Keep focused on the long game

November 21, 2016

Donald Trump’s inexperience with and casual attitudes about nuclear weapons during the campaign led more than a few observers to question whether he could be trusted with these ultimate extensions of the power of the US president. In campaign statements, Trump’s commitment to unpredictability as a strategy, his confusion between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and his suggestions that not only was nuclear proliferation inevitable, but that some countries such as Japan and South Korea should counter North Korea’s nuclear weapons with some of their own, were greeted with considerable skepticism. Did he really mean that? Will he change his mind? But most of all: Can President-elect Trump be influenced to reduce rather than increase nuclear risks?

Active involvement by outside experts and civil society groups will be important in the next four years to provide balance on crucial nuclear policy issues and keep up the pressure to reduce nuclear risks. There are a few factors in favor of outside influence.

First, the role of outside experts in helping to shape nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, risk reduction, and disarmament policies has grown dramatically in the last 20 years, thanks to improved access to decision-makers and availability of information. In nonproliferation, non-governmental organizations have been deeply involved in implementing cooperative threat reduction and export control assistance programs, as well as in Track II dialogue efforts parallel to official government negotiations. Other governments and international organizations have cultivated relationships with civil society and granted access to non-governmental organizations, and they may help outside experts in exerting pressure on the Trump administration.  Capabilities formerly in the exclusive domain of governments–like satellite imagery–are now available commercially. These assets will help amplify the voices of outside experts.

Second, President-elect Trump pays attention to the Twittersphere, and no amount of “handling” is likely to change that. He may not like what he will hear in social media and may think it is unfair, but he seems to be listening. Third, the fact that nuclear risks did not feature as a prominent plank in the Trump campaign platform could mean that the president-elect himself is not heavily invested in policies in this area, and therefore may be amenable to outside ideas. Because he is not beholden to the Republican Party or Washington insiders, advice from any corner–even from outside experts–may get a hearing.

Experts need to weigh in early and often on at least three key issues to keep risks from spiraling out of control: Iran, North Korea, and the strategic relationship with Russia. On Iran, experts should highlight the gains made thus far in reducing the risks of Iran’s nuclear program and the risks of withdrawing from the deal that restricts Iranian nuclear efforts. While it would be tempting to demand that the Trump administration provide a detailed, alternative game plan to the current Iran deal, Trump’s penchant for unpredictability suggests this is the wrong way to go. In fact, one of the biggest challenges for experts in the next four years will be to present their analyses in ways that appeal not to preservation of the status quo and to the values that many in the nuclear arms control and risk reduction community share, but to efficiency and good business sense. 

On North Korea, experts need to highlight not just the futility of a policy that puts China in the driver’s seat of negotiations, but also the extreme costs that would be incurred should the United States withdraw its forces and let Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear deterrents. With respect to Russia, outside experts should counsel the extension of New START, to give Trump and Putin time to explore how they intend to do business with each other.

One of the biggest challenges over the next four years will be for outside experts to play a long game and not waste too much effort on combatting the inevitable.

For example, the Trump Administration is likely to approach UN nuclear weapons ban negotiations in 2017 at best by ignoring them and at worst by ridiculing them. The disarmament community should accept that the ban is symbolic and focus instead on ensuring that nuclear weapon states do not build increasingly destabilizing capabilities as they modernize, that they continue to provide transparency into nuclear weapons programs, and that they continue strategic stability talks.

Finally, outside experts need to be open to the possibility that some progress is possible in unlikely areas. If Trump is truly sincere about his deal-making prowess, he might be able to cut a deal with the Senate to secure ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in his first two years in office. Whether that prize is worth whatever price Senate Republicans may wish to extract is another question. But it is certainly possible that outside experts who adopt a long-term, strategic approach can have more influence on progress on the CTBT and other important nuclear weapons issues than Trump’s disparate positions during the presidential campaign might suggest.