Nuclear Ascendency: The Emerging Importance of Nuclear Weapons for Trump’s Foreign Policy Coalition: 8 March 2017

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Some clarity has started to emerge on how important the military and nuclear weapons are to the new administration. On 28th February, Trump announced a ‘historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military,’ and reports talked of a 10% increase. His $603 billion budget is to be funded by cuts to the State Department and US foreign aid. And the White House is expected to publish detailed proposals by the end of March.  

This immediately provoked robust criticism. A group of 120 retired Generals and Admirals published an open letter decrying the decision, citing Secretary Mattis’ previous comments: ‘If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.’ Meanwhile defense hawks, led by Senator McCain and Congressman Thornberry, have demanded even larger increases: a total of $640 billion to tackle supposed US military atrophy.

The scale of this increase should not be underestimated. Trump’s proposals would result in an increase of $30 billion FY 2017 and $54 billion FY 2018, the latter of which is the size of the entire Russian military budget FY 2015. The US military budget is already larger than the next seven countries combined.

No matter the size of Trump’s budget, it is uncertain whether it will cover the military expansion he expects. Trump’s administration still lacks a clearly defined defense strategy, beyond grandiose claims of rebuilding the military and making US nukes ‘top of the pack.’ As Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the CSIS notes, ‘it's difficult to judge [whether $603 billion is enough] if you don’t know what the defense strategy is.’ Just last week, the Pentagon announced that replacing the Minuteman III ICBMs could cost $100 billion, 60% more than anticipated only a few months earlier. Future budgets could spiral out of control with new spending.

Trump’s opaque foreign policy

Trump’s foreign policy remains largely obscure. Internal battles within the administration are unresolved, as Trump works against what Alastair Crooke of Conflicts Forum calls the US ‘Deep State.’ He notes there are currently three broad strands of Republican foreign policy currently vying for domination (and perhaps always have been; it’s simply that the Trump administration has brought them out into the light):

- The first contends that US global leadership is predicated upon the maintenance of the liberal international order.

- The second is the ‘Neocon’ vision, that radical Islam represents an existential threat to the US.

- Finally, there is Trump’s own mercantilist, ‘America First’ vision, which views every US commitment as leverage for getting the US better trade deals.

Within these three strands of foreign policy thinking, the importance of nuclear weapons and the military more generally is becoming a unifying issue. For ‘traditionalists,’ the US must have a strong nuclear posture to deter Russia and China, and reassure America’s European and East Asian allies. For Middle East focused ‘Neocons’, the US needs nukes to assert dominance over Iran and other ‘rogue states.’ For ‘America First’-ers, the US’ nuclear arsenal and extended strategic deterrence is the ultimate bargaining chip for assertive transactionalism.

Indeed, Trump has assembled the most military-heavy foreign policy team in US history: with retired General Mattis at the Pentagon; retired General Kelly at Homeland Security; Lieutenant General McMaster as national security advisor; and retired Lieutenant General Kellogg as chief of staff of the National Security Council. Thus, whatever route the US takes, everyone can and will unite around the military and nukes.

So in which direction is US foreign policy heading? Recent developments have given credence to the staying power US traditionalism. Trump has hardened his position against Russia due to a number of factors, including the Flynn and Sessions scandals. And Trump has considered Russia’s violation of the INF treaty as a ‘complicating factor’ that makes any broad agreement with Russia ‘tougher to achieve.’

Broadly, there seven major interlinking questions Trump must confront with his nuclear policy:

  1. How does the US go about securing fissile material and combating proliferation?

  2. How does the US approach proliferation in North Korea?

  3. Does the US continue with the Iran Deal?

  4. What emphasis does the US give to its obligations to disarm under the Non-Proliferation Treaty?

  5. What will be the future US-Russia arms control?

  6. What is the future role of US strategic deterrence in assuring its allies?

  7. How will Trump proceed with the modernization of the US’ nuclear arsenal, and avoid triggering an arms race or new round of proliferation?

