President-elect Donald Trump dropped a proverbial bomb Thursday on Twitter, declaring the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
The 140-character missive, which came less than 24 hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country needs to “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces,” sent nuclear weapons experts scrambling to parse Trump’s phrasing and interpret whether he intends to relaunch a Cold War-style arms race.
Then Trump doubled down Friday morning. “Let it be an arms race,” Trump reportedly said to “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski. “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Trump’s transition team has been working furiously to spin these remarks as something other than a call for more nuclear weapons. Trump spokesman Jason Miller told the Washington Post that the president-elect “was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it — particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes.”
The term “rogue regimes” would seemingly refer to North Korea, which conducted two nuclear weapons tests in 2016, and is now widely believed to have the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile that could reach the continental United States.
But as pointed out by Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Trump’s remark sounds an awful lot like something North Korea would say about its nuclear program.
“It just had a certain Kim Jong Un flavor to it,” Pollack said. “I’m not saying [Trump] reads their foreign ministry statements, I don’t think he was purposefully echoing them, but he just has a way of independently reproducing their language.”
As Pollack explained, North Korea frequently vows to build up its nuclear arsenal, and often says it will continue to do so until, in essence, the U.S. “comes to its senses” and lifts the economic sanctions that have been imposed to punish the Kim regime for testing nukes. And if Trump truly intended his tweet as a way to push for de-escalation and prevent Pyongyang from launching a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies in Asia, he missed the mark.
“When you’re building up your arsenal, it’s hard to persuade others not to follow suit,” Pollack said. “Certainly, if we want to get the North Koreans to guarantee to step back from their current course, they’re not going to do it while we’re building ours up, that’s for sure.”
There were other problems with Trump’s tweet beyond the similarities to North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling. For instance, Miller also told the Post that Trump “emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.” Just last year, Congress approved a plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal that is projected to cost up to $1 trillion over the next three decades.
The U.S. currently maintains a stockpile of more than 4,500 nuclear warheads, including 1,367 that are deployed on missiles, submarines, and bombers. The president can launch these weapons — each capable of leveling a major city with a single blast — at a moment’s notice without the approval of Congress or U.S. military leaders.
On the campaign trail, Trump expressed wariness about using nukes — but he wouldn’t rule out the possibility entirely. “Look, nuclear should be off the table,” he said during a town hall on MSNBC, adding, “But would there be a time when it could be used, possibly, possibly?”
As for Russia, during a press conference Friday morning in Moscow, Putin said his country will “never spend resources on an arms race that we can’t afford,” and clarified that if Russia were to invest, it would be on building weapons that can penetrate missile defense systems.
Russia is believed to have about 1,790 “active strategic nuclear warheads” in its arsenal, and 4,490 warheads in its possession overall. That’s just barely ahead of the U.S., and far more than Britain, France, and China, the next-closest countries on the list, which have 200-300 warheads each. Together, the U.S. and Russia already possess 90 percent of the world’s nukes. If another arms race is about to begin, Moscow and Washington have already lapped the global competition several times.
The U.S. and Russia agreed to a treaty in 2011 that’s supposed to limit the size of each country’s nuclear arsenal, but there’s nothing to stop Trump and Putin from casting the agreement aside. But some experts have read the recent comments by Trump and Putin as nothing more than posturing.
“The good news is — and I admit it’s not all that great of news — listening to Trump and Putin talk about their nuclear arsenals is less ideological rivalry from the Cold War and more like two guys at a Camaro meetup,” Jeffrey Lewis, an adjunct professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told The Atlantic. “They’re both in love with their toys, and they love showing them off, and I think they get some kind of charge out of them.”
Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the president-elect’s tweet was merely “a warning” intended to signify that if “another country wants to expand their nuclear capability, the U.S. is not going to sit idly by.”
Pollack noted that the the most charitable reading of Trump’s tweet is that it’s vaguely along the lines of President Obama’s 2009 speech about nuclear nonproliferation. Obama reiterated “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” but also said that “as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary.”
“You can read Trump as having said the same thing, but in a much more chest-thumping manner,” Pollack said. “He wants it to be understood as, ‘We’re ready to rumble if it comes to that. We’re ready for an arms race, if that’s what others want.’”
Of course, nobody knows what Trump really meant except Trump himself, which is a point Pollack readily conceded.
“Eventually it gets into mind-reading,” he said, “which is a fun game with this guy.”