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Trump's Atomic Football: What's The Global Field Positioning?

04/01/2017 7:51 PM IST | Updated 08/01/2017 10:26 AM IST
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump is calling some shots even before he has formally taken over the Oval Office. His Twitter account has proved a handy tool for hijacking some of the policies of the lame-duck Obama administration. His accepting a courtesy call from the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen earlier this month left the incumbent President's office scrambling for a response to convince China of the US's still status quoist position vis-à-vis the "One-China" policy. To most analysts it signalled that once in office Trump will try to leverage some concessional grounds from China and not give it a free-pass, granted hitherto by the Obama administration in areas such as currency manipulations and its policies apropos North Korea. However, the latest in Trump's series of tweets were 140 characters that shrouded the potential nuclear policy of the US.

Based on the nature of their response to Trump's clarion call for a nuclear race, countries come under two categories: those that see themselves getting affected...and those that do not.

Trump tweeted, "The US must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes," showing his utter lack of comprehension in matters relating to nuclear policy, strategic build-up, deterrence and above all responsible nuclear behaviour. Even if up for an overhaul, the nuclear strategy of any country should only be recalibrated after years of debate, discussions and above all a political consensus. The Obama administration put out its stated nuclear policy, officially referred to as the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), in 2010 after years of deliberations. The NPR sought to further President Obama's agenda of reducing threats to the world emanating from nuclear weapons not just to the US but the entire world. The seeds of the NPR were laid in President Obama's remarks in Prague in 2009 where he said, "[A]s a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act," laying the ground for nuclear threat reduction led by the US. This he hinted would be achieved by negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. While Trump's tweet has undercut all such expectations, in his private conversation with MSNBC's Morning Joe's Mika Brzezinski he took it to an even worrisome level by declaring, "Let it be an arms race."

The responses to Trump's embryonic nuclear policy have varied across countries. First, it has only drawn responses from a few countries, Russia and China included. Responses from Russia and China have evinced two very different positions on the spectrum. While Russia has said that there is "nothing unusual" about Trump's tweet, China has criticised it heavily through a retort published in the Global Times that threatens to "strike back without hesitation" if the US flexes its strategic muscle. Most countries including India, however, have maintained a studied silence. Based on the nature of their response to Trump's clarion call for a nuclear race, countries around the world can be categorised under two different rationales: those that see themselves getting affected by changing US nuclear policy under the Trump presidency and those that do not. Broadly, Russia and China would fall under the first category and countries like Britain, France in the second. Russia has depicted itself as an outlier to the first category, largely because of the President-elect Trump's cosying up to Moscow.

In the event of nuclear escalation, the US would lose its locus standi to ask any country, least of all North Korea and Pakistan, to curb their nuclear weapons program.

Trump's nuclear escalation carries greater implications in the stockpile augmentation of its allies such as Japan and South Korea. These are two of the world's most potent nuclear-hedgers which can go nuclear faster than any other currently non-nuclear state. Propping Japan and South Korea would also be in sync with the regional balance of power game with respect to China in the Asia-Pacific. In contrast, South Asia would be the dark horse of the global nuclear order. If nuclear escalation indeed takes place, led by the US under Trump, it will be interesting to see where the chips may fall vis-à-vis India and Pakistan. Although both the countries are non-signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) it is unlikely that the Trump presidency will assess the threats emerging from both the countries on a common scale. Pakistan's history of proliferation led by its A.Q. Khan network, coupled with its increasing incapacity to control terror-related activities inside the country (and its spill over to neighbouring countries) are bound to create differentiated criteria for the two nations. For India, its strategic discipline, clean non-proliferation record and the civil nuclear deal with the US are likely to provide some comfort.

In the event of nuclear escalation, however, the US would lose its current locus standi to ask any country, least of all North Korea and Pakistan, to curb their nuclear weapons program.

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