Donald Trump and Nuclear Cooperation: the Art of the Deal

csp_blog_16_14_fruhling_oneilThe election of Donald Trump raises questions about nuclear cooperation with allies in Europe and Asia. Reducing the role and prominence of U.S. nuclear weapons in its alliances, however, would remove a major avenue for U.S. influence.

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States heralds a time of volatility, if not crisis, in U.S. alliances worldwide. Trump’s characterisation of America’s NATO allies, Japan, and South Korea as free riders on the military capabilities of the United States points to a more transactional approach to international relationships than we have been used to in the recent past.

Burden-sharing has always been a sensitive issue for the United States and its allies. But what really caught the attention of observers during the election campaign was Trump’s solution to the alleged free riding of Japan and South Korea: If elected President, he would give the green light for Tokyo and Seoul to develop their own nuclear forces rather than them relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This comes after several years in which both allies have sought increasingly detailed and firm understandings with the United States about the functioning of the nuclear umbrella in Northeast Asia.

Reports that at this year’s U.S.-ROK ‘2+2’ meeting South Korean officials requested a semi-permanent presence of U.S. ‘strategic weapons’ on the Korean peninsula confirms a growing concern in Seoul that credible extended deterrence requires forward basing along the lines of NATO. The establishment in October 2016 of the US-ROK Deterrence Strategy Committee–which promotes greater interagency coordination between Seoul and Washington, DC–builds on initiatives taken shortly after the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review to institutionalise nuclear consultation in the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan alliances.

The Obama administration was receptive to demands from Tokyo and Seoul for greater reassurance regarding the nuclear umbrella in spite of the President’s landmark 2009 pledge in Prague to reenergise US nuclear disarmament efforts. But Washington, DC was sure to set clear limits on this consultation: Despite strong preferences in Seoul and Tokyo for the NATO model of the nuclear umbrella, American officials made it clear that consultation arrangements would not replicate detailed NATO nuclear policy planning. Nor would they involve the forward basing of nuclear weapons in Japan or South Korea, at least not yet.

In NATO, notwithstanding the questioning by some ‘older’ European members of the continuing need for nuclear weapons, the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR) of 2012 reaffirmed the Alliance’s commitment to the nuclear umbrella. As Russia’s threatening references to its nuclear capabilities have become more explicit, there are signs that NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group is returning to strategic discussion of a kind it has not had for many years. NATO nuclear exercises are a regular feature of the Alliance’s activities and discussion of nuclear issues has become less abstract and more operational in tone in recent years.

What if anything should the United States expect in return for this extended deterrence cooperation? Posing the question in that manner, as seems to be President Trump’s approach, assumes that extended nuclear deterrence is, or should be a direct and distinct bargain between the United States and its allies. But history shows that this would be very misleading. Nuclear weapons cooperation has been a crucial factor in reinforcing institutional commitment within alliances and achieving consensus on strategic priorities; it promotes alliance cohesion at times when that cohesion is potentially threatened by perceptions of differing strategic priorities among allies. Rather than a bargain in its own right, nuclear weapons cooperation creates the basis of trust and commitment upon which allies are then able to negotiate–and strike–the necessary deals on burden-sharing and alliance strategy.

All the iconic steps by which NATO developed into a genuinely ‘nuclear alliance’–including the reliance on nuclear weapons after the failure of the 1952 Lisbon Summit goals, the development of nuclear sharing in the late 1950s, the creation of the NPG in 1966, and the dual-track decision of 1979–were ultimately taken to promote broader alliance bargains about relative costs and benefits embedded in NATO strategy and posture.

In most of these cases, the need for a new bargain arose because of allies’ concerns about U.S. policies, rather than a changing threat from the adversary. The creation of the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK extended deterrence dialogue forums in 2010-11 also resulted from broader concerns that Washington, DC might be backtracking from the nuclear dimension of its alliance commitments in East Asia, with potentially adverse implications for broader U.S. security assurances.

In Cold War Europe, and more recently in East Asia, consultation on nuclear strategy and posture has been an important means for the United States to influence the choices of its non-nuclear allies. American interests in this regard are far broader than the objective of avoiding further proliferation among allies. In the past, Washington, DC has been able to gain increased emphasis on conventional forces in NATO defence planning when negotiating the new role of nuclear weapons under flexible response, and alleviated allied concerns about concessions to the Soviet Union by pushing for NATO nuclear force modernization.

As U.S. relative strategic weight continues to decline, and as Washington, DC confronts fiscal pressures to curtail defence spending while tensions mount in Europe and Asia, President-elect Trump is right to highlight the need for greater military burden-sharing with allies. Reducing the role and prominence of U.S. nuclear weapons in its alliances, however, would remove a major avenue for U.S. influence.

In the Trump era, the success of future alliance strategy will almost certainly have to rest on greater contributions by U.S. allies. But simply demanding–or expecting–greater contributions is not a strategy itself. Like many Presidents before him, Trump will find that the way Washington, DC approaches extended nuclear deterrence is the real ‘Art of the Deal’ in U.S. alliances.

Stephan Frühling is Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Education) in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Andrew O’Neil is Professor of Political Science and Dean (Research) in the Griffith Business School at Griffith University. They are the authors of “Nuclear weapons, the United States and alliances in Europe and Asia: Toward an institutional perspective”, Contemporary Security Policy, 38, forthcoming. It is available here.