It is no secret that when it comes to shaping government policy, Donald Trump has been driven by compulsion to undo the enlightened measures of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Whether in the field of immigration, labor rights, race relations, environmental protection, or climate change, Trump has used every instrument at his command—every senior appointment, regulatory measure, or executive order—to undermine the gains made in those areas during the Obama era. But no rollback of that legacy is likely to prove as consequential or dangerous as his plan to enlarge America’s nuclear arsenal and expand the uses to which it can be put. If all of Trump’s policies are enacted, we will soon find ourselves in a world as terrifying as that of the darkest days of the Cold War.
To fully grasp the severity of Trump’s proposals, we need to recall President Obama’s own stance on nuclear-weapons use. In his first major address on this issue, delivered in Prague on April 5, 2009, Obama laid out a clear and hopeful vision. “Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” he declared. While recognizing that such a world could not be easily or quickly achieved, he promised to begin that process with a pledge to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”
To translate this pledge into formal policy, Obama commissioned a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by the Defense Department. The NPR, released in April 2010, represented a definitive statement of US policy regarding nuclear weapons and their possible use. In consonance with Obama’s stated outlook, it stressed that such munitions were an instrument of last resort, intended solely for deterrence of enemy nuclear strikes on the United States and its allies. Among its key conclusions were that the United States will “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks” and that it “would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances,” in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States or one of its allies. This was a dramatic change from the policies of previous administrations, which had contemplated and prepared for the use of nuclear munitions in response to a wide range of non-nuclear threats, such as a tank-driven Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
The Obama NPR of April 2010 has remained the principal expression of US policy regarding nuclear weapons until now. In accordance with its precepts, the Obama administration negotiated a new strategic-arms-reduction treaty (New START) with Russia in 2010, further reducing the strategic nuclear stockpiles of both nations (the agreement will remain in effect until 2021, or longer, if both sides agree). Obama undertook additional efforts to reduce the global role of nuclear weapons, including the successful drive to conclude a nuclear-limitation agreement with Iran (which Trump seeks to tear up) and sponsorship of a series of Nuclear Security Summits, aimed at preventing the acquisition of fissile materials by illicit actors.
While proceeding with all this, however, Obama was faced with a painful dilemma: Most of the weapons in the US nuclear arsenal were reaching the end of their intended lifespan and, in the view of hawks within the military establishment (and their supporters in Congress), could no longer be considered 100 percent reliable. To placate those elements and gain space for his arms-reduction efforts, Obama agreed to begin preliminary design work on replacements for all three components of the strategic “triad”—land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range bombers carrying gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). No decision had yet been made on actual procurement of the new systems when Obama left the White House, but research and development was well under way.