A tweet from President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday pledging to “greatly strengthen and expand” US nuclear capability triggered talk of the start of another arms race that once had the world on edge for decades.
“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump wrote in the tweet which he did not explain.
But it was said to have come in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks Tuesday about the need for his country to “enhance the combat capability of strategic nuclear forces, primarily by strengthening missile complexes that will be guaranteed to penetrate existing and future missile defence systems”.
But as experts parsed Trump’s tweet for meaning amidst speculation and alarm that he was signalling a radical change in a long-time US policy of nuclear arms reduction pursued by presidents from both parties, the transition team followed up with a statement.
Trump was “referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it—particularly to and among terrorist organisations and unstable and rogue regimes,” communications director Jason Miller said in a statement.
He went on to say that the President-elect had, as in the past, “emphasised the need to improve and modernise our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength”.
Though meant as an explanation, Miller’s statement seemed more like reeling back Trump from a sticky spot as has become the practice, but did nothing to help quell fears of a renewed nuclear arms race, started this time by a tweet in 118 characters.
“Can a tweet start and arms race? This one just might have,” Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and a nuclear arms expert, told Mother Jones, a news site.
He added, “There are groups like Heritage (Foundation) arguing to expand our nuclear arsenal. If Trump was reflecting their thinking for not just new weapons but more weapons and new missions, we are entering new and very dangerous territory.”
Many others warned of a new nuclear arms race as well.
The US and Russia have the world’s largest nuclear arsenals with 7,000 and 7,300 warheads respectively, according to one estimate, followed by France (300), China (260), UK (215), Pakistan (130), India (120) and Israel (80).
All of them combined are said to hold 15,350 warheads, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a non-profit that works on disarmament, down from 70,300 at the peak of the arms race during the Cold War.
While China, India, Pakistan and Israel are believed to be increasing their arsenals, especially Pakistan which has been on steroids, the other four stopped and decided to focus on modernising and upgrading theirs with an eye on the future.
In the US, there has been a bilateral consensus on reducing nuclear warheads, with Republican presidents leading the way. President George W Bush has been the most aggressive, cutting the arsenal by half.
Is Trump planning to upend this long-lasting consensus? Or was the tweet just an opening gambit in a coming war of nerves against an adversary he has admired? Or, as some experts have suggested, he still doesn’t get it, the nuclear bit!