Trump And Putin Against Proliferation?

There is a theory going around that Donald Trump would like to team up with Russian President Vladimir Putin to limit proliferation of nuclear weapons, or to gang up on other nuclear powers. Sarah Kendzior explains it in Quartz.

Kendzior bases it on a 1987 interview of Trump by Ron Rosenbaum and last week’s near-simultaneous statements from Putin

We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.

and Trump

The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes

Both, with related commentary, are available from Philip Bump’s Washington Post column of December 22, 2016.

The 1987 interview contains more meat. Ths gist of it is that Trump expresses a concern for potential proliferation of nuclear weapons and suggests that the United States and Russia, since most countries then were clients of one or the other, could strongarm smaller countries into remaining without nuclear weapons. And perhaps France, toward which Trump expresses significant animus.

Rosenbaum recognizes that this is not a fully worked-out plan.

Trump’s knowledge of the state of proliferation (or nonproliferation) at that time is spotty. It’s not clear where he got his information on nations (unspecified, except for Libya) that might be interested in nuclear weapons. At the time, India had exploded a “peaceful” device, and Pakistan was probably working on nuclear weapons, possibly North Korea, although that was mostly in the future. Iraq looked suspicious, and Israel was believed to have some nuclear weapons. Aside from that were the big five – the US, still the USSR at that time, Britain, France, and China.

The idea that the US and USSR might keep down proliferation to continue an oligopoly on nuclear weapons was not original with Trump. India and others make a similar argument against the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT, however, operates through persuasion and the promise of eventual disarmament, while Trump’s idea relies on bullying.

The question, then, is whether Trump still believes this to be a plan he might execute. A way to answer that is to look at how consistent Trump has been over the past thirty years and whether that consistency applies to his belief in his plan for nonproliferation.

Kendzior cites Trump’s known Russian links and his praise for Putin, which are alarming but not determinative. She also cites a number of older articles which show similarities with Trump’s current style but are not determinative. There is no available evidence that Trump and Putin have coordinated any plans, although Trump has made some comments that seem to indicate he doesn’t like nuclear proliferation.

In the 1987 article, Trump suggests severe sanctions to force countries to give up nuclear plans. North Korea has been sanctioned, and its nuclear program continues. Sanctions on Iran brought it to the negotiating table, but those sanctions were coordinated among many more countries than the United States and Russia. Coordinating meaningful sanctions against several other countries would be extremely difficult. In any case, the Soviet Union broke up four years after that interview.

Continuing Trump themes are his brilliance at negotiation and his desire for secrecy and unpredictability, along with an undercurrent of wanting to make his secrets public for his glorification. The 1987 article illustrates them, as do the other articles Kendzior cites.

Trump is consistent on an emotional level, and his strategies seem to be closely tied to his emotions, so perhaps he still is thinking of his 1987 nonproliferation plan. But many things have changed since 1987, not least that the Soviet Union is gone. Even Rosenblatt recognizes that Trump inflates his claims, for example that he was advising the government on how to negotiate with Russia.

For Putin and Trump to collaborate on bullying the rest of the world into nuclear nonproliferation, Putin must find that collaboration in his interests. Yes, Putin seems to have interfered in the US election on Trump’s side and has said a few minimally nice things about Trump. Trump claims he has been talking to Putin through the transition, but this could be another of Trump’s lies.

Trump’s opacity of intentions and unpredictable behavior make him a poor partner for anyone, and Putin values predictability in his allies. Putin knows that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty keeps proliferation down. Although North Korea’s nuclear weapons are undesirable for Russia, they are less of a problem there than they are for the United States because Kim Jong Un sees the United States as more of an enemy than Russia. Whatever ambitions Iran has for nuclear weapons have been fettered by the seven-party agreement. Putin knows that India, Pakistan, and Israel are not going to give up their nukes, nor does he see major sanctions against them as worth his attention. So there is little value for him in a side agreement with Trump that will require additional effort.

A single interview from thirty years ago is not evidence for Trump’s thinking today. There is no evidence that Putin has any interest in such an alliance and a good argument that it has no value for him. Trump’s bloviations can be interpreted in a great many ways; this is his true danger. We know little about how he is likely to govern and what policies he may favor, whether he has any ability to put those policies into effect.

Update: Jeet Heer has some thoughts on the subject, although it seems to me that he gives Trump more credit for consistency and a program than I am willing to.


The map at top is from a 2006 NPR article. Since then, North Korea has shown that it knows how to make nuclear detonations and may have a small (ten or fewer) nuclear stockpile.

I am going out of my way these days to avoid using photos of Donald Trump. Just can’t stomach them.

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