The Trump administration’s developing nuclear policy review is receiving particular attention as global anxieties rise over Iran and North Korea. Although the review will not be released until the end of 2017, the administration has indicated that it views nuclear deterrence as central to U.S. national security. To this end, President Trump has said he wants to reallocate significant resources toward further developing the U.S. arsenal. An expanded nuclear program would mark a pivot from the Obama administration, which increased nuclear funding while also taking additional steps to limit the circumstances under which the United States would contemplate the use of nuclear weapons.
Carnegie Senior Fellow Li Bin moderated a discussion with George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment. They assessed the current status of the nuclear policy review and the geopolitical implications of the Trump administration’s anticipated plans for the U.S. nuclear complex. This event was off the record.
- The Absence of a Coherent Nuclear Strategy: A panelist argued that the Trump administration’s nuclear policy lacks a coherent and unified strategy. They stated that the upcoming nuclear policy review is an opportunity for the administration to clarify its views on current nuclear dynamics and identify key regional issues to address. The discussant said the lack of strategy has hampered progress on nuclear weapons agreements with countries like North Korea, Iran, and Russia.
- Behind the Lack of Strategy: Panelists said the administration’s inability to identify a strategy is caused by two issues: First, the administration’s failure to nominate key officials in the state department, which has hindered its ability to construct substantive policy proposals. Second, the Trump administration’s insistence on defining itself as the antithesis of the Obama administration, which the panelist argued has resulted in a compromised strategic posture.
- Tackling North Korea’s Nuclear Program: The panelist said current tensions with North Korea are President Trump’s most acute challenge, highlighting the fact that the country has accelerated its nuclear development program despite the administration’s claims of having adopted a muscular and decisive approach. While noting that all four of the previous U.S. presidential administrations struggled to successfully address North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the discussant described the messaging of the current administration as contradictory and indicative of a lack of strategy.
- The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal: The discussant said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has successfully limited Iran’s nuclear activity. They argued that further efforts by President Trump to unwind the Obama-era policy would cause significant damage to both the United States’ international standing and global security at large. The panelist suggested that an attempt by the Trump administration to invalidate the deal would not only diminish support among international partners but also provide a strategic opportunity for hardliners within the Iranian government to resume weapons’ development. The discussant said the administration’s willingness to delegate a final decision to the U.S. Senate as evidence indicates it has some degree of awareness to this fact.
- Current U.S. Nuclear Policy Toward Russia: The panelist said Russia remains the geopolitical factor driving the need for U.S. nuclear weapons. With both countries recently accusing one another of violating preexisting treaties limiting the development of nuclear weapons, the panelist suggested that in principle there should be an avenue by which the two nations can negotiate a treaty reducing armaments while also saving face. Given the toxicity of the current political environment, the panelist recommended an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as a first step, given the fact that its expiration in just a few years would mean removing current limits on long-range nuclear weapons. But the discussant was skeptical that the current administration would follow through on such an extension, given its propensity to reject Obama-era policies.
- The Global Context and Trump’s Nuclear Policy Review: Finally, the panelist said that the current congressional discussion over presidential authority to launch a first strike nuclear attack is unprecedented, particularly because some of the debates in the U.S. Senate have been organized by members of the president’s own party. While believing it is unlikely that any such measure would see final legislation, the discussant saw this conversation as part of a larger global effort to prohibit nuclear weapons in light of growing anxieties over the ability of nuclear states’ leaders to unilaterally begin nuclear war. Despite this global climate, the panelist predicted that the Trump administration’s upcoming nuclear policy review will likely attempt to stand in contrast to the one undertaken by its predecessor. The discussant expects the review to include proposals to modernize air, sea, and land weapons; announcements indicating the development of new weapon systems; and language that lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and emphasizes deterrence.
George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, overseeing the technology and international affairs program, the nuclear policy program, and the South Asia program.
Li Bin is a senior fellow with the nuclear policy program and Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.