The Trump administration and nuclear stability

Picture of Dr Benjamin Zala

Dr Benjamin Zala

Dr Benjamin Zala

Many aspects of the 45th President of the United States path to high office are unusual. One of the most overlooked of these is that before he took office, Donald Trump had already made an impact upon questions of nuclear stability. His comments during the campaign included hinting at a major U-turn in the US non-proliferation policy by encouraging allies like Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear arsenals, and raising questions over the reliability of Washington’s extended deterrence guarantees.

His campaign team even had to publicly deny reports by an MSNBC reporter that Trump had repeatedly asked a foreign policy adviser why the United States could not use its nuclear weapons. Fundamental questions about extended deterrence, nuclear proliferation and nuclear use usually attract such high levels of bipartisanship in Washington that they rarely attract much meaningful discussion in a presidential campaign.

In its first 100 days in office, the Trump administration has already made important first moves in relation to modernising the United States' nuclear arsenal and continuing the development of advanced conventional weapons that make nuclear-armed rivals like China and Russia very nervous.

While much of the focus early on is likely to be on the new administration’s transactional approach to negotiating or renegotiating ‘nuclear deals’ (whether this is a new deal with Russia or renegotiating the existing deal with Iran), the harsh realities of Washington’s declining global power and influence mean that such an approach is unlikely to be sustained for long.

The two most important factors in President Trump’s impact on nuclear stability in the Asia Pacific are instead likely to be his approach to the broader United States-Sino relationship and his reactions to a deepening crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Interestingly, it may turn out to be that managing the US-Sino relationship is where Australia can make some small difference.

A new nuclear posture review

In terms of the United States’ own arsenal, the important decisions will be made within the context of a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). This will be the fourth NPR, and unlike those of the previous two administrations, it is a voluntary process that was not mandated by Congress.

The NPR will be dominated by important choices around upgrading the existing US nuclear arsenal; this would have been the case whether Clinton or Trump had won the election. This means that energies are more likely to be spent on issues of capability, cost and deployment than on the bigger picture political questions tackled by the Obama administration in its 2010 NPR about the role of nuclear weapons in the wider US defence posture.

The review, run out of the Pentagon, is likely to focus on the relative arguments for and against the proposed long-range, stand-off cruise missile (the only aspect of modernising the ‘triad’ of land, air and sea-based nuclear weapons that Defense Secretary James Mattis seemed equivocal on during his Senate confirmation).

It will also involve ensuring maximum congressional support for the large sums of money required for big ticket items such as replacing ageing land-based ballistic missiles and a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines.

The President has also instructed Mattis to initiate a new Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Review. In many ways, this may turn out to be the more important of the two processes in terms of the impact on long-term nuclear stability.

In recent years (particularly under the Obama administration), the United States has increased the role of advanced or ‘strategic’ conventional weapons in the overall US defence posture – this includes BMD, precision ‘prompt-strike’ missiles, as well as more nascent technologies such as offensive cyber capabilities and anti-submarine underwater drones.

Such technologies can either individually, or more importantly when combined, increase the vulnerability of an adversary’s nuclear arsenal and undermine relationships based on deterrence and mutual vulnerability. If early indications are accurate, many around the president are likely to lobby for further BMD funding, which will do nothing to alleviate Russian and Chinese concerns.

Good deals, bad deals and the real world

Beyond these policy reviews, the administration has a stated preference for negotiating new and better deals to address nuclear concerns. This is based on an assumption that Obama administration officials simply did not try hard enough to get a ‘good deal’ for the United States in the two major nuclear deals it negotiated – the New START Treaty with Russia and the ‘P5+1’ deal with Iran. The latter is the subject of an unspecified review without firm deadlines or outcomes.

Yet the inconvenient truth that President Trump will soon have to face up to is that the realities faced by the previous administration did not suddenly change on January 20th. The difficulty of finding a way of limiting Iran’s nuclear program as much as possible while at the same time giving the Iranians a way of saving face remains.

The challenge of negotiating verifiable reductions in Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal at a time in which retaining a large nuclear stockpile is one of the few ways that Moscow can back-up its claims to a renewed great power status has not magically disappeared.

For this reason, the focus on a deal-making approach is likely to be relatively short-lived, and maintaining stability among nuclear-armed or nuclear latent powers will need to rely on other foundations. In the Asia-Pacific region, this will require maintaining strategic, long-term stability with China and the careful management and de-escalation of crises involving North Korea.

Strategic stability and crisis diplomacy in the Asia Pacific

The single most important issue in determining the nature of a stable, deterrence-based nuclear relationship between the United States and China is the degree to which the United States accepts the notion of mutual vulnerability with China. The further development of American BMD, and particularly the degree to which Washington shares BMD technology with key allies in Asia, looms large. The central figure to watch on this issue is Mattis who is ultimately in charge of the NPR and BMD Review.

He is also the only senior administration figure who has actually spent significant time thinking about nuclear weapons and their potential use in any in-depth way. All indications thus far point to Mattis playing a crucially important role in tempering the President’s position on key issues. In many ways there are parallels with Colin Powell’s role as Secretary of State during George W. Bush’s first term.

The linked but more immediate challenge for the administration is to manage the crisis on the Korean Peninsula before it spirals out of control. As the issue moves closer to a major military crisis that (at least in theory) could escalate all the way to the nuclear level in a worst case scenario, H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and Mike Pence as Vice-President are all playing more important advisory roles alongside Mattis.

All are essentially unknown quantities in terms of their thinking on nuclear weapons. McMaster has had little to say on nuclear issues but is on record as thinking of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran as "revisionist powers". Tillerson’s first trip to South Korea as Secretary of State, including his statement at a press conference that “the policy of strategic patience has ended”, set the tone for the Trump Administration’s approach. Tillerson’s most important move was to begin by rejecting direct negotiations with North Korea until they give up nuclear weapons. Exactly what would be left to discuss at that time remains a mystery.

In the absence of negotiations, the options are few and carry significant risks. The first is to step up the pressure already exerted by economic sanctions.

United States sanctions are already extensive and have made little difference to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Ramping these up further will involve secondary measures against companies such as those in China that are not complying with the existing sanctions. A second option is to redeploy United States tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, a clear sign of crisis escalation.

A third is to engage in a pre-emptive counter-force strike against North Korean facilities (more likely to involve advanced conventional weapons, including forms of cyber sabotage). None of these would be easy and the latter option would need to happen quite soon, given North Korea’s determination to deploy both submarine-launched ballistic missiles and long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Options for Canberra

For Australia then, the task is to try and gently persuade the administration of the long-term benefits in addressing Chinese concerns over the vulnerability of its nuclear arsenal and the short-term benefits of de-escalating of the crisis with North Korea. While the first point is probably going to be a harder sell in Washington (especially to an administration keenly focused on renegotiating the terms of its relationship with China in its own favour), it is here that Canberra may be able exert some leverage, even if in a small way.

The North Korean issue is of less direct concern to Australia and Canberra’s voice is, understandably, likely to be drowned out by Seoul and Tokyo. It is however worth noting that the two issues are somewhat linked in that addressing China’s long-term concerns about stability could be a stepping stone to a strong Chinese role in negotiating a denuclearised Korean Peninsula.

On US-Sino relations, Canberra may be able to make more headway given our important trading relationship with Beijing and military relationship with Washington.

The main actor in Washington in determining the nature of United States-Sino nuclear stability will be the Pentagon, arguably the agency where Australia has the most sway. Canberra’s challenge then is to use the opportunity of the NPR and particularly the BMD Review to encourage a conversation in Washington about the long-term risks of the United States continuing to effectively ignore China’s concerns over the increasing role of US advanced conventional forces in undermining the nuclear deterrence relationship between the two. This will be an exceedingly difficult task, particularly given the enthusiasm for BMD within the Pentagon.

But it is a task Australia is uniquely placed to play as a sympathetic military ally who has a role in the US BMD system (via Pine Gap) but, unlike Japan and South Korea, is not reliant on US BMD capabilities for its own security.

Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team