On these issues, this presidency appears not significantly different from previous Republican administrations. As Heather Williams has argued:

‘Like past Republicans, [Trump] sets a very high bar for any nuclear agreements with North Korea or Iran, and opposes limiting America’s capabilities because it would reduce flexibility in negotiations and decision-making; additionally, he wants to see greater burden-sharing by allies, and supports investment in missile defense and the nuclear infrastructure.’

Where Trump does differ, I have argued, is in his rhetoric and the way he uses nuclear signaling. The use of Twitter to convey decisions relating to deterrence and strategic stability leaves a dangerous amount of uncertainty around a regime reliant on credibility.

Military and Congress

Last Wednesday’s House Armed Service Committee (HASC) hearing on nuclear deterrence supported the emerging Republican nuclear orthodoxy. The hearing questioned Vice Chief of Staff General Selva, Commander of US Strategic Command General Hyten, Vice-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Moran and Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Wilson. The four leaders in charge of the nuclear arsenal took a conventional view, stressing the urgency of modernization, the importance of NATO and New START, and concern over Russia.  

Potentially signaling the direction of the upcoming nuclear posture review, General Hyten pronounced that the ‘continuing realization that Russia intends to project itself as a great power’ was the greatest challenge facing the US since the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.

In response to the deployment of Russian Iskander cruise missiles, General Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated, ‘we believe that the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility.’ And the military have promised to provide Congress contingency and response plans by the end of the month.

Democrat Resistance

Meanwhile, the nuclearization of US foreign policy continues to be opposed by Democrats. Our first dispatch discussed the Markey-Lieu Bill, which would constrain the authority of the US President to launch a nuclear first-strike without a prior declaration of war by Congress. On the 8th March, Senator Markey introduced a different bill that seeks to cap funding for stealthy, dual-capable Long Range Stand-off (LRSO) cruise missiles, until Trump submits the findings of the nuclear posture review to Congress.

However, the Administration seems intent on developing LRSO capabilities. At the hearing, General Selva said that developing LRSO capabilities and dual-use technology was an ‘integral part of our modernization.’  

Nuclear policy makers have viewed such weapons as endangering strategic stability, as they can penetrate missiles defenses and there is no way for the target state to know whether the incoming weapons are nuclear armed or not. Thus a non-nuclear attack could provoke a nuclear response. Former defense secretary William Perry has described the weapons as ‘beyond deterrence’ and deeply destabilising.

Interestingly, however, General Selva noted that a future arms control agreement could be made on cruise missiles, and that future LRSO capabilities could be used as ‘strategic leverage.’ While the possibility of arms control is to be welcomed, developing weapons for the purpose of limiting them suggests a dangerous logic. Treating arms control and nuclear weapons as merely bargaining chips could hold many unintended consequences.

Democrats have also critiqued a new Pentagon advisory committee report that called for the United States to invest in lower-yield nuclear weapons for ‘a more flexible nuclear enterprise that could produce, if needed, a rapid, tailored nuclear option for limited use.’ Such a posture would respond to the much-criticized Russian ‘escalate to de-escalate’ doctrine by publicly enacting an equivalent American ‘escalate to de-escalate’ posture, a flagrant act of hypocrisy that fails to account for the fact that Russia’s doctrine is intended to balance conventional inferiority.

Nuclear weapons have ascended to the top of the foreign policy agenda.  For the moment, Republicans appear united on the salience of nuclear weapons and importance of increased military spending. Yet in the near future, it is likely that cracks will start to show as difficult questions will need to be answered on America’s strategic and spending priorities.

Dispatches on the Washington Nuclear Front Line are published fortnightly. The last dispatch is available here: Trump's Nuclear Rhetoric and its implications for European Security: 27 Feb 2017

About the author(s)...
  • Maxwell Downman, Impact and Fundraising Officer is tracking political and nuclear developments in Washington, specifically the current Nuclear Posture Review and its implications for Europe .
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