TSG IntelBrief: Nuclear Policy Under the Trump Administration
November 17, 2016

Nuclear Policy Under the Trump Administration

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The perception that the Trump administration may seek to renegotiate the terms of U.S. security support for America’s allies has raised the level of uncertainty surrounding his nuclear weapons policy.

• While Trump would like to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, unsuccessful attempts to do so would likely lead it to unravel altogether.

• Any perception of a diminishing U.S. commitment to defending its allies in East Asia and Eastern Europe may prompt those allies to reconsider their own nuclear weapons capabilities.

• A potential détente between the U.S. and Russia under the Trump administration could benefit the countries’ bilateral nuclear cooperation.

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As President-elect Donald Trump attempts to craft U.S. foreign policy that will both reassure American allies and serve America’s national interests abroad, U.S. nuclear weapons policy is likely to face a variety of unique challenges and opportunities. While Trump has made national security a top priority for his administration, the perception that a Trump administration may seek to renegotiate the terms of U.S. security support for America’s allies—as well as possibly permitting a degree of nuclear proliferation amongst them—has raised the level of uncertainty surrounding his policy toward nuclear weapons. Should Trump’s review of America’s security commitments be perceived as a signal of diminishing U.S. commitment to the defense of its allies—whether intentional or not—it may prompt allies to reconsider their nuclear security independent of the U.S. 

In the Middle East, the most obvious point of nuclear contention is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which both the Trump administration and America’s ally Israel would like to renegotiate; Iran is vehemently opposed to revisiting the terms of the deal, and the other signatories are unlikely to support amending the deal as well. Since the current deal was reached in July 2015, Iran has complied with the terms while also aggressively expanding its regional power. While a successfully renegotiated deal could more effectively—or more permanently—forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon, unsuccessful attempts to renegotiate the deal could lead it to unravel altogether. Should any attempt to renegotiate the JCPOA fail, or should U.S. Gulf allies otherwise perceive a diminished U.S. commitment to their security, they may begin to reconsider the merit of domestic nuclear weapons capabilities.

In East Asia, Trump’s desire to see America’s allies shoulder a greater share of the financial burden for their security has stoked uncertainty over the United States’ long-term commitment to its historically robust role in securing the region. Decades of prosperity under a U.S. security umbrella has largely enabled both Japan and South Korea to forego domestic nuclear weapons programs. The perception of diminishing U.S. commitment to help them confront growing Chinese assertiveness and a bellicose North Korea may suggest to them that a native nuclear deterrent is warranted. In Eastern Europe, where the NATO alliance has for decades guaranteed the security of smaller countries that could not otherwise withstand Russian aggression, concerns over U.S. commitments to the alliance could cause a similar reassessment. 

While the challenges to nuclear security abound, Trump’s goal of restoring relations with Russia may present opportunities to engage with the world’s other nuclear superpower on a variety of issues. U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation has been one casualty of the broader breakdown in U.S.-Russia relations, leading Moscow to drastically reduce its nuclear cooperation with the U.S.; the prospect of improved bilateral relations could see such cooperation restored. In addition, if the U.S. has any chance of successfully renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal, it will likely need the Kremlin’s cooperation to convince Tehran—with which Russia has increasingly close relations—as well as the pact’s other signatories, that a new deal can be reached. Thus, there may be circumstances in which the Trump administration’s outreach to Russia could pay dividends for American nuclear weapons policy. 

Nuclear deterrence is a game best played with few players; for decades, China, Russia and the U.S. were the only nuclear powers in East Asia, lending a degree of stability to the region’s nuclear deterrence. The prospect of several nuclear armed countries responding to North Korean missile tests with divergent and uncertain countermeasures would drastically increase the risk of false positives and misunderstandings. The same dynamics apply in the Middle East, where Israel’s nuclear monopoly and U.S. security assurances have largely preempted nuclear proliferation in the region. Given the prevalence of unstable governments and terrorist groups in the Middle East, the specter of nuclear proliferation in one of the world’s most volatile regions looms large. Regardless of the incoming administration’s particular policies, the prospect of proliferation is likely to give pause to any initiative that could tip an already tenuous nuclear balance of power in the world’s most combustible regions. 

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