When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January, he will face a global nuclear order that is increasingly unstable. North Korea, deteriorating U.S.–Russian relations, and the triangular competition among India, Pakistan, and China are all cause for concern. Add in Beijing’s growing ambitions to control resources and sea-lanes around its periphery and Trump’s repeated promises to rip up the Iran nuclear agreement, and the future of global nuclear arms control looks even more uncertain. To be sure, there were more intense periods of danger during the Cold War, but the binary nature of that arms race facilitated arms control when conditions permitted—something that is much harder to do when nuclear dangers are rising on multiple axes.
It’s conceivable that a Trump presidency, like that of Ronald Reagan, could produce welcome surprises. But it is also possible—and more likely—that the risk of a nuclear war will grow during his term in office. Much will depend on Trump’s instincts on nuclear issues, which are far from clear, the advisors he chooses, and how he responds to the counsel they provide.
The current nuclear landscape is foreboding. All of the existing foundations of the global nuclear order have been weakened. Some arms-control and reduction treaties have been altogether jettisoned, while other constraints are eroding. Divisions are widening between the United States and Russia, and between states with and without nuclear weapons. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) negotiated in 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev imposes only modest constraints, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has declined Obama’s offer of deeper parallel cuts. Meanwhile, Russia and the United States are investing heavily in new missiles, submarines, and bombers.
The Nonproliferation Treaty, whose continued success is predicated partly on progress in reducing nuclear arsenals, faces growing criticism among non-nuclear-weapon states. Its five-year Review Conferences have become acrimonious. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) forbids nuclear