Despite his unpredictability, he is obsessed with Russia, China and nuclear weaponsby David Patrikarakos / January 5, 2017 / Leave a comment
Donald Trump’s been tweeting again. This time the president-elect has responded to North Korea’s announcement that it is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile. If the claim is true Pyongyang would—theoretically—be capable of hitting the mainland United States with a nuclear device.
“North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won’t happen!” Trump tweeted, before going on to criticise China for not doing more to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea is reliant on China for aid in areas from technology to food and Beijing is the only power that can exercise any form of control over its notoriously unstable neighbour.
Nuclear weapons seem something of a preoccupation for Trump. In late December he explicitly said he was ready for a new arms race with Russia, declaring, “let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” He followed up with a tweet, condensing policy into his inimitable 140-character style: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
Such comments broke with decades of diplomatic protocol in which Washington has never openly discussed the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, Trump’s comments were more overt and challenging than almost all of Ronald Reagan’s nuclear rhetoric at the height of the Cold War.
As ever, Trump’s exact position remains unclear. His challenge to Russia came alongside a longstanding policy of cozying up to the country. He has repeatedly expressed his personal admiration for Vladimir Putin and compared him favourably to President Barack Obama. Putin “has been a leader far more than our president has been,” he told an audience of military veterans in New York in September.
Meanwhile, Putin has supported for Trump, culminating in a congratulatory letter on his election victory, in which the Russian expressed hope that a Trump presidency would “bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level.” Ever receptive to praise, Trump declared that his counterpart’s “thoughts are so correct.” He also, however, added an important caveat. “I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path,” he said.
Trump is keeping people guessing—either due to a deliberate policy of ambiguity or as many commentators have declared, an intemperate disposition. The latter may well be true but after winning a year-long election campaign, defeating a score of Republican contenders as well as Hillary Clinton along the way, it is hard to discount everything Trump says and does as mere character flaw.
In August of last year MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough reported that a foreign policy expert who had visited Trump to advise him had found him to be obsessed with the nuclear question. “Three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point if we had them why can’t we use them,” Scarborough told viewers on his “Morning Joe” program.
Trump remains as divisive as ever: a devil to the liberal media and urban professional classes, a saviour to those sick of the status quo and the “elites.” He also remains almost impossible to read, such are the degree of his lies and contradictions. But several themes—the need to “take on” China in trade, an admiration of Putin and finally, a desire to strengthen the US nuclear arsenal, have remained consistent. Each in its own way has the potential to undermine international stability. Taken together, they form a triumvirate that could disrupt the post-Cold War global order in ways previously unimaginable.