Caleb Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for Wednesday, January 4, 2017. I am Caleb Brown. The task of understanding President-elect Donald Trump’s pronouncements about nuclear weapons poses a big challenge for policymakers and foreign governments. Ben Friedman, a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the Cato Institute discusses the possible meanings.
Benjamin H. Friedman: We are now in an era of American politics where we figure out what our nuclear weapons policy is going to be by reading tweets that the President-elect could not be bothered to proofread. Typo-laden Trump tweets about nukes created this controversy, or at least a lot of news, in the week before Christmas when Donald Trump tweeted first, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Everyone immediately began wondering what that meant because he didn’t just say strengthen, he said expand. Why do you need to say expand if you are already strengthening? Does expand mean build more? Does that then mean that we have to violate the New START Treaty that has been in place since 2010 restraining the number of systems the United States has to deliver nuclear weapons, or does it mean that we’re going back on our pledge in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the NPT, to work towards the ultimate goal of disarmament? So it created a lot of consternation and then President-elect Trump’s spokesperson at the time, Jason Miller, put out a statement saying well, Trump was really just talking about his concern about the threat of proliferation and the need to prevent it, which clarified nothing, really, because it’s not clear why the United States strengthening and expanding its arsenal would do anything about proliferation, particularly to insurgents or terrorists, which is what Jason Miller mentioned in particular. Then Trump apparently told Mika Brzezinski off the air on MSNBC with regard to the idea that there might be an arms race, well let there be an arms race, he said. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all, according to Brzezinksi, that’s what he said. And then another Trump spokesperson, Miller having been fired in the interim, or resigned from his would-be post, then stepped up and told the Today Show that well Trump was really just talking about deterring other states that might build more nukes from building more. And then Trump attacked NBC, tweeting that they had left out the part of his quote about - his tweet about the world coming to its senses, so he is sort of saying well I’m only saying this if the world comes to its senses. Then the question, well what do you mean come to its senses, what does that mean? So the whole thing, this whole series of statements to TV shows by spokespeople and tweets by Trump just created a giant model about what he meant. People wondered, as I said, is he talking about some radical reversal? Is he really embracing arms racing? Is he going back on what he said at other times about wanting to get rid of waste, fraud, and abuse in the Pentagon, since - do we really need three ways to deliver nukes? Does he agree with his Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis who said we maybe don’t need a triad, three ways of delivering nukes, anymore a year ago in testimony, so there’s really sort of a lot of confusion and questions marks.
Caleb Brown: Yeah, what are the stakes of getting these questions right? Of course at some point someone will have to write something down on paper and that will indicate in clear language what was intended, but in the meantime well what are the stakes of this sort of muddle?
Benjamin H. Friedman: The Chinese and the Russians are the two countries that probably are watching most closely, not to mention the North Koreans and other states that have nukes, but the Chinese and the Russians have a relationship with the United States that if it’s not right, I don’t think, to call it arms race in the traditional sense, but contrary to what we say in public about our nuclear weapons arsenal, which is that it’s just to - it’s supposed to be able to survive a first strike from our adversaries so that we can deter them. In fact, what we’ve always tried to do with our nukes, at least in the way that we build them if not their total number, is to have the capability to do our own first strike. That is to preemptively destroy the arsenals of those countries. Now whether or not we could really do that is another matter, but that has always been sort of the doctrinal rationale for our missiles and our nuclear bombs, in particularly the rationale for their accuracy. They wouldn’t have to be so accurate if that wasn’t the goal, to destroy the enemy’s arsenal. And so now the Russians and the Chinese sort of seem, for various reasons, not to be racing to develop arsenals that are much more survivable. They both have submarines that can fire nuclear missiles but neither of them really are very good at that. It’s sort of - those are dangerous submarines to be on, particularly in the Russian Navy. And they have mobile missiles, to some extent, but they are not racing. They are not racing to be able to defend their arsenals. And you wonder, could we upset relations with them enough to change that to make it so that we are getting into more of an arms race and spending a lot of money as a result and creating danger. And you have to wonder why does Trump, of all people, who seems to really want to get along with Russia almost more than anyone else in the United States Government or near it, why would it be Trump who talks this way? It’s hard to figure.
Caleb Brown: The other side of this is the idea that the United States having more nuclear weapons would deter other countries from building up their arsenals. Now I can understand why that might mean certain countries that currently don’t have nukes wouldn’t then get them, but what, I guess what is the conventional thinking on that and why is it raising that question?
Benjamin H. Friedman: It seems logical, not to mention conventional, to think if you build more nukes, you are doing so in order to deter other people from doing things they might want to do. You know, if you are one of those other people, those other countries, it would make sense to avoid that position. To not want to be deterred or coerced, to use a more technical term, by the United States and thus you might want to build more. Now it sort of depends on the back and forth and the scenario you are talking about but most countries, when you say we’re building nukes to push you around, we wouldn’t put it that way but that’s really what it means, would say well we don’t want to be pushed around so we are going to build more. So it seems likely to backfire. Now if the argument is well we just want to build more nukes because we want to show the Chinese and the Russians that their buildups won’t go unanswered, which is sort of what Trump said in the campaign in his peculiarly inarticulate way. Well I don’t think that makes a lot of sense either because what it forgets is that the United States has been modernizing its arsenal. The Obama administration has set plans to modernize all three legs of the arsenal and in fact the Chinese and the Russians aren’t modernizing theirs with the same gusto that we are, so it doesn’t really make sense to say, as Trump has, well we are sort of letting them get away with something by not modernizing ours. So there’s sort of layers of confusion here. But at the end of the day I think the most likely outcome is the Trump administration will maintain current U.S. nuclear weapons policy, which is that we are modernizing all three legs of the triad and I think that’s the real trouble. The problem to me isn’t so much that the Trump administration is likely to depart from our very sensible current policy, it’s that the Trump administration is likely to keep our not-so-sensible, and in fact somewhat foolish, policy which is modernizing all three legs of the triad at enormous cost, something like…
Caleb Brown: Three hundred billion dollars over ten years, is that right?
Benjamin H. Friedman: At a minimum. That’s probably a conservative estimate. It could be substantially higher. Enormous cost and for not much benefit, as Chris Preble, Matt Fay, and I wrote in a paper a few years ago on this matter. The reason being that even if you think we should do all the things we now do, make all the threats we now make with our nukes, even then I don’t think we need all three legs of the triad. And then if you want to say well maybe we can have a more modest foreign policy that defends fewer people and makes fewer threats then you could have way less, but even keeping the status quo set of alliances and so forth, I think we can get away with a monad just based on submarines. Now I don’t think this is something our President-elect has given a great deal of thought to yet, so I’m hoping that he will be able to talk to his Secretary of Defense nominee who has given it more thought and maybe back off this ill-conceived tweet or series of tweets.
Caleb Brown: Ben Friedman is a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the Cato Institute. Subscribe to this podcast at iTunes and Google Play, and follow us on Twitter, @CatoPodcast.