Nuclear weapons issues will be a big part of the next US president’s agenda.
North Korea will continue its nuclear program, and the United States will have little leeway to contain or counter it.
As India and Pakistan amend their military doctrines, the presence of tactical nuclear weapons will increase the risk of nuclear conflict in the region.
Although the United States’ cornerstone arms control agreements with Russia are increasingly fragile, the next administration may be able to renegotiate them.
When US President-elect Donald Trump assumes office in January, an array of vexing foreign policy and security challenges will await him. Between conflicts in the Middle East, the enduring standoff with Russia, competing claimants in the South China Sea and upheaval in the European Union, the next administration will have its hands full. On top of these, Trump will have to contend with matters of nuclear weapons proliferation, balance and arms control, pressing concerns that are sure to command attention.
Nuclear North Korea
Foremost, Trump will have to decide how to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Once a means to exact political and economic concessions from rival powers, the program has since become a cornerstone of the country’s national security policy. Pyongyang is no longer interested in negotiating over its nuclear program and instead regards it as the ultimate deterrent against attack. In light of this development — and the steady progress that North Korea is making toward a viable nuclear arsenal — the United States will be compelled to respond, yet will be limited in its options to counter the emerging nuclear power. Sanctions have so far done little to deter Pyongyang from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. At the same time, military intervention is a risky proposition given the dearth of intelligence on North Korea, the threat of retaliation and the consequences of a full-scale war.
With so few options at its disposal, Washington will be left to build up its anti-ballistic missile defenses. But here, too, the United States will run into complications, not only from China and Russia, which oppose such efforts by the United States, but also from its regional allies, Japan and South Korea. Lingering grudges between Tokyo and Seoul will make it difficult for Washington to coordinate a unified response. As North Korea ramps up its missile testing cycle, meanwhile — and as South Korea adopts increasingly aggressive policies to pre-empt an attack from the North — the prospect of armed confrontation grows ever more likely.
Standoff in South Asia
Over the next four years, the United States will also have to contend with a heightened risk of nuclear conflict in South Asia. Long-standing disputes between India and Pakistan occasionally flare up, as recent violence in Kashmir has shown, and each country will keep revising and adapting its military doctrine in an effort to contain or defeat the other. On both sides of the rivalry, nuclear weaponry has become an important component of military strategy.
Pakistan has assembled an impressive arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to compensate for conventional military capabilities that pale in comparison with India’s. (Islamabad also must secure its border with Afghanistan, where insurgent fighting has been on the rise.) In the event of war, Pakistan hopes that its collection of low-yield nuclear weapons would be enough to overcome a large-scale Indian offensive. New Delhi’s current nuclear policy prohibits first use, and Islamabad reasons that using nuclear weapons in its own territory would stop India from escalating an attack. India, however, has repeatedly stated that it would respond in kind if Pakistan were to resort to nuclear weapons, even within its borders. In fact, India’s defense minister has called for New Delhi to reconsider its policy on first use — though he was quick to clarify that those were his own views and that the country’s official stance had not changed. Some members of India’s defense policy circles have even suggested that the country amass a tactical nuclear arsenal of its own to keep the upper hand on Pakistan.
Fragile arms-control agreements
As the Trump administration evaluates the United States’ policy toward Russia, it will find that the countries’ differences are not limited to issues such as Ukraine and Syria. Though it has weathered its share of challenges since its signing in 1987, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is facing its biggest trial yet. The treaty, a foundational arms-control agreement, bans ground-based nuclear or conventional missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles) and eliminated thousands of destabilizing nuclear weapons, particularly in Europe.
But Russia increasingly feels that the treaty puts it at a disadvantage relative to the United States, which has continued to modernize its nuclear arsenal and develop its ballistic missile defenses. Washington has begun to question the agreement as well because it does not extend to China’s land-based missiles. In 2014, the United States formally accused Russia of developing missiles in breach of the treaty, namely the R-500 ground-based cruise missile and the SS-27 Mod 2 intercontinental ballistic missile, which Moscow started testing at ranges prohibited by the INF. Russia, in turn, has alleged that the United States’ deployment of Mk41 launchers in Europe — along with its development and use of armed drones with ranges in excess of 500 kilometers — violates the terms of the agreement.
The New START treaty, which aimed to reduce the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half, may also be in peril — albeit less than the INF. Conducting inspections in April, the United States reportedly discovered that Russia was improperly disposing of SS-25 mobile missiles and could not verify that missiles slated for elimination had been destroyed. Furthermore, Russia has fallen far behind in eliminating warheads, raising doubts about its intent or ability to comply by the February 2018 deadline. Efforts to extend the treaty by another five years, postponing its expiration date to 2026, have also failed to gain much traction given the acrimonious relationship between Moscow and Washington.
The Trump administration may usher in an era of improved relations between the United States and Russia, as the president-elect has hinted. Washington, moreover, stands a better chance of stabilizing its fragile arms-control agreements with Moscow than of changing the nuclear balance in South Asia or on the Korean Peninsula. Regardless, nuclear weapons issues will figure prominently throughout the next four years, requiring a significant amount of attention from the next administration.