The spectacular failure last week of U.S. President Donald Trump’s nuclear negotiations with North Korea highlights a worryingly trend in his nuclear policy: that he has no nuclear policy. Despite launching the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review earlier this year, Trump has failed to put in place a clear and decisive strategy on nuclear arms.
The collapse of the U.S.-North Korea talks demonstrates Trump’s lack of policy vision. The talks were not part of a wider strategy of reconciliation with North Korea. While Trump would argue that his hardline stance brought Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table, most people would not think that calling the North Korean leader a short and fat ‘Little Rocket Man’ on Twitter helped, or that we can call this policy.
The talks also demonstrate that Trump takes an extremely ad-hoc approach to nuclear issues. He deals with concerns individually as they come up, but there is no wider policy controlling what he does.
There are three important issues here.
First, Trump does not actually know much about nuclear weapons. Following comments made during the 2016 election campaign that he was willing to launch a nuclear weapons strike on Europe, security experts had to explain to Trump why this was not politically or morally feasible – something that other political actors widely understand. Nor is Trump willing to defer to experts on nuclear politics and the terrible threat these weapons pose. Simply put, you cannot have a genuine policy on what you don’t understand.
This situation is not helped by Trump’s proclivity for alternative facts. A fact-check on his speech withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal earlier this month reveals that he averaged a major factual error every 83 seconds.
Second, Trump has declared that he adopts a doctrine of unpredictability in respect to nuclear weapons. Unpredictability is where as an actor deliberately decides not to have an explicit policy, so that they have the freedom to do whatever they want in a given situation. If others do not know what you are going to do, says Trump, this gives you a strategic advantage. In terms of nuclear weapons, Trump has suggested that they can be used by the U.S. anytime, anywhere, against anyone. Unsurprisingly, this stance is not popular. Trump was described as ‘a six-year old with nuclear weapons’ when he announced this approach back in 2016.
Consequently, Trump prefers making decisions on the hoof as opposed to developing a cogent policy. Indeed, he adopts an approach that actively rejects policy.
This situation should not surprise us. Trump is a populist president and populism has very little to do with policy as we conventionally understand it. Populism is a type of politics more akin to slogans and leading from the gut. Why would we expect Trump to care about policy when he was elected on a platform fundamentally opposed to its creation and the types of politics that create it?
Finally, policy has been replaced by a demand-based approach. The Trump administration simply demands what it wants, but it does not put in place policies to get it. This is evident in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which supposedly outlines the U.S. position on nuclear aggression. Admittedly, the review has been sold as a form of nuclear strategy. Republican officials say the document is a strategic response to the new realities of nuclear politics – not least concerns that Russia is developing its nuclear arsenal. And indeed, the review document is full of words like ‘policy’ and ‘strategy.’
But the review has also been criticised for lacking either of these. It has effectively been called a PR brochure advocating the use the nuclear weapons, giving Trump the freedom to do whatever he likes. It has also been called a ‘laundry list’ of weapons that Trump would like in his arsenal. Yet acquiring these weapons would go against important international agreements on nuclear arms like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Not only is the review not a realistic roadmap of nuclear policy, therefore, it is also putting our ability to control nuclear arms at stake.
Trump’s lack of a nuclear policy is extremely troubling. While the president may claim that unpredictability is an effective strategy, this creates a lot of uncertainty around the issue of nuclear weapons. Controlling nuclear weapons has always relied on trust, transparency, and consistency from international leaders – these are essential to ensuring nuclear weapons are not used. If Trump does not respect this and continues to ignore the need for a clear and coherent nuclear policy, the implications for international security could be devastating.
Trump has already threatened to push the nuclear button. We need policy controls in place to make sure this never happens.
Michelle Bentley is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Director of the Centre of International Public Policy at Royal Holloway, University of London.
All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.
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