There is no greater issue facing America today than that of war and peace. Marginal changes in the corporate tax rate, the precise number of visas provided to foreign workers, minor adjustments to the Social Security retirement age—all are peripheral when compared to the immense weight of foreign policy decisions. Using military force, deciding what’s in the national interest, and setting geopolitical strategy all have consequences that can affect whole nations, regions, even the world.
It is the responsibility of statesmen to be as judicious as possible when it comes to military force, to act realistically and practice restraint. This prevents unwarranted infrastructure destruction, unforeseen blowback, and criminal loss of life. This carries over into a duty to work towards mutually beneficial arms control agreements and non-proliferation treaties to rein in the most destructive weapons ever created by man.
Unfortunately, outside the post-retirement advocacy of former secretary of defense William Perry and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, very few public figures seem to realize the dangers of nuclear brinksmanship and the importance of disarmament. Currently, an exchange of 100 atomic bombs would kick up enough dust and debris to blot out part of the sun and starve one third of the earth’s population. Eight countries have the capability to carry out such a mass genocide. Further down the line, if 100 hydrogen weapons (H-bombs) were used, the planet would experience a nuclear winter and up to seven billion people would starve to death. Ellsberg terms this “omnicide”: the murder of everyone. Russia and the United States, as the only countries possessing enough H-bombs, are especially obligated to reduce their nuclear stockpiles and lessen the danger of nuclear war. The cost of not doing so could be the world itself.
The administration of Donald Trump has the potential to go further in the direction of disarmament than any administration in the past 20 years. “I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process,” Trump said in a 1990 Playboy interview. Years earlier, during the Cold War’s peak, he expressed interest in being put in charge of arms control negotiations with the Soviets. This can be read as Trump’s standard bravado and bluster. But his recent unprecedented breakthrough in denuclearization negotiations with North Korea seems to suggest on Trump’s part an interest in solving the nuclear crisis.
Previous 21st-century presidents were unable to make headway. George W. Bush’s 2002 repudiation of the ABM Treaty, one of the hallmarks of Cold War arms control, was short-sighted and reckless. Barack Obama’s New Start Treaty successfully put limits on active nuclear warheads, but these efforts were overshadowed by increasingly soured relations with Russia, which heightened the potential for conflict between two atomic powers. Russia expert Stephen F. Cohen called the mid-2010s the lowest point in Russian-American relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Politically, Trump is in a better position than either of his predecessors on nuclear issues. His presidency is not dominated by ideological neoconservatives who buck any tactical diplomacy, and as a Republican his hawkish right flank has been partly neutered. Some of President Obama’s better intentioned efforts, like the nuclear agreement with Iran, were hindered by domestic politics and hawkish Republicans, always adversarial to Democratic-led peace initiatives. Trump, as a Republican, is not encumbered by such political restraints, a la “only Nixon can go to China.”
Thus far, Trump has squandered his opportunity. Jumping feet-first into Obama’s trillion dollar nuclear modernization plan launched in 2016, Trump has not made nuclear discussions with Russia a first-tier, or even fourth tier, issue. And when he has commented on it, it’s with his typical pugnaciousness. This attitude contradicts his efforts with North Korea, and isn’t the first contradiction in “Trumpism.” Meanwhile, pulling out of the nuclear agreement with Iran has exacerbated diplomatic tensions, but from Trump’s point of view, he sees the abrogation as a step in the direction of his vaunted “better deal.” His offer of new negotiations without preconditions shows that his goal is resolution, albeit in a tactically poor way. The administration should crystallize a consistent outlook on nuclear de-escalation, even if it’s only out of selfish motivations.
The cynical phrase “domestic politics starts at the water’s edge” presumes that foreign policy, instead of having thoughtful and intelligent end goals, is simply an extension of short-term domestic policy needs. Yet this pessimism, if accepted, only adds credence to a Trump-led disarmament campaign with Russia. Since he first started calling to “get along with Russia,” Trump has been smeared as an unwitting foreign asset, a Russian stooge, and a traitor. This has resulted in a special counsel investigation that, a year and a half in, has yet to uncover any evidence of foreign collusion. Pushing back aggressively against this narrative, as Trump is wont to do, and reframing it as a peace effort is politically advantageous and puts Trump in his natural position: on the offensive.
Most Americans support the Korean peace initiative. In the 2000, 2008, and 2016 presidential elections, voters chose the less hawkish candidate. Peace is popular, especially when the consequences of a possible nuclear fallout are explained. Hypothetically, if Trump were to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington, D.C. to initiate negotiations on nuclear weapons, he would do so from a position of political strength.
Some analysts postulate that a world power needs no more than a couple hundred nuclear weapons to achieve a deterrence factor as envisioned by MAD (mutually-assured destruction). This makes the United States’ and Russia’s combined 13,500 warheads (active and decommissioned) more than a little overkill. It’s within both countries’ interest to reduce their stockpiles to make accidents less likely and lessen the chance of death on a scale not since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Since the United States and Russia possess over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, this one diplomatic overture could, over years, end the nuclear crisis on our planet. Donald Trump could make all the difference.
Hunter DeRensis is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative and a student at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.