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NSC Official: Trump May Abandon Goal of Nuclear Disarmament

A United States Trident II (D-5) missile underwater launch. (Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)
A United States Trident II (D-5) missile underwater launch. (Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

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A senior administration official on Tuesday said the White House will review whether to back away from longstanding U.S. policy of nuclear disarmament while embarking on the process of updating the country’s nuclear arsenal.

“It’s not totally obvious that we can continue to have it both ways in that respect for the foreseeable future,” said Christopher Ford, senior director on the National Security Council for weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation.

Ford — the administration’s highest-ranking and, thus far, only senior political appointee focusing on arms control — acknowledged during a keynote appearance at an annual international nuclear policy conference that the White House was studying whether to reaffirm the goal of nuclear disarmament as part of its broader Nuclear Posture Review.

“It is certainly among the conceptual space of options that we’re exploring right now,” said Ford, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of State focusing on nuclear nonproliferation in the George W. Bush administration.

While nuclear stockpiles around the world have declined drastically since the height of the Cold War, many experts wonder how realistic further arms control is in light of the intractable tensions among the world’s nuclear arms holders, which include France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea.

At the same time, some of the largest nuclear powers — Washington, Moscow and Beijing — are in the process of modernizing their nuclear arsenals to extend their shelf-lives for several more decades.

Still, maintaining at least symbolic adherence to the goal of total nuclear disarmament by Washington is viewed as critical to the future of an increasingly fractious international nonproliferation regime, which includes a number of treaties and organizations largely conceived and overwhelmingly underwritten by the United States.

The United States is legally obligated under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the goal of total nuclear disarmament.

That putative goal has receded and advanced over the years with the change in administrations, according to James Acton, co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s nuclear policy program.

While the Bush administration viewed nuclear disarmament as a fuzzy, far-off goal, the Obama administration attempted to reorient U.S. policy to make the goal more achievable, though even Barack Obama admitted in his high-profile 2009 Prague speech he might not live to see it realized.

Were Trump to abandon the goal of nuclear disarmament, “I don’t think you would be looking at an immediate proliferation catastrophe,” Acton said. “On the other hand, I do think it would be corrosive to the long-term health of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.”

Acton told CQ he would be surprised if the White House did not in the end notionally accept the goal of nuclear disarmament given the diplomatic ramifications that would otherwise follow and the significant gray space the Trump administration, like its predecessors, has to work with in the nuclear policy arena.

Some clarity on new START

The Trump administration is in the beginning phases of its congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review, which will guide policy thinking on the size and capabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal for the next several years.

Ford, who previously served as chief Republican counsel on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said a number of key questions, such as the future of the New START accord with Russia, would be dealt with in the review.

“We’re being encouraged — permitted and encouraged, in fact — to do a real honest-to-god bottom-up review, to rethink things from the start, to look again at what policy alternatives might be available without being constrained by conventional wisdoms or untested assumptions,” Ford said.

In the months until the review is completed, which might not happen before next year, the nuclear policy community is bracing for continued international uncertainty on a number of questions, such as how to respond to Moscow’s violations of a separate arms control treaty dealing with intermediate-range missiles and whether the United States will develop new types of nuclear warheads.

“These are questions that will remain open for some time and that will create some uncertainty and turbulence over the coming months,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, in an interview. “The only issue that I think we may get some clarity about in terms of the administration’s approach is their new North Korea policy, which is clearly on a faster timeline.”

Acton said he was pleased to hear the Trump administration does not appear to have any immediate plans to withdraw from the New START treaty, which Trump has talked dismissively about in the past.

Ford said the administration was “very focused” on making sure both the United States and Russia meet a compliance deadline under the strategic arms control treaty of February 2018 for reducing the size of deployed long-range nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads. The treaty expires in 2021 but can be renewed for another five years.

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