The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s nuclear brinkmanship keeps backfiring, but he keeps doubling down

President Trump at the White House on May 22. (Eric Thayer/For the Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

For someone who in 2015 gave every indication that he had never heard of the nuclear triad, President Trump has a strange and worrying fascination with the ultimate weapon. “For me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” he said in 2015. As president, he has threatened both North Korea and, more obliquely, Iran with nuclear annihilation; he even bragged that his “Nuclear Button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong Un’s. As if that weren’t enough, Axios reported that he asked aides if he could nuke a hurricane.

Despite his hair-raising rhetoric, Trump has not turned out to be a madman eager to start World War III. Rather, his strategy has been to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal to pressure other countries to agree to “beautiful,” “strong,” “classy" and (insert favorite Trump adjective) nuclear deals. His approach has been a dismal failure, but he keeps doubling down anyway — most recently by announcing an exit from the Open Skies Treaty and contemplating resuming nuclear testing — thereby raising the risks of nuclear proliferation.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Trump pioneered these dubious brinkmanship tactics with North Korea, and no doubt he still thinks Kim will denuclearize. In January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Kim “made a commitment that he would denuclearize,” and “he has not walked back that commitment.” In reality, Kim made no such commitment and has continued expanding his nuclear and missile programs since the Singapore summit in June 2018.

In May 2018, Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord in the apparent hope that Tehran would agree to more draconian curbs. Instead, Iran has ramped up its nuclear program. Its enriched uranium stockpile is now five times larger than the agreement limit, reducing its breakout time to build a nuclear weapon.

Follow Max Boot's opinionsFollow

Undaunted, Trump in October 2018 announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which since 1987 had led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet missiles. Part of the rationale was alleged Russian violations, but withdrawal was also premised on the idea that arms-control agreements should include China. Trump said in August 2019 that both China and Russia were “very, very excited” about a trilateral treaty. Actually, neither country has shown any interest, and negotiations haven’t started.

Then last week the administration announced it is withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, an agreement first proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and signed in 1992 under President George H.W. Bush. It is designed to reduce the risk of war by allowing 34 signatory nations to carry out overflights of each other’s territory to monitor military developments.

Next up for elimination could be the 2010 New START Treaty, limiting the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads each. The administration is giving every indication that it will allow New START to expire next year and try to negotiate a three-way deal with China. The Post reports that the administration has even discussed conducting the first U.S. nuclear test since 1992, in violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which the Senate has never ratified but past administrations abided by.

Trump’s arms-control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, explained last week that this nuclear posturing is part of a strategy for three-way arms control with China and Russia: “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion. If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.” All administration officials are expected to flatter Trump, of course, so Billingslea went on to laud the president as a “master at developing and using leverage” over a “long and successful career as a negotiator.”

Actually, Trump has had a long and failed career as a negotiator because he never takes the time to master his brief (or even glance at it) or to learn from his mistakes. If he had, he would realize that China, which is estimated to have 320 nuclear warheads in its stockpile, compared with 6,370 for Russia and 5,800 for the United States, has no incentive to enter an arms-control agreement unless the other two countries want to reduce their arsenals by 95 percent. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

Trump should also realize that it makes no sense to launch a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race in the middle of a pandemic and economic depression. The United States already spends too much on nuclear weapons and too little on public health, yet Trump wants to increase nuclear spending by 19 percent to $19.8 billion while cutting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget to $12.6 billion. With a projected federal budget deficit this year of $3.7 trillion, we can’t afford to spend anyone “into oblivion.”

Trump should be shifting funds away from nuclear weapons rather than wasting money on his juvenile obsession with showing that his arsenal is bigger than anybody else’s. The last thing the world needs is more nuclear weapons.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Putin wants to extend arms control. What’s Trump waiting for?

Michael Singh: Trump is right to bide his time in renewing a nuclear treaty with Russia

David Ignatius: Are we seeing a tactical tilt toward Russia?

Michael McFaul: Here’s how Trump can get a win with Russia — and actually help all Americans

Dana Milbank: Why can’t we use nuclear weapons against bedbugs?