At the end of the Obama administration, a fragile bipartisan consensus had emerged with regard to U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Under the terms of this agreement—memorialized in the U.S. Senate’s resolution to ratify the New START Treaty in 2010—arms control advocates agreed to fund the modernization of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent in exchange for deterrence advocates supporting nuclear arms control. However, in the Trump era, that consensus is fraying. Many arms control advocates are now calling for cancelling key strategic modernization systems like the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) intercontinental ballistic missile. On the other hand, some deterrence advocates are seriously questioning whether that United States should extend New START. Given this increasing polarization, is it possible to maintain the existing consensus on U.S. nuclear weapons policy?
On January 7, 2019, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings hosted a discussion involving experts and former government officials to explore this question. Following their conversation, panelists took audience questions.
Former Principal Deputy Administrator - National Nuclear Security Administration
Nonresident Senior Fellow - The Brookings Institution
Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs - Department of Defense
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Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.