Last week, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, a group that works to promote nuclear disarmament around the world.
Berit Reiss-Andersen of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said during the announcement that the group had been successful in "engaging people in the world who are scared of the fact that they are supposed to be protected by atomic weapons." But the award was not just for work already done: Reiss-Andersen said the prize was intended to be a "great encouragement" for ICAN and groups like it.
A story published by NBC News on Wednesday showed just how necessary that encouragement may be.
Officials told NBC that President Trump, during a July meeting about worldwide U.S. military operations, was shown a picture of how the country's nuclear weapons stockpile has declined since the 1960s. Trump then allegedly suggested he wanted a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal to return it to its highest point of over 30,000 weapons. Other officials in the room were taken aback by Trump's comments, according to NBC, and the meeting allegedly prompted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's now-infamous labeling of Trump as a "moron."
The president quickly denied making the request, calling it "pure fiction, made up to demean." But Trump's stance on nuclear weapons has long been murky.
On one hand, Trump has long recognized the threat of nuclear annihilation. In the 1980s, he worried about Libya and other rogue nations obtaining nuclear weapons, and even told The Post in 1984 that he wanted to help negotiate nuclear treaties with the Soviet Union. Just last year, he called nuclear proliferation "the single biggest problem we have."
Yet he's also said that the United States "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability," allegedly asked advisers why he couldn't use nuclear weapons and seemingly suggested that other nations should consider having their own nuclear weapons. Worryingly, those other nations seem to have noticed.
Writing for The Post this week, former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan suggested it was now only a matter of time before South Korea and Japan developed their own nuclear weapons in response to the growing threat posed by North Korea's rapidly advancing nuclear program. "A six-way balance of mutually assured destruction — among the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea — will eventually be established in Northeast Asia," Kausikan argued.
At present, there appears to be little political will in either Seoul or Tokyo for this option. But polls show widespread public support for nuclear weaponsamong South Koreans, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is keen to boost his country's military power. And a future nuclear arms race may not be limited to East Asia. A number of experts have warned that if Trump scraps the Iran deal — and it looks increasingly likely that he will — it may lead to a scramble for nuclear arms in the Middle East.
"What we don't need is for that deal to be scuttled because Iran will then take steps to move in a direction of a nuclear program, and the states in the region will also take into account what they need to do, and it could lead to a nuclear arms race," said John Brennan, then the director of the CIA, during an interview with Circa last year.
The other big nuclear worry is in Russia — already a nuclear giant, with an estimated 7,000 nuclear warheads to the United States' 6,800. Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken recently of the need to "strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces," while Trump reportedly denounced an Obama-era treaty that capped the number of nuclear weapons fielded by the two nations during a Februrary call with Putin. Some people, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, worry that Washington and Moscow may ultimately end up scrapping these agreements.
Much of the blame for this new era of nuclear uncertainty can be laid at the door of the American president. Trump is a man who is clearly fascinated by nuclear weapons and, as Mother Jones' David Corn writes, has frequently made comments that suggest "he believes a nuclear conflict is inevitable and perhaps destined for the near future."
At the same time, though, there are signs that he is spectacularly ignorant of the realities of the same nuclear weapons he obsesses over. Numerous proliferation experts have already chimed in to say that the increase in the number of nuclear warheads that he asked about would not only be counterproductive — it would be impossible.
Of course, not everything can be blamed upon Trump. Ultimately, the world's problems with nuclear proliferation predate him. Neither the United States nor its NATO allies were among the signatories to ICAN's Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Obama administration was in fact a leading voice against this treaty, despite the former president's own hopeful rhetoric about a nuclear-free world.
But Trump is now the man with the nuclear codes, and ICAN's work has now become that much more urgent — a fact the group acknowledged when they spoke to The Post's Michael Birnbaum last week. "We do not have to accept this [risk]," said Beatrice Fihn, the Swedish executive director of ICAN. "We do not have to live with the kind of fear that Donald Trump could start a nuclear war that would destroy all of us. We should not base our security on whether or not his finger is on the trigger."
IN: Washington Post