One of the more comforting developments of modern times has been the decline in nuclear-arms stocks and the threat they constitute. Sanity among the superpowers has been evident for three decades – ever since Mikhail Gorbachev took the evil out of his empire and reached arms agreements with Ronald Reagan.
But the run of prudent oversight is drawing to a close. U.S. President Donald Trump, as one magazine headline puts it, is Making America Nuclear Again. Overshadowed by all the sabre-rattling with North Korea are pivotal changes he is bringing to nuclear-weapons policy.
After his call in the State of the Union address to "modernize and rebuild" the nuclear arsenal, his government issued a document titled the Nuclear Posture Review. Rather than continue the emphasis on reaching arms-control agreements to stop the spread, the administration seems bent on reverting to the old way of gaining one-upmanship in nuclear stockpiling. If a new arms race, a new era of brinkmanship and proliferation, ensues, so be it. It's what the man who boasts about having a big nuclear button desires.
At the same time, the Trump administration is also reverting, after years of slowdowns, to big hikes in overall military spending. Though the United States already has an enormous lead over all rivals in defence outlays, it wishes to make it more staggering. A 7-per-cent hike for 2019 is planned.
Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defence in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and who is no dove, once put his country's excess in perspective. "Does the number of warships we have, and are building, really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined – 11 of which are your partners and allies?"
On the nuclear side, prior to Mr. Trump's arrival, an upgrade of the strategic arsenal was already under way. General John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said he was satisfied with the strength of the deterrent. "I'm very comfortable today with the flexibility of our response options." The Trump team doesn't see it that way. The Nuclear Posture Review outlines a long-term US$1.2-trillion plan to redo the nuclear-weapons complex – bombers, submarines, land-based missiles. The plan calls for the development of new nuclear weapons that are low yield and more flexible. The envisaged arsenal will feature useable nukes that are capable of responding to "non-nuclear strategic attacks." With the existing payloads, first usage presents existential Armageddon-styled problems. Not so much with low yield ones. They make limited nuclear war possible. They also spread fear in critics who see a blurring of the lines between nuclear and conventional warfare that could escalate into any number of hellish scenarios.
Mr. Trump tends to view arms agreements in the same framework as trade agreements. As in "We got taken!" His nuclear review says the new buildup is necessary in order to keep up with the Russians, who have been slyly upgrading their nuclear stocks. There are few signs that Mr. Trump wants to go the diplomacy route of previous presidents and negotiate arms reductions with them or the Chinese, who will likely respond in kind to American escalation.
"The new arms race has already begun," former defence secretary William Perry says. "The risk for nuclear conflict today is greater than it was during the Cold War."
Besides it being in Mr. Trump's character to want superiority, other factors are at work. Dwight Eisenhower's warning of a military industrial complex still resonates. Weapons, weapons, weapons mean jobs, jobs, jobs.
Canada's Liberal governments have always sought to temper the ambitions of the big nuclear powers. Pierre Trudeau gained some influence by allying himself with Soviet ambassador Alexander Yakovlev, who became Mr. Gorbachev's right-hand man.
Asked about the Trump turn, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said, "Canada remains strongly committed to a world free of nuclear weapons, and we are taking meaningful, more inclusive, steps to achieve it."
In Washington, the Nuclear Posture Review has been smothered under news of White House hullabaloos on other matters. The media here don't train their resources in a concentrated way on what the Pentagon is doing. Politico provided an exception this past week, reporting that hundreds of millions in Pentagon spending is unaccounted for, there being no paper trail.
That story didn't make any waves. Nor probably will Mr. Trump's nuclear buildup. Americans, as we know, cherish their guns.