The United States president-elect, Donald Trump, has a predilection for the off-the-cuff statement. This, in turn, has spawned a micro-industry of interpretation, commentary and, finally, spin doctoring by members of Trump’s staff. Trump recently weighed in on the nuclear weapons policy with a warning that he would launch an “arms race” if needed to maintain US supremacy. Unsurprisingly, this has rung alarm bells because it would indicate a desire to overturn over three decades of consensus that less warhead is good. For the most part, however, Trump’s comments and the subsequent explanations by his staff have only caused confusion and concern that the world’s most powerful announces policy as if he was on reality television.
Trump has no grounds for worrying about the credibility of the US’s nuclear deterrence. Though its warhead count is almost unchanged since 1967, a comprehensive review in 2013 by the US military concluded that if anything the US had about a third more warheads than it needed. Trump’s own Pentagon chief pick, John Mathis, is among those who have in past said the US can reduce its nuclear arsenal. The Barack Obama administration did conclude that the delivery, safety and technical aspects of the arsenal needed an upgrade and it sanctioned a one trillion dollar modernisation programme that is still unfolding. Russia has also focussed on upgrading its missiles. The only area it can be argued there is an “arms race” is in the area of ballistic missile defence where both countries have kept building better interceptors as well as weapons designed to avoid the same.
Trump has already outlined aggressive plans to expand the size of the US’s military, especially in terms of infantry and warships. More importantly, the entire theme of his election campaign and the narrative surrounding his policies is about “making America great again” and maintaining US supremacy on all counts. This seems to combine with his seeming inability to understand that even his whimsical comments are treated as official policy.