Donald Trump’s Nonproliferation Ambitions

Today we have a report that Donald Trump would like to meet with Vladimir Putin before the election to present a new arms control agreement to the world.

The easiest thing for Trump to do would be to extend the New START Treaty, which lapses in early February next year. The treaty is written to allow five-year extensions with a minimum of negotiation, and Putin has said he is willing to extend it.

Trump has been surrounded by treaty-haters, though, particularly but not only John Bolton, who would be happy for New START to lapse. Their strategy is to insist that China be a part of arms control negotiations and spin their wheels doing stunts like adding small Chinese flags to places around the table during US-Russian interactions and then whining that China didn’t show up. As China had said it wouldn’t.

Russia and the United States each have 1500 deployed nuclear warheads, whereas China has about 300. China has stated that it sees no reason to join arms control talks until Russia and the United States have brought their numbers closer to its own.

Whether China signs on to arms control has nothing to do with New START. If we want to draw China into arms control talks, we should extend New START and work from there.

That may be what Trump has in mind for a meeting with Putin.

His interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios, however, had a tantalizing hint of something else. (transcript of interview)

Swan asked Trump about a phonecall with Putin on July 23 in preparation for asking him about the story of Russian offers of payments to Taleban in Afghanistan for targeting Americans.

Trump says that the call was about “nuclear proliferation.” After discussion of the alleged payments, Trump says

It’s interesting. Nobody ever brings up China. They always bring Russia, Russia, Russia. If we can do something with Russia in terms of nuclear proliferation, which is a very big problem.

Bigger problem than global warming.

A much bigger problem than global warming in terms of the real world, that would be a great thing. 

Trump is not good with complicated concepts, so it’s entirely possible that when he says “nuclear proliferation” he means “arms control.” He says “We discussed numbers things,” which could refer to arms control, although numbers would not be necessary in a discussion of extending New START. Others have interpreted these remarks that way.

In an interview with Ron Rosenburg in 1987, Trump said something similar, in more detail.

It’s a deal with the Soviets. We approach them on this basis: We both recognize the nonproliferation treaty’s not working, that half a dozen countries are on the brink of getting a bomb. Which can only cause trouble for the two of us. The deterrence of mutual assured destruction that prevents the United States and the USSR from nuking each other won’t work on the level of an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange. Or a madman dictator with a briefcase-bomb team. The only answer is for the Big Two to make a deal now to step in and prevent the next generation of nations about to go nuclear from doing so. By whatever means necessary.

“Most of those [pre-nuclear] countries are in one form or another dominated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” Trump says. “Between those two nations you have the power to dominate any of those countries. So we should use our power of economic retaliation and they use their powers of retaliation and between the two of us we will prevent the problem from happening. It would have been better having done something five years ago,” he says. “But I believe even a country such as Pakistan would have to do something now. Five years from now they’ll laugh.”

This has Trump earmarks that are now familiar to us. The two strongmen get together to squeeze the little guys not to make nuclear weapons. It seems to have been his dream for a long time.

If I can find that material, so can Putin’s intelligence services. It would be a great lever on Trump, his way to a Nobel prize, in his mind anyway. If Putin is to be his partner in dealing with “a much bigger problem than global warming,” Trump would not want to alienate him.

The evidence is that Trump has other Russian connections that could be corrupting. But when I listened to the Swan interview, I couldn’t help thinking of that 1987 interview.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice