With nuclear weapons threats across the world, the greatest challenge facing President Trump is avoiding nuclear devastation
Siegfried Hecker, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory In this series, FSI experts share their recommendations for President Trump. Only the president has the power to launch U.S nuclear weapons. He may have to decide quickly about whether or not to use them, and not be able to call for advice, so he must have a fundamental grasp of the awesome power and consequences of things nuclear.
In fact, the greatest challenge facing President Trump is averting the use of U.S. nuclear weapons. The end of the Cold War greatly diminished the prospect of a nuclear Armageddon, but may have increased the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used somewhere in the world. Here's how I rank today's specific nuclear threats:
1. North Korea
2. Nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India
3. Nuclear confrontation between Russia and the United States
Iran is not on the list because the nuclear deal has reduced the nuclear threat for now. China is not listed because China continues to keep its nuclear weapons as a very last resort.
The first pressing issue for Trump is the nuclear crisis in North Korea, where he will need to break with the failed policies of previous administrations. Over the past 12 years, North Korea has amassed an arsenal of possibly 20 to 25 nuclear weapons. Pyongyang can likely reach all of South Korea, Japan and possibly some U.S. assets in the Pacific with nuclear-tipped missiles. The nuclear weapons crisis is already here; we don't need to wait for missiles that can reach the continental United States. The arsenal is in the hands of a young leader about whom we know little and who controls a military about which we know just as little. Moreover, actions by Washington have terminated communications with Pyongyang just when we need to better understand what it might do or expect to gain from its arsenal. It's time for the new administration to talk, and to listen, directly to Pyongyang.
Trump faces a different type of challenge in the case of India and Pakistan. The two countries have continued to expand the size and sophistication of their nuclear arsenals since they declared themselves nuclear states with nuclear tests in 1998. Washington's decision to drop sanctions and strike a special civilian nuclear deal with India has greatly exacerbated Pakistan's fears of its much larger and stronger neighbor. Pakistan has instituted full-spectrum nuclear deterrence, which includes tactical nuclear weapons, thus greatly increasing security and safety risks in South Asia. The incoming president must find a way to have both India and Pakistan exercise restraint with their nuclear arsenals.
Perhaps the highest profile situation that Trump needs to manage is the relationship between Russia and the United States, which is currently at a 30-year low. The differences over Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria can create flashpoints with unpredictable consequences. President Putin has re-emphasized the role of nuclear weapons in Russia's security and has suspended or terminated most nuclear cooperation with the United States. President Trump has called for a greatly expanded American arsenal.
Nevertheless, it may be possible for the two to parlay their apparently good relations to work together to avoid nuclear confrontation and combat global nuclear dangers. The first order of business must be to develop mutually agreed conditions to ensure strategic stability and avoid a new nuclear arms race. Then, he must try to re-establish cooperation with Russia to confront the dangers of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Keeping nuclear weapons and nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists requires international cooperation that must be jointly led by the two presidents.
Likewise, response to the detonation of an improvised nuclear device or to an attack with a radiological weapon ? a so-called "dirty bomb" ? also requires close collaboration. The president must provide a steady hand and global leadership to manage these nuclear dangers. Given that there is a terrorist wildcard among the mix of nuclear dangers, it's all the more important to build a global coalition to combat these dangers.