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 testing for all time in all environments. But 20 years after its negotiation, the treaty has yet to be implemented; eight key holdouts have not ratified it, most prominently the United States and China. Negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), which is supposed to stop new production of bomb-making material, have been stalled for the last 20 years. Against this backdrop, many non-nuclear-weapon states are now intent on negotiating a treaty banning the possession of nuclear weapons, against the opposition of nuclear-armed states.

We have come a long way from the seminal arms-control accomplishments during a 13-year period bracketing the Soviet Union’s dissolution. This record of unparalleled achievement began during U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s second term with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned all missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310–3,428 miles), and ended at the end of the Clinton administration with the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, in which the United States and the Russian Federation promised to dispose of nuclear material sufficient to make 17,000 nuclear weapons. In between, Washington and Moscow agreed to parallel unilateral reductions in tactical nuclear weapons. They also negotiated two Strategic Arms Reduction treaties, the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty (which reduced NATO and Warsaw Pact tanks and other heavy combat vehicles) and a companion Vienna Document regulating military exercises, the Open Skies Treaty mandating cooperative over-flights from Vancouver east to Vladivostok, the Chemical Weapons Convention banning these inhumane weapons, and the CTBT. In addition, wide-ranging cooperative threat reduction initiatives were implemented between the United States and Russia. 

Now all of this work is in peril as a result of the deterioration of U.S.–Russian relations. One reason for the great unraveling now underway was the Clinton administration’s decision to marginally expand NATO. Then, soon after the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration announced its intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, through which the two superpowers agreed not to build nationwide defenses against ballistic missile attacks. Moscow countered by announcing its intention to withdraw from the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. That treaty, negotiated in 1993, banned land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads, which were deemed unnecessary in light of constraints on missile defenses. Fifteen years after these twin announcements, Russia has begun producing a new “heavy” missile capable of carrying multiple warheads, and the United States plans to construct a third national missile defense site and proceeds with theater missile defenses in Europe and Asia.

The 1990 CFE Treaty was always at risk of unraveling. At first its limits on NATO and Warsaw Pact military equipment seemed unnecessary because of the breakup of the Soviet Union and declining defense budgets. It was modified to reflect post–Cold War realities, including the independence of the Baltic states. Then, while waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration led the charge for a second round of NATO expansion, to include the Baltic States, while also seeking, unsuccessfully, to include Georgia, and Ukraine. Rather than viewing conventional force constraints in some former Warsaw Pact states and Soviet Republics as reassuring, Moscow came to view the CFE Treaty as codifying a humiliating post–Cold War outcome.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, June 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, June 2015.
Maxim Shemetov / REUTERS

Under Putin, the Kremlin pushed back hard against NATO’s expansion. Moscow announced that it was suspending implementation of the CFE in 2007. In 2008, Moscow recognized two “independent” enclaves within Georgia. In 2014, Putin moved to annex Crimea after domestic opposition within Ukraine led to the toppling of its pro-Russian government. In 2015, Moscow stopped participating in the CFE’s consultative meetings. Moscow has also only selectively adhered to the Vienna Document’s ancillary agreements on military exercises. It has likewise imposed constraints on the Open Skies Treaty’s rules for cooperative over-flights of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kaliningrad, the Russian outpost between Poland and Lithuania that is being ostensibly fortified with nuclear-capable, ground-launched missiles.

The unraveling of nuclear accords has proceeded in parallel with the demise of the CFE. The landmark INF Treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev is in trouble. The State Department announced in 2015 that Moscow violated the treaty by flight-testing a ground-launched cruise missile, a missile that new reports suggest is now in serial production. The Kremlin chose not to attend the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by Obama in 2016, and in the same year it pulled the plug on the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement. Additional Cold War-era agreements designed to prevent dangerous military practices at sea, on the ground, and in the air have also been disregarded.

In short, nuclear dangers have grown appreciably, not just in Russia, but on the subcontinent and in North Korea. A vigorous arms competition between India and Pakistan has been marked by the flight-testing of 18 different ways of delivering nuclear weapons since their tests in 1998—an average of one per year. North Korea has carried out five tests since 2006, including three since 2013.

Nuclear dangers have grown appreciably, not just in Russia, but on the subcontinent and in North Korea.

As arms control unravels and nuclear dangers rise, divisions have deepened in the United States on how best to respond. The left, impatient of Putin’s unwillingness to reduce bilaterally, has called for unilateral cuts in force structure, as well as for the adoption of a nuclear posture of No First Use, the elimination of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the construction of a new nuclear-armed cruise missile. The right has gone after what’s left of treaty constraints on U.S. freedom of action and has advocated a trillion dollar recapitalization of all three legs of the nuclear triad. Early reports suggest that the Trump administration will increase funding to cover large, anticipated budget shortfalls. Buying new missiles, submarines, and bombers that will not come off production lines until well after he leaves office, though, will not help Trump to deal with the growing nuclear danger the United States faces.


