Nuclear Nonproliferation in a World of Trump

February 22, 2018 – CSPS Student Fellow Zachary Marks explores nuclear nonproliferation in