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Why Donald Trump's Take On Nuclear Proliferation Makes Sense

25/04/2016 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Foreign policy strategy concept of a chess board with rooks carrying national flags for Iran and Saudi Arabia.

If there's one sensible policy statement that Donald Trump has made until now, it's his stance on nuclear weapons.

A few days ago, Trump told the New York Times, "If Japan had that nuclear threat, I'm not sure that would be a bad thing for us." Nor would it be so bad, he said, if South Korea and Saudi Arabia had nuclear weapons, too. Essentially, Trump is saying that nuclear proliferation is not a bad thing. I agree. As the great theorist of international relations Kenneth Waltz suggested, nuclear weapons can be a great equalizer and because of their deterrent effect may even lead to peace.

It could be stated with reasonable accuracy that peace, however uneasy, between India and Pakistan has held because of nukes.

Moreover, the efforts that the United States has put into non-proliferation, through the use of the NPT regime have not historically been worth the effort: states which were determined to obtain nukes got them. India and Pakistan are clear examples. And, it could be stated with reasonable accuracy that peace, however uneasy, between India and Pakistan has held because of nukes. That nukes also provide a shield for opportunistic asymmetric war is altogether a different thing. Attributing the latter to the former means getting the causality wrong and mistaking symptoms for the disease.

Given that I am from South Asia, I would axiomatically take as my starting point the "nuclear race" between India and Pakistan to put the case for proliferation into perspective.

In addition to other factors, some unique to each, India and Pakistan sought to nuclearize themselves essentially in the pursuit of security. The United States, recognizing the dangers of a nuclearized subcontinent, tried to discourage both Pakistan and India to go nuclear by both deterrence and compellence. The instruments that the United States chose were diplomatic isolation, threats and sanctions. None worked. While India's nuclear program dates back to the early 70s or even earlier (a quest that accrued from the humiliating debacle with China in 1962), and Pakistan's during the time of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, both went openly and publicly nuclear in the latter half of the closing decade of the 20th century.

Nukes in hand, Saudis and Iranians may be at peace with each other as would the two Koreas; Japan would be released from the clutches of non-militarism.

India and Pakistan had apparently learnt and concluded that the United States would always be motivated by its interests and would not or could not guarantee the security of the two countries. Its "tilt" would be determined by the structure of the international system, the configuration of forces in a given moment of time and how the country's interests would fit in these conditions. The obvious choice and path for both India and Pakistan to amplify their security was to go nuclear, which is what they did. And apart from what I would call "glocalized skirmishes" (read the Kargil War), the two arch antagonists have maintained peace.

This equation or condition may hold between other states too. Once there is nuclear "parity" or let's say an alignment of the "first strike" and "second strike" capabilities it will affect the decision-making calculus of dyadic, or paired states in conflict. It would be unlikely for war to break out. Key here, among other things, is balance of power. Nukes in hand, Saudis and Iranians may be at peace with each other as would the two Koreas; Japan would be released from the clutches of non-militarism.

Trump's take on nuclear weapons then makes sense.

However, Trump's nuclear take portends that if he assumes the highest office in the United States, his administration's foreign policy would take the nation toward isolationalism. Or, in other words, if Trump follows up on his ideas, then he would be retrenching the United States from the world. Consider an example.

Trump's nuclear take portends that if he assumes the highest office in the United States, his administration's foreign policy would take the nation toward isolationalism.

By building an alliance and security system in the Asia Pacific and East Asia, the US has maintained peace and curbed the "security dilemmas" of many states in the region--such as Japan and South Korea--by "extended deterrence". That is, it has provided a nuclear umbrella to these states and thus guaranteed their security. Proliferation would imply that these states are now on their own, and responsible for their security sans the US nuclear umbrella. This would obviously lead to arms racing and what have you in the region, but a rough balance of power which keeps the peace could also be obtained. The United States would retreat inward, become isolationist in the process and avoid what the historian Paul Kennedy called "imperial overstretch". In a more contemporary idiom, this would also mean managing the nation's decline with extant resources. Whether the United States' retrenchment from the world and its isolationism would be good or bad remains to be seen. It, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, falls in the domain of the "unknown unknown".

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