Presidential Elections and US Nuclear Policy

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By 2016-11-04

By Manpreet Sethi

When the second largest democracy and the most powerful country of the world begins the process of choosing a new leader for itself, it is automatically a matter of global concern. Obviously then, for the last year or so, the twists and turns in the complicated US presidential elections have been on the watch of every government and international analyst across the world. It is now only a matter of weeks before the new occupant of the White House will be decided between Senator Hillary Clinton and billionaire business tycoon Donald Trump. However, neither of them has particularly impressed, nor emerged as a discerning student of nuclear issues.

Given that the US holds a formidable nuclear arsenal that can destroy the Earth several times over, it is normally expected of US presidential candidates to display a reasonably sophisticated understanding of relevant issues. It should, at the least, be enough to inspire confidence in their capability to be stable and able commanders of thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles. In the 2016 presidential race, however, it is disconcerting that a group of US Air Force Officers in the nuclear command and control structures have signed an open letter expressing reservation on the idea of entrusting nuclear launch codes to Donald Trump. Even more distressing is the fact that the letter does not repose faith in the other candidate either!

Meanwhile, at a more tangible level, the stance of the two candidates on significant nuclear issues is peppered with vague articulations and evasive statements to even direct questions posed to them at various instances. Of course, nuclear matters are complex and one cannot expect a deep understanding of all dimensions. But what has emerged so far has not been very reassuring on whether and how the incoming President would seek to address the many complicated issues that he/she would inevitably confront on the contemporary nuclear landscape.

N Korea's nuclear behaviour

Amongst the early contenders for attention would be North Korea's nuclear behaviour. Both candidates seem to believe that China holds the key to the problem and that it could/would be pressurized to use its leverages with Pyongyang to get Kim Jong-un to mend his ways. However, it is not clear what leverages the US itself has over China, and even more importantly, as to why Beijing should be inclined to do US bidding when it enjoys the benefits of North Korean heckling of its largest rival. Trump has expressed readiness to directly engage with Kim and that might be a direction worth exploring. Hopefully, he would realize the folly of his other idea of finding a solution to the problem through further nuclear proliferation into US allies in the region. Clinton, meanwhile, is likely to continue with more or less the same approach as that of the Obama administration – more sanctions and international consensus building on dealing with the delinquent State – the limits of which have long been upon us.

Another nuclear issue on which Trump and Clinton have diametrically opposite views is on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluded with Iran in 2015 and which began being implemented earlier this year. The Republicans have been strident critics of the agreement. Trump and his running mate have mentioned their intention to "rip up the Iran deal" and re-open negotiations to extract greater concessions from Tehran. It is quite likely though that he would end up unravelling the fragile arrangement currently in place. Clinton, meanwhile, has been a supporter of the agreement and is likely to continue with implementation of the agreement while keeping a close watch on Iran's nuclear and missile activities.

On nuclear security, Clinton has clearly rated the threat of nuclear terrorism as an urgent priority and expressed the desire to find ways of getting nations to secure their nuclear material since Obama wound down his Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) initiative in March 2016. She has been candid in expressing great concern over the threat of a jihadist takeover of the Pakistani Government, thereby gaining control over the country's nuclear weapons and posing a danger to international security. Trump too has rated the threat of access by non-state actors to nuclear material high on his list of nuclear priorities, but has not articulated any roadmap to address the issue. It can be expected that the next US President will keep his/her focus on the issue.

Nuclear modernization

The outgoing administration of President Obama has set into motion a very expensive process of nuclear modernization. A trillion dollars have been pledged towards making the 'ageing' US nuclear warheads and delivery systems safe, secure and reliable. This includes investing in systems such as nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which have been criticized for their adverse impact on strategic stability. Acknowledging this, Clinton has, in some of her pronouncements on the subject, expressed a willingness to re-look at the decision for its wider implications on triggering a new arms race and vitiating nuclear stability. Having been part of arms control negotiations with the Russians on the New Start treaty as Secretary of State, Clinton can be expected to have been sensitized on strategic stability issues. Trump, however, is likely to hold a more puritan Republican line on this subject setting into motion an action-reaction cycle with other near nuclear peers.

There is no doubt that the manner in which these four issues are handled would have direct and indirect implications for India. Stemming further proliferation, enhancing nuclear security, as well as steps towards nuclear modernization that add salience to nuclear weapons and compel the country to respond with measures to redress its own deterrence, are all consequential matters. It can be largely expected however, that the next US administration, irrespective of who heads it, will continue to honour India's nuclear accommodation into the non-proliferation regime. As a nuclear technology proficient nation with a large nuclear energy market potential, and as a nuclear armed nation with a reasonably modest arsenal, India is too large to be ignored by any US President. By now, New Delhi has the experience of dealing successfully with both Republican and Democrat Presidents and it must continue to develop this relationship further on basis of common nuclear interests and concerns.

Meanwhile, it needs to be highlighted that irrespective of the personal predilections of US Presidents, the administration has a tendency to mould him/her into positions that are largely acceptable and conventional. Fortunately or unfortunately, the system does not allow its Presidents to stray too far. President Obama started his White House journey with an inspiring and radical speech at Prague that described a new nuclear agenda for the US. But myriad vested interests and lobbies at work constantly tugged at his coattails to bring him back into line with traditionalist positions. It is indeed ironical that the President who put the weight of his personal conviction behind a nuclear weapons free world is leaving office having approved a major modernization of the country's nuclear weapons.

The next few weeks are going to be extremely interesting and it is certain that Trump and Clinton will be monitored incessantly. In fact, every time they utter the word nuclear, it will be scrutinized for its national and international implications. And, once one of them is the President of the US, their nuclear pronouncements will hopefully acquire greater depth and maturity. The world cannot afford anything less.

(Manpreet Sethi is a Senior Fellow and Project Leader, Nuclear Security, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi)

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