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Trump's Finger on the Nuclear Button. What Next?

It’s far too early to be writing off Trump’s promise to expand America’s nuclear arsenal says Carol Turner


On 20 January 2017 the newly inaugurated president of the United States will take over the world’s biggest nuclear armoury. The man who said ‘if we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them’ will have the ability to do just that. Donald Trump will have access to the codes that can launch hundreds of nuclear bombs in no more time than it takes to shake a stick.

This stands in contrast – but not necessarily in contradiction – to his most recent hint about cutting a deal with Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals. And what should we make of Trump’s repeated assertions that NATO is ‘obsolete’?

Daft and dangerous comments perhaps, as Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian recently. But it’s far too early to be writing off Trump’s promise to expand America’s nuclear arsenal or his hints about NATO as signs of his ignorance about how the world works.

On the contrary, Trump’s election campaign – which catapulted him from a crank outsider into the world’s top political spot – shows just how savvy he actually is when it comes to pressing buttons. In less than five months, Trump managed to persuade a whopping 65,915,795 American citizens to vote for him.

That he’s a racist, misogynist, and homophobe, not to mention a serial climate change denier, is not in doubt. But whatever else he is their Donald’s no idiot. That’s not how you get to be president of the US of A.

The liberal progressive commentariat on both sides of the Atlantic who lined up throughout Trump’s campaign to say he was, did none of us any favours. By encouraging disregard of Trump as a bigot or moron, they diverted attention away from the very real dangers his presidency poses.

On the day the results were out, one of the most level-headed comments I heard came from an analyst who argued that Trump had won because he reinforced what his supporters already believed. In other words he told them what they wanted to hear, with blithe disregard for rationality or veracity.

His campaign strategy served him well, so perhaps he’ll keep using it. Maybe that’s why we’re still hearing so many confusing contradictions about Trump’s foreign and security policy.

Does Trump really want to reorganise US policy in the Middle East, refocussing on Daesh rather than on ousting US-unfriendly regional powers like Assad in Syria? Are his endless comments about Putin nothing more than admiration for someone he believes is a ‘strong’ leader? And why woo Russia but confront China?

Russia’s nuclear arsenal might still be the nearest thing to a military challenge the US faces. But strategically speaking, it’s a declining power with a weak economy hopelessly skewed by dependency on petroleum earnings. An agreement with Russia on nuclear reductions could help reduce their threat to the US and leave both presidents smelling of roses.

China is the real US rival in the years ahead. So maybe Trump’s not as lacking in savvy as we’d like to comfort ourselves with thinking. Might he be pursuing a divide and rule policy on China and Russia? And where could that lead we should be asking ourselves?

Perhaps talk about NATO obsolescence is a reminder to European powers – whose conventional notions of security rest on the notion of having a bigger armoury than anyone else – how heavily dependent on NATO’s nuclear first strike policy they are. Trump wouldn’t be the first American president to complain that NATO’s European allies don’t pay their dues on time.

It certainly seems economic rivalry with China and the EU bloc is first, second, and third on Trump’s list of immediate priorities.

Right now Theresa May’s is trying to work out how to salvage Anglo-American relations after her predecessor’s public attacks on Trump. And she’s been thrown a bone by Trump’s suggestion that the UK could be head of the queue when it comes to a post-Brexit trade deal.

But perhaps she’d be better off pausing to ask what’s the catch? The government would do well to recall with dread the consequences of 2001, the last time the special relationship was invoked.

At a London CND conference recently, we heard from the Palestinian ambassador that snuggling closer up to the Israeli state could lead to the next intifada. And a China watcher suggested continued pursuit of aggressive policies on Taiwan and the South China Seas could spark a military confrontation.

Scary thoughts indeed. For the time being though, we’re all still wondering what the post-inaugural world will look like – with every finger and toe crossed in the hope that the staff Trump appoints will be able to help rein the new president in.

* Carol Turner is chair of London Region CND and a member of STW Officer Group. She is author of Corbyn and Trident: Labour’s continuing controversy, available from Public Reading Rooms at prr.org


Tags: nuclear-disarmament