Trump’s narrow victory could bring a reprise of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” of deterrence—except on steroids. Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, believed that projecting an image of readiness to use nuclear weapons could provide negotiating leverage. They tested their assumption in the 1973 Middle East crisis and during the Vietnam War, with no apparent bearing on Hanoi and Moscow’s choices. Trump’s reputation for belligerent behavior could reinforce caution by potential challengers. If, however, Trump is tested, and if he brandishes the Bomb on the world stage, the United States’ international standing will plummet and some allies could scurry for cover.

Previous presidents have choreographed implied threats, reassurance, strategic modernization programs, and adept diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers. Nothing in Trump’s personality and background suggests an ability to make these calibrations on his own. Much will depend on whether his instincts are filtered through the reality of nuclear danger and leavened by wise counsel. Should he respond to the cacophony of voices surrounding him by accepting the advice of those with a bent for dismantling accords rather than negotiating them, nuclear dangers will continue to accelerate. But should he instead choose capable national-security advisors, he might surprise the doomsayers, as Reagan did before him.

Much will depend on whether Trump’s instincts are filtered through the reality of nuclear danger and leavened by wise counsel.

Republican presidents have far more leeway on nuclear diplomacy than the Democrats because they are typically more dubious of treaty-making and more able to bring along Republicans on Capitol Hill. Trump could surprise everyone by calling on the Senate to proceed with the hearings and then consent for the CTBT’s ratification. No other move would so clearly erase the campaign image of Trump’s impulsive finger on the nuclear “button,” and no other step would do more to shore up the precarious nuclear order in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. China, India, Israel, and Pakistan are currently respecting nuclear moratoria and waiting for someone else to go first—either to renew testing or for the U.S. Senate to reverse its rejection of the Treaty during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Should the Senate vote for ratification, these countries would likely follow its lead because they can live without renewed testing. Although some key Trump advisors will no doubt oppose CTBT ratification, the two main substantive reasons for doing so—concerns over stockpile stewardship and monitoring—no longer apply. And for once, Russia isn’t an impediment, having ratified the CTBT on Boris Yeltsin’s watch. (Its continued fealty to the treaty cannot be taken for granted, however.)

Should Putin wish to change course on the nuclear front, it would be easier for him to do so with Trump, rather than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in the White House. Trump could parlay a (perhaps brief) period of goodwill with the Russian president to agree on the next tranche of strategic arms reductions anticipated by the New START Treaty, while extending its intrusive monitoring regime through 2021. He and Putin could also reaffirm existing commitments to not engage in dangerous military practices when U.S. and Russian soldiers, pilots, and sailors are operating in close proximity. 

On the other side of the ledger, the list of potential negative developments under a Trump administration is daunting. In terms of Russia, the unraveling now well underway will continue if Putin holds fast to his conditions for another round of nuclear arms reductions—most notably, transitioning from parallel unilateral reductions to multilateral reductions and constraining missile defenses. Missiles that were supposed to be barred under the INF Treaty could continue to be produced and possibly deployed. The CFE and Open Skies treaties could continue to be hollowed out. The honeymoon between Trump and Putin could be very short if Putin continues to push back against NATO expansion.

The Trump administration, like the Obama administration, will have little power to alter the trajectory of nuclear competition among China, India, and Pakistan. Pakistan is competing harder than India; its reliance on nuclear weapons is growing as the disparities between the two countries’ defense expenditures widen. Friction between India and Pakistan is on the rise. There could well be another serious crisis during the Trump administration sparked by extremist groups that continue to enjoy safe havens on Pakistani soil. The Obama administration made very little headway with China on nuclear issues, and Beijing could be inclined to test Trump, especially if he pursues his campaign pledges to upend trade agreements.  

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at a test fire for the country's multiple-launch rocket system, March 2016.

Stopping and partially reversing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will require a united international front that includes China, Russia, and the United States’ European and Asian allies. This will be a tall order, especially if the Trump administration seeks to renegotiate the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement. Trump signed on to the standard Republican critique of the Iran deal: that its scope—reducing and suspending Iran’s bomb-making capabilities for at minimum 15 years—wasn’t good enough, and its financial incentives too generous. An attempted renegotiation of the Iran agreement could weaken the United States’ hand in dealing with North Korea in two ways: Pyongyang would have no reason to expect proper implementation of U.S. commitments in any agreement, and Washington would have a very hard time maintaining a united front with its negotiating partners after disregarding compromises reached with Iran.

In sum, Trump’s lack of knowledge of the geopolitics of nuclear danger presents clear cause for concern, especially at a time of such uncertainty about the global nuclear order and arms control. Trump is not unique in this respect: Only two presidents in the Atomic Age—Nixon and George H.W. Bush—could claim familiarity with these issues upon entering the White House. But Trump is unique in terms of the level of his previous lack of interest in these matters, which make his choice of advisors all the more critical. The ranks of those who provided wise counsel to Reagan and George H.W. Bush have thinned greatly, and many of those now seeking Trump’s ear have instead made their mark through obstruction and deconstruction of nuclear agreements. The key question at the moment is who Trump will hire and see fit to fire. 

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