’s annual gross domestic product, its ability to foot the bill for the globe-spanning network of military alliances it formed during the Cold War is narrowing. If the first rule of foreign policy is that you eventually get the foreign policy you can afford, then Washington will find it increasingly difficult to rein in the nuclear activities of allies and adversaries alike. After all, the recent coup in reimposing international inspections on Iran’s nuclear facilities was in large measure achieved thanks to a U.S.-led regime of economic sanctions and financial barricades, both of which were made possible by the dollar’s central position in the international monetary system.

Plus, the U.S. nuclear umbrella under which its allies shelter is not cheap: the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimates that the looming round of modernization to the ballistic-missile submarines, long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles that comprise the U.S. nuclear triad will cost $1 trillion over thirty years. Even with sequestration and the U.S. military’s declining footprint in the Middle East, the Obama administration forecasts spending a little more than $500 billion on defense each year through 2020; extrapolating forward, that level of defense spending means that nuclear weapons will consume approximately one in every fifteen dollars spent on the U.S. military through 2045.

Nuclear nonproliferation has enjoyed enough bipartisan support to make Trump’s words sound revolutionary, and they are certainly bad politics. Ahead of the 1964 presidential election, Barry Goldwater—like Trump, a divisive, antiestablishment Republican—stated that it might make sense if U.S. allies received nuclear weapons. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign had a field day, casting his opponent as a dangerous crank and running the infamous “Daisy” ad, in which a young girl picked petals as an ominous voice counted down to Armageddon: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3,” the voice-over warned. “The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

Johnson’s advisers recognized that while they might count on the American people and their Cold War allies to support military action in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, wantonly brandishing atomic forces, let alone offering them to former enemies like West Germany or Japan, was a bridge too far. After Goldwater, no presidential candidate besides Reagan, a nuclear abolitionist, questioned the contradiction between disarmament and deterrence in U.S. nuclear policy.