Why the “nonproliferation complex” should help Donald Trump

By Aleksandr S. Kolbin | December 9, 2016

When it became clear that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for the US presidency, members of the so-called “nonproliferation complex”—described by Aberystwyth University researchers Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka in a 2013 journal article—started attacking Trump with all the expert knowledge they have. Those artillery salvos in newspapers, on TV screens, and on Facebook and Twitter described Trump not only as a bully, sexist, and racist, but also as “an idiot savant on nuclear policy," a “total catastrophe,” and a “disaster,” a person who “does not know much about the world, generally,” and a person who “made a $1 trillion error about nuclear weapons during the first presidential debate.” And these are just a few examples of how the “complex” (which includes, in Craig and Ruzicka’s wording, “governmental agencies, international nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and academic programs and institutes” dealing with or researching into nonproliferation issues) reacted to Trump’s inconsistent statements on nuclear issues.

One could imagine the degree of disappointment complex members felt on the morning of November 9, when it became clear that Trump would soon move from his penthouse to the White House and serve as the 45th president of the United States.

The nonproliferation complex idea is important here because one of its main features is the ability to “adjust to new opportunities and conditions,” as Craig and Ruzicka put it. So it will be fascinating to see how the nonproliferation complex, after all that has been said and written about Mr. Trump’s stance on nuclear-related issues, adjusts to President-elect Trump. Or, alternatively, will the next four years be ones of constant hostility between the nonproliferation experts and the new administration? 

Of course, there is little attractive to be found in Trump's easy reasoning about nuclear weapons. As William Potter of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies has rightly pointed out (though in a more conciliatory tone than some of his colleagues), “There are a lot of contradictions in what Trump said about them [nuclear weapons] during the campaign that have not been resolved yet.” But national security experts have created a problem that focuses not so much on Trump's lack of knowledge about the science and security of nuclear weapons as on his emotional statements about “religious tolerance, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary”—attributes mentioned in a pre-election letter that leading national security experts of the Republican Party signed, denouncing Trump's candidacy.

While hoping that without their support, Trump would lose, the experts actually made a big mistake. Because of their disagreement with candidate Trump’s “overriding ego,” they left the mission of supporting and shaping President Trump’s national security approach in the hands of such people as Texas A&M international affairs professor Christopher Layne, who believes that the US “extended nuclear deterrence is an old think approach to American grand strategy” which should be abandoned, and that “Washington should adopt a policy of de-assurance and make it clear to its security dependents that they need to do a lot more to defend themselves, even if that means acquiring nuclear weapons.” 

This is exactly why, when discussing Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons, experts should not make them into such a big deal. They are just the words of a presidential candidate deprived of the support of his party and most of its leading national security experts.

Trump, talking, and plutonium. Trump's expressed readiness to talk to Russia in general and to President Vladimir Putin in particular is important. And one could argue that this readiness to talk springs not so much from a misunderstanding of current international affairs as from Trump's background in business. Working for the last three years in a major international group of companies, I had the opportunity to meet and negotiate with significant businessmen and can therefore say that business leaders—apart from having no use for intellectualizing on the issues they are interested in—are always ready to have a direct talk, no matter how unpleasant their counterpart seems to be. If it helps to solve the problem, you just have to talk. And maybe this directness, characterized by Trump, the businessman (who, by the way, always was in sole, direct control of his business), and the constant intellectualizing about nuclear weapons characteristic of his opponents in the nonproliferation complex constitutes the real reason for the strained relationship between them.

Indeed, it is the readiness to talk that distinguishes Trump’s stance from the current administration's approach toward Russia—an approach that, I believe, is at least half of the reason (the other half being Russia’s actions, of course) for a new Cold War to be standing in the doorway, with the nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States steaming ahead and no prospects for further progress toward nuclear zero. The latest example of this deteriorating situation is the collapse of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), in which the United States and Russia agreed to specific methods by which excess, weapons-grade plutonium would be disposed, so it could not be used in weapons.

The basics of the PMDA issue have been described by Pavel Podvig of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in his article for the Bulletin in April, published just after Mr. Putin raised his concerns about the United States not adhering to its part of the deal. At the heart of the problem: Because of financial problems in constructing a facility in Savannah River that would turn plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel, the United States insisted that Russia could consent to a change in the way the US side disposed of plutonium without need of renegotiation of the agreement. And the Obama administration did not change its “no-negotiations” approach during the six months between Putin's April statement and the October federal law that the Russian Duma passed and Putin signed, suspending the agreement. 

The reasons underlying the federal law were both personal and national in nature.

On a personal level of analysis, there is Putin, clearly frustrated and annoyed by the robust and consolidated position of the West in regard to Russia's actions in Ukraine and Syria. Prestige considerations came into effect here, prompting Putin to speak about the Western attempts to dictate to Russia “what to do" and what policy to conduct concerning its neighbors.

On a second level, internal propaganda about the West has created a feeling among the Russian population that their country is surrounded by enemies. Each restrictive measure undertaken by the West only provokes Russia’s reaction at this second level—that is, the level of the state. This reaction has come to include a series of revisionist demands—to cancel the Magnitsky Act and other sanctions against Russia and its officials and to scale back NATO, among other things—before Russia would consider restoring the PMDA. 

But it seems that, on that second level, there are no economic or technological drivers behind Russia’s decision to end the PMDA: As Harvard Kennedy School professor Matthew Bunn put it, the agreement supported the “nuclear energy approach Russia wants to pursue anyway,” which is to burn plutonium in breeder reactors. As for Russia’s security concerns, the abovementioned federal law has links to the threat to strategic stability posed by NATO enlargement and the US sanctions against Russia. Actually, though, it is suspension of the PMDA that could potentially harm strategic stability in the traditional understanding. Moreover, it’s not clear how cancelling the PMDA would make the United States (which, in the Kremlin's own logic, was not adhering to agreement at the time of suspension, anyway) change its current policy on sanctions or NATO expansion.

So it's obvious that the primary drivers of the decision to suspend the PMDA agreement spring from the personal level—that is, from Putin himself. Put simply, to begin resolving the PMDA situation—and by extension, the entire array of tensions between Russia and the United States—US leaders will need talk to Putin, listen to his arguments, and provide their own. That is, they will have to negotiate.

The complex and the savant. In his telegram to President-elect Trump, President Putin called for dialogue based on mutual respect and equal status between Russia and the United States. The need for equality is, probably, the main message the Kremlin sends to the outside world today. At the same time, a few days before Trump won the election, while answering a question about the possibility of implementing Russia’s strict preconditions for resuming the PMDA, Putin said, literally, that “the Presidential decree is just a piece of paper” and that Russia and the United States “will agree on the conditions of the negotiations on the broad spectrum of problems.” Doesn’t this statement, combined with Mr. Trump’s readiness to talk, make a perfect background for starting negotiations on resuming the PMDA—and, perhaps, more?

This is why the nonproliferation complex today should adjust to President Trump and provide him all possible expert support. As an “idiot savant” of nuclear policy, he will surely accept it.

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