Trump Still Has Not Learned the Basics of Nuclear Policy

On a phone call with Vladimir Putin, the new American president was caught unaware of New START.

American president Donald Trump speaks with his defense secretary, James Mattis, outside the Pentagon in Washington DC, January 27
American president Donald Trump speaks with his defense secretary, James Mattis, outside the Pentagon in Washington DC, January 27 (DoD/Jette Carr)

Donald Trump was caught unaware of a nuclear treaty with Russia on a recent phone call with Vladimir Putin, Reuters reports.

According to the news agency, the American president needed to consult with aides when Putin raised the possibility of extending the New START agreement that came into force in 2010.

Once informed about the treaty, Trump told Putin it was a bad deal that favored Russia — and proceeded to discuss his own popularity.

Assuming the reporting is accurate — and Reuters cites two serving American officials and one former official with knowledge of the call — this raises several worries.

Ignorant

The first is that Trump remains unaware of basic foreign policy. He was embarrassingly ignorant of America’s commitments around the world during the presidential campaign. Now that he’s in power, and personally in charge of America’s nuclear deterrent, you would expect him to have smartened up. But no.

Trump nevertheless makes up policy on the fly. He either didn’t know or didn’t remember what New START was, but as soon as he was told, he decided it was a bad deal.

During a debate last year, Trump alleged that Russia had “outsmarted” the United States in nuclear talks, asserting incorrectly that what he referred to as “START-Up” allowed Russia to continue to produce nuclear weapons while America could not. (What government would enter into such a one-sided agreement?)

The reality is that the pact shrinks the nuclear arsenals of both powers. It limits the deployment of land- and submarine-based missiles as well as nuclear bombers — the so-called nuclear triad that Trump was also unaware of — and it gives the former Cold War rivals until February 2018 to bring their deployed strategic nuclear warheads under 1,550, the lowest level in decades.

Inconsistent

Trump’s nuclear policy has been startlingly inconsistent.

Days before he was inaugurated last month, Trump told reporters, “I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially.” Which is precisely what New START did.

But a month earlier, he had called for an expanded nuclear deterrent in a tweet — “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes”. Whatever that means.

When a reporter then pointed out this might lead to a nuclear arms race with Russia, Trump said, “Let it be an arms race.”

Leaks

Finally, the report from Reuters underlines what a mess Trump’s White House is.

Only a few confidants were privy to the president’s conversation with Putin yet at least two of them leaked informations that makes their boss look like an amateur.

This is not an administration that has its act together.

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