by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC
THE UNPREDICTABILITY of American foreign policy under Donald Trump seems to be summed up in a nutshell with recent Tweets by Trump suggesting that America will turn towards stockpiling nuclear arms, a la the Cold War, never mind the potential for disaster.
The irony of Trump’s Tweet, stating that “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” is that Trump more or less suggests the fundamental irrationality of stockpiling nuclear weapons, but that America must frighten the world into backing away from nuclear weapons by taking on such through setting a negative example for the world. This would be the Trump presidency’s effect on the world in microcosm, perhaps, with much of the world taking this as a sign of America’s descent into insanity.
Much remains to be clarified about Trump’s Tweets. For one, it is to be questioned whether Trump alone can steer the American military towards renewed policies of nuclear armament, seeing as he is only one individual. However, we do well to remember that the strong reactions by governments around the world to Tweets by Trump are illustrative of how Trump’s Tweets have real-world effects on international relations.
Still others have raised the possibility that Vladimir Putin, who made similar statements about nuclear armament by Russia around the same time, may have influenced Trump. It is also to be remembered that plans for a new nuclear program began under Obama. Otherwise, it is also wholly possible that this is the logical product of that many of Trump’s foreign policy appointees are war hawks. As with many of Trump’s actions, it is a matter of guesswork as his motivations, and Trump’s Tweets about nuclear stockpiling are no exception.
Nevertheless, Trump has indicated several times during election campaigning that he would not be opposed to Japan or South Korea arming themselves with nuclear weapons. This was with the claim that the US should withdraw its troops from costly bases from the Asia Pacific and allow Asia Pacific countries to arm themselves with nuclear weaponry instead.
This could prove destabilizing of the region, seeing as having multiple nuclear powers in the Asia Pacific raises the stakes of potential conflict which may break out in the region. Indeed, the absurdity of how much of international geopolitics is conducted is evident in the fact that nations can stockpile conventional munitions capable of causing the same amount of destruction as nuclear weapons many times over without repercussion. However, having nuclear weapons seems to completely change the estimation of the strength of any country which has them. As such, the United States has put a halt on the nuclear programs of Asia Pacific countries in the past, including Taiwan, seeing this as detrimental to regional security, or perhaps undermining of its regional hegemony. Obviously, the sovereignty of Asia Pacific nations is never a concern of the United States.
With Trump seeming to walk back campaign promises that he would withdraw American troops from Asia Pacific nations after discussions with Asia Pacific leaders such as Shinzo Abe, Park Geun-hye, and Tsai Ing-Wen, it remains opaque as to whether Trump will in fact go through with promises to conduct an American troop withdrawal in the Asia Pacific. Such an action might be opposed by the leaders of countries with American bases in them, including Abe or Park, seeing as American bases in Japan and South Korea ward off Chinese incursion.
Nevertheless, a compromise measure would seem to be withdrawing American troops, but unbridling the Japanese and South Korean militaries to allow them to behave in a more assertive manner in the region, filling the void left by American power in the region. This would fit quite well with Shinzo Abe’s push to remilitarize Japan. But could this include even allowing Japan, South Korea—or even Taiwan—to develop nuclear weapons?
Certainly, allowing Japan or South Korea to possess nuclear weapons would already be incredibly provocative of China, and allowing Taiwan to possess nuclear weapons would almost certainly push China over the edge. Where Taiwan is concerned, Donald Trump has illustrated that he does not necessarily think of Taiwan differently from other Asia Pacific allies of the United States, such as Japan or South Korea, something quite possibly a product of his failure to grasp the intricacies of geopolitical relations in the Asia Pacific. Nevertheless, Trump may generally tend towards brinksmanship with regard to China, including on the matter of nuclear weapons.
So, while anything might be possible with Donald Trump, given his frequent flip-flops in policy statements, it could be that Trump’s Tweets about nuclear proliferation are not simply off-the-cuff statements of his but are indicative of broader tendencies in his thinking about foreign policy. The possibility of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Asia Pacific is a dangerous one and so will see what happens going forward.