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Donald Trump’s fighting words are worrying to some

December 23, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
President-elect Trump tweeted this week that the U.S. needs to build up its nuclear arsenal. He also declared that should an arms race occur, the U.S. would triumph over any adversary. John Yang talks to Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund and Matthew Kroenig of Georgetown University about the reaction to Mr. Trump’s words and the status of American weaponry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to President-elect Trump’s comments about the need to build up the United States’ nuclear arsenal — and to John Yang for that.

JOHN YANG: Are the president-elect’s tweets and comments signaling a change in U.S. nuclear weapons policy? And should the nation beef up its nuclear arsenal?

For that, we turn to Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor at Georgetown University who’s written extensively about nuclear weapons, and Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a non-profit organization that advocates for disarmament. He, too, has written widely on the subject.

Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us tonight.

Mr. Cirincione, let me start with you, when you hear or read the president-elect saying that the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability and then tell Mika Brzezinski this morning, “Let it be an arms race,” what’s your reaction?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, Ploughshares Fund: Stunned. An ill-considered, disrespectful and dangerous series of statements. This would upend decades of Republican and Democratic policy that ever since Ronald Reagan has been reducing nuclear arsenals, both in the United States and Russia and around the world, stopping other countries from getting nuclear weapons.

By using that word “expand”, he says he wants to grow the arsenal or grow the capabilities. Look, nobody is against keeping a strong nuclear deterrent. If that’s all he said, we wouldn’t be having this debate.

President Obama has put in train a trillion-dollar program to replace every single nuclear weapon we have over the next 25 years. Donald Trump seems to be saying he wants to go ahead with this. His advisors tried to walk it back, but he himself said this morning, let it be an arms race. That is an extremely dangerous posture, that’s why people all over the globe are worried and talking about this today.

JOHN YANG: Matthew Kroenig, what’s your take?

MATTHEW KROENIG, Georgetown University: Well, the statement is certainly controversial but I think Trump is basically right. U.S. nuclear policy in the U.S. can’t be static, it has to respond to international politics and all America’s nuclear armed rivals, Russia, China, North Korea, are expanding and modernizing their arsenals. So, it doesn’t make sense for the United States to continue reducing its arsenal as our adversaries are going in the other directions. And moreover, many of these countries, especially Russia, are relying more not less on nuclear weapons in their strategy.

So, again, the United States needs to take that into account as it formulates its own nuclear posture. And so, I think some strengthening of U.S. nuclear strategy and U.S. nuclear posture has been long overdue.

JOHN YANG: Matthew Kroenig, when you say the United States shouldn’t be reducing its arsenal, but isn’t that what’s called for under an existing treaty with Russia?

MATTHEW KROENIG: Well, the existing treaty with Russia, the new START treaty was signed in 2011. According to the treaty, both countries can have 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Right now, the United States is actually well under 200 or so warheads under. The Russians are 250 warheads above.

So, there is a gap of about 400 warheads that’s worrying in and of itself, and it raises questions about Russia — whether Russia actually intends to follow through on this agreement or not. So, this is one of the measures that a new president can take to strengthen America’s nuclear arsenal to increase the size of the arsenal, at least to the limits allowed for under new START.

JOHN YANG: You’re shaking your head.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, that’s because he’s playing with numbers. Yes, it’s true, we both have about 7,000 warheads in our total inventory and the ones that the treaty counts, you know, we’re a couple hundred under. But we have more launchers, more missiles, more delivery vehicles. We’re a couple hundred over where the Russians are.

But at these levels, those numbers don’t matter. We both have enough weapons to destroy the world several times over. We don’t need to expand this.

And here’s the real problem, when the two big guys, the people with 95 percent of the world’s arsenals, U.S. and Russia together have 95 percent of all the weapons in the world, when we say we need more, what is China to think? They have about 200. Do they start building more? How about India and Pakistan?

And that’s the big worry that you have here is this ill-considered tweet could launch a global arms race. Twitter is fine for criticizing Alec Baldwin, but don’t use it to make U.S. policy. Mr. Trump, step away from the Twitter.

JOHN YANG: Go ahead.

MATTHEW KROENIG: Three thoughts on that. One, there’s a 400 warhead difference, I do disagree, I do think that matters. And even if we don’t think it matters, the Russians pay close attention to nuclear weapons. They rely more on nuclear weapons in their strategy. And so, I think they think this difference matters and they say, see, this U.S. failure to respond to some of their actions as sign of weakness.

And in terms of this idea that if we reduce our arsenal, somehow China and other countries are going to come along, that was the position that really underline the Obama administration nuclear strategy and we’ve seen that it hasn’t worked, as the United States reduced its arsenal, other countries have gone in the other directions.

So, I don’t see this as the United States starting an arms race. Quite the contrary, it’s really responding to what’s going on in these other countries. And I think a failure to respond is what would be really dangerous. I think it would incentivize further nuclear aggression.

JOHN YANG: And, Mr. Cirincione, even if this is a continuation of the Obama policy to modernize the arsenal, you think that even the Obama policy is a bad idea? Is that what I take from what you said?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Absolutely. The very first thing General Mattis is going to find out when he takes over as secretary of defense is we don’t have the money to pay for the programs that are on the books. For example, if the Navy goes ahead and builds a whole new fleet of ballistic missile submarines in the next decade, it has to cut its conventional navy by 50 percent. Who would make that kind of choice?

So, these are some of the considerations that will face the new administration. And here’s the upside of this — let’s say this is all about negotiating leverage, this is Mr. Trump opening up closed issues, looking for bargaining in ahead of his meeting with Vladimir Putin, which will probably occur in the beginning of next year. Well, here’s where he could cash in, he should take a page from Ronald Reagan, and negotiate with Putin, deep cuts in both sides’ nuclear forces, get rid of these unnecessary weapons we don’t need, save hundreds of billions of dollars to use for conventional forces, and really make a name for himself.

This could be the deal of a lifetime. This would put him in the history books and then we won’t be talking about these silly tweets.

JOHN YANG: Matthew Kroenig, what about that? He’s a dealmaker, he’s businessman and he talks about trying to keep his negotiating opponents off balance and that sort of thing. Can we learn anything or take anything from this about what kind of foreign policy President Trump will be?

MATTHEW KROENIG: Well, two points. First to Joe, first on the modernization. Joe has thought a lot about these issues, but he is outside the mainstream. There is a bipartisan consensus that the United States needs to modernize the arsenal. This was Obama administration’s policy. It has support from Republicans and that should go ahead under Trump.

Joe also raised the issue of cost. But the cost of these modernization programs, you mentioned $1 trillion over 30 years, but that comes to about 5 percent of the U.S. defense budget.

So, current Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has said this is the bedrock of our security. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said it’s the most important mission of the Department of Defense. So, I don’t think anybody thinks 5 percent is too much for the most important mission of the Department of Defense.

On your question, what does this signal about Trump’s foreign policy? It’s difficult to know whether this means a change in U.S. nuclear policy or not. All we have to go on is a tweet and a couple of tweets and a couple of statements. It may mean just continuing Obama’s policy of modernization. But I am hopeful that it means strengthening the arsenal because I do think there are some things the United States can do within its international obligations to strengthen deterrence.

JOHN YANG: I’m sorry, I’m afraid we have to leave there. Matthew Kroenig and Joe Cirincione, thanks for joining us.