National Security & Defense

Trump, America’s Word, and the Bomb

A North Korean missile launch is shown on television at a railway station in Seoul, March 4, 2016. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty)

The Obama-Clinton team originally promised to strengthen nuclear non-proliferation. It wound up doing the opposite. We now have the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. That would aggravate the problem. Eight years of left-wing American unreliability would then be followed by four (or eight) years of perceived right-wing unreliability. Faith in American security commitments would plummet — probably irretrievably. In many countries, pressure to “go nuclear” would increase, perhaps irresistibly.    

Nuclear weapons remain a life-and-death issue, though the candidates and the media are giving them little attention in the campaign. Americans shouldn’t want nuclear weapons spreading around the world. When new states get them — especially rogues such as North Korea and Iran — the risk of nuclear war increases. Even if America could avoid being drawn into such a war, catastrophic harm wouldn’t be confined to the warring parties.

Since World War II, efforts to keep nuclear weapons from spreading have been astonishingly successful. When China got the bomb in 1964, it became only the fifth nuclear power, after the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France. No one but an extreme optimist at the time would have predicted that, 50 years hence, the nuclear “club” would have only three (or maybe four) additional members. India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all explosively tested nuclear weapons. Israel is widely believed to have them but hasn’t said so.

Why did non-proliferation work so well? First, the United States and the Soviet Union actually shared interests in enforcing the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Neither wanted any other country to obtain nuclear weapons. And most countries understood that they were actually safer if they renounced such weapons in return for a similar renunciation by their neighbors.

The second main reason is that our allies trusted U.S. security commitments. They felt confident sheltering under America’s so-called nuclear umbrella. Throughout the Cold War and beyond, U.S. presidents took pains to preserve that trust and confidence. To do so, they exerted leadership, showed loyalty to our allies, safeguarded U.S. credibility, and preserved American military power — in particular, the quality of our nuclear weapons.

President Obama did speak passionately about reducing the risks of nuclear war, but his actions undermined his goals. He dithered as North Korea expanded its nuclear arsenal and the range of its missiles. He freed Iran of economic sanctions without requiring dismantlement of its nuclear-weapons facilities. Meanwhile, other policies — “leading from behind,” courtship of Russia’s President Putin, setting and then ignoring that “red line” in Syria, slashing defense spending, and neglecting U.S. nuclear-weapons infrastructure — all communicated to America’s friends abroad a lack of resolution, of loyalty, of understanding, and of power.

The bad effects are plain to see. A May 7, 2015, Wall Street Journal headline reads, “Saudi Arabia Considers Nuclear Weapons to Offset Iran.” In South Korea on February 15 this year, Won Yoo-chul, the ruling party’s floor leader, spoke favorably in parliament of “peaceful nuclear and missile programs for the sake of self-defense.” He explained, “We cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor whenever it rains.” Similar statements abound elsewhere. Around the world, officials foresee with dread the possibilities of cascading nuclear proliferation. In the Middle East, not only Saudi Arabia but also the other Gulf states in addition to Turkey and Egypt could be candidates for going nuclear. In the Asia–Pacific, it could be Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, too.

It’s bad enough that President Obama has sapped American credibility. If Republicans now put Donald Trump into the White House, they’ll abandon all hope of recovering it.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump, who has had a lot to say about America’s commitments to friends.

He scorns NATO. He praises President Putin as NATO quarrels with Russia over Ukraine. In his 2000 book The America We Deserve, Trump wrote that Europe’s conflicts were “not worth American lives,” and he touted the money America could save by “pulling back from Europe.”

He scorns Japan. His statements on trade depict Japan as an enemy nation rather than an ally of paramount importance.

He scorns Israel. He promises to be “neutral” between the Jewish state and enemies trying to destroy it.

He scorns U.S. law-of-war obligations under the Geneva Conventions, as when he boasted he would mistreat detainees and kill civilians. He now recants those boasts, but he can’t erase the picture he has created of himself as intemperate and unprincipled.  

He has made an electoral strategy of contradicting himself, purposefully devaluing the currency of his words (it’s ironic that he berates the Chinese for devaluing their currency). He scoffs at accuracy and shows no shame when he says false things. His message is that, as a great man, he shouldn’t be held to anything he says.

It’s bad enough that President Obama has sapped American credibility. If Republicans now put Donald Trump into the White House, they’ll abandon all hope of recovering it. Friends around the world would have to adjust to an America that’s erratic to the point of recklessness. Their loss of confidence in our reliability would make the world more perilous — and not just for them.

Undermining our alliances will spawn various ills, including the spread of nuclear weapons. Even if Americans someday replaced President Trump with a responsible person of sound judgment, the harm would probably be irreversible.

Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, served as under secretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration.

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