Strategic Space

Forecast 2017: Unclear Nuclear Pathways

27 Jan, 2017    ·   5225

Dr Manpreet Sethi examines the global nuclear issues that are likely to grab President Trump's attention this year

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

The inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the US has just taken place. A lot of what happens in the nuclear domain in the coming 12 months will be dependent on the direction that is adopted by the new president as he settles in. Every fresh incoming administration normally brings in its own policies, and hence changes in economic, political, foreign policy and nuclear issues are always expected. But, the uncertainties being felt this time are more than usual. The statements and tweets made by Donald Trump as a presidential candidate and later as president-elect indicate a reversal of many of the previous administration's nuclear-related policies and actions. For the moment then, Trump looks like the proverbial bull in the nuclear china shop, and all are closely watching to see what all breaks, or not, under his nuclear watch. A few of the issues that will vie for his attention fairly quickly can be highlighted amid an as yet unclear nuclear path for 2017.

The first of the issues that can be expected to be handled by President Trump is the resetting of US relations with Russia. There is no doubt that this particular relationship has been left in a sorry state by the outgoing administration. Trump will most likely act quickly to arrest the trend and mend the situation. Will he do this by making compromises on sanctions, as he has indicated earlier? Will he link these actions to Russian concessions on nuclear arms control? Does the US itself have an inclination to undertake arms control given that it is looking to upgrade its own nuclear arsenal? After having been in a nuclear weapons reduction mode for some time, the US now appears to have moved in favour of modernisation. Before demitting office, Barack Obama approved a budget of US$ 1 trillion to be spent over three decades for this purpose. President Donald Trump has indicated the intention to stay the course and even tweeted that the US would not shy away from an arms race if his rivals so desired. While neither Russia nor China may rise to the bait, both are nevertheless engaged in modernising or building their own nuclear capabilities as per their visions of credible deterrence. 

As the US, Russia, and China proceed with their nuclear weapons programmes with an eye on one another, their behaviour and actions will have an impact on the global nuclear picture with ripples being felt in India and Pakistan too. Better US-Russia relations can be expected to have a positive fallout on the overall atmospherics. They may even help revive some of the bilateral US-Russia arms control agreements that have recently fallen by the wayside owing to lack of communication from both sides. But unless they specifically target arms control, a mere thawing of relations is unlikely to arrest the ongoing nuclear modernisation currently underway across all nuclear-armed states.

A second issue sure to grab Trump’s attention is the nuclear agreement with Iran. In January 2017, international diplomacy should have been celebrating the first anniversary of the Implementation Day of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that brought a negotiated halt to the suspected military oriented activities of Iran’s nuclear programme. 2016 saw Iran living up to its promises under the agreement. It dismantled centrifuges that could have led it to enrich uranium, shipped out of the country enriched uranium in excess of what the JCPOA allows it to keep, removed the core from the Arak reactor that could have helped it build plutonium, and met the necessary requirements of IAEA inspections. In return, the country gained from a lifting of a majority of the sanctions imposed upon it. There was an upsurge in its oil production and exports, and many international leaders made a beeline to Tehran to establish new political and economic relations.

However, instead of celebrating the successful conclusion of the first year of the JCPOA, the past few months have been spent in trying to read the tea leaves on how President Trump (and the Republicans now dominating Congress) would treat the Iran deal on assuming office. Trump has been vocal about his dissatisfaction with the JCPOA, and even let it be known that he intended to “rip open the deal” once elected. Now that he is the elected president, will he go through with the threat? Would he find it in US interest to do so, thereby destroying years of negotiations? Iranian leaders have signalled that any such act would mean the end of the agreement for Iran. They have been reminding the international community that the JCPOA involved multiple parties and that it cannot be for the US to kill it unilaterally. The other major powers - Russia, China and the European Union - too have invested heavily in the deal. The Iranian appeal, therefore, is to the rest of the actors to use their good offices to make good sense prevail on the new US administration.

A third thorny nuclear issue that will seek Trump’s attention pertains to North Korea's provocative nuclear actions and behaviour. It may be recalled that in 2016, the country not only conducted two nuclear tests – in January and May – but also announced that it had miniaturised its nuclear weapons enough to be able to deliver them atop a ballistic missile. These actions and announcements were attention-seeking gestures, hoping to get the US to agree to conduct some kind of direct negotiation with Kim Jong-un, along the lines of those with Iran. However, the US was hesitant to be seen as negotiating with Pyongyang with the latter apparently holding a gun to it.  President Obama appeared content to leave the issue to be resolved by China, which nevertheless had little initiative to do so since it kept the US unsettled. China also claimed that its leverage upon North Korea was diminishing. With the change in administration, there is once again a window of opportunity for the US to take a serious relook at the issue. President Trump’s long experience as a successful businessman and his behaviour now as a politician show him to be a risk-taker. North Korea is obviously keen to engage directly with the US and there may be a deal here to look out for.

The North Korean issue also has special significance since it is tied up with relations between the US and its allies in Northeast Asia. Given that Donald Trump, during his campaign speeches, had mentioned that Japan and South Korea must bear a greater burden of the nuclear umbrella extended to them, including the BMD deployments, the two countries are anxious about how the North Korean imbroglio would be resolved.

As President Trump grants some clarity on his nuclear policies towards Russia, Iran, North Korea, and by extension, towards Japan and South Korea, he will be shaping the nuclear discourse that will dominate this year and beyond. Interestingly, amid this flux, a conference to negotiate a nuclear ban treaty is planned for 2017. The UN First Committee Resolution passed in October 2016 that calls for negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their total elimination, has not yet caught the attention of President Trump. Of course, it may be recalled that the Obama administration had not succumbed to its charms either. But as the momentum for the conference builds up, it could catch Trump's fancy. After all, former President Reagan immortalised himself through the sanity he brought to the nuclear arms race when he and Soviet Premier Gorbachev pronounced in 1988 at Reykjavik that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. Who knows if Trump might grow to like the idea of disarmament and does something about it - after all, he is a risk-taker.

Meanwhile, it can only be hoped that President Trump understands the significance of the Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) that concluded last year. While the usual politics can be expected to get in the way of a Republican president acknowledging merit in a former Democrat president's initiative, there is no doubt that the NSS process achieved success in raising awareness and political action on nuclear security at the highest level in countries across the globe. The consensus so built and momentum acquired in setting international benchmarks for national efforts must not be lost. While Trump has not paid much attention to this issue, nuclear terrorism remains a palpable threat and the world cannot afford to lose out on efforts towards securing nuclear material and technologies from non-state actors.

The nuclear pathways that the US adopts will become clear in the coming months. Undoubtedly, their impact will be felt worldwide as the fashion on the nuclear ramp is set by Washington. President Trump may believe in “America First” for many of his policy decisions, but on the nuclear front, one hopes he realises that he carries the burden of international security, too.