Did Trump Renew the Nuclear Arms Race?

“Can a tweet start an arms race?” asked Joseph Cirincione of the Plowshares Fund. “This one may just have done that.”

Arms-control advocate Cirincione was referring to President-elect Donald Trump, who declared last Thursday on Twitter that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Trump’s statement was right on the mark, even if it lacked months of interagency review. And, no, it did not start another competition to build the world’s most destructive weapons. That contest, unfortunately, is already under way.

Many wonder why the president-elect, seemingly out of the blue, would tweet about this subject.

Trump’s advisors and spokesmen have provided various explanations, but Thursday’s tweet is rather a warning, something the president-elect made clear on Friday to Mika Brzezinski, the co-anchor of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Let it be an arms race,” Trump stated “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

North Korea, judging from its accelerated testing schedule, is developing its arsenal at a fast clip. And although Beijing discloses next to nothing about its stockpile, the Chinese appear to be adding weapons quickly, something analysts infer from its rapid addition of missiles.

Yet it is Russia, due in part to the number of its warheads, that is of special concern. The speculation was that Trump was responding to a comment, made earlier Thursday, by President Vladimir Putin, who in a speech talked about modernizing his country’s nuclear forces.

Others disagree, pointing out that the Kremlin leader frequently talks about nukes so Thursday’s speech was not the motivation for Trump. Indeed, Putin’s comments Thursday were bland compared to his past statements on the topic. The Russian leader, after all, has threatened to use these weapons offensively to grab the territory of other nations, especially Ukraine and the Baltics.

Whether it is Putin’s words or not that triggered Trump’s tweet, the president-elect was probably speaking to Moscow, which has been violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. The Obama administration, in addition to lapses in candor, has been loathe and slow to challenge the Kremlin for the apparent violations of testing ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges of over 500 kilometers.

Although the violations have been known for years, since about the time Obama took office, it was not until July 2014 that the administration got around to formally calling the Russians to account.

The inaction of the White House has been deplorable, dangerous, and consequential. The INF treaty, as the pact is known, has been considered a “cornerstone” of post-war security.

Moreover, many suggest that Moscow has also been cheating on New START, the agreement the US and Russia signed in 2011 to limit deployed strategic warheads.

As many have noted in the last few days, American policy on nuclear weapons should not be made on the fly and communicated by Twitter, but on the other hand Putin must be challenged. If the president won’t speak up, then let the president-elect. Trump is to be applauded, not condemned, for starting a critical conversation.

And not a moment too soon because while Russia, China, and North Korea have been bulking up, the US has been slimming down. Moreover, all three legs of America’s nuclear “triad”—missile submarines, land-based intercontinental launchers, and strategic bombers—need modernization. The cost will be high, now estimated to be a trillion dollars, spread out over the course of three decades.

In a very real sense these aging weapons are on deterrence duty every day to defend the homeland and America’s allies. They must be modernized. Fortunately, that process has started, by the president-elect expressing his thoughts 140 characters at a time.

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