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President Trump: the Nuclear Question

Published Monday, October 16, 2017

In January 2017 newly inaugurated US President, Donald Trump, signed an Executive Order which, among other things, called for a review of US nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture. That Nuclear Posture Review is due to conclude by the end of 2017. As with many of President Trump's foreign policies, nothing about the outcome is certain.

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In January 2017 newly inaugurated US President, Donald Trump, innitiated a review of US nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture.

A Nuclear Posture Review is an opportunity for a new US administration to set out its rationale for nuclear weapons and its overall aspirations for nuclear policy. Indeed NPR have been conducted by the last three administrations at the beginning of their term in office. All three have represented opportunities to adapt US nuclear policy in line with the shifting security landscape.

The 2010 NPR was particularly notable in that it underpinned President Obama's long term vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Going forward, the main question is how President Trump's apparent guiding principle of "America first" will translate into US nuclear policy. During both the election campaign, and since his inauguration, there has been a distinct lack of clarity on Trump's nuclear vision. He has identified nuclear proliferation as the single biggest problem in the world, while at the same time endorsing acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan and South Korea, in an effort to offset North Korea. His opinions on 'no first use' have been equally mixed; he has endorsed both the modernisation, and expansion, of the US' nuclear arsenal and called current treaty commitments with Russia 'one-sided'.

The lack of clarity in Donald Trump’s views on nuclear weapons raises interesting questions for the strategic direction of the Nuclear Posture Review. Will it build upon the vision of ‘Global Zero’ espoused by Obama? Or, in light of the prevailing international security situation, will President Trump seek to keep the US’ nuclear options open, in particular with respect to Russia, North Korea and Iran? If so, could that open the door to a wholesale shift toward modernisation and extension of the nuclear arsenal, including new capabilities such as lower or variable yield "tactical" nuclear weapons? If the Trump administration's 2018 budget request is taken as indicative of its longer term thinking, then support for modernisation is considered far more likely than a push for disarmament.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7990

Author: Claire Mills

Topics: Arms control, Defence equipment and procurement, Defence policy, International law, North America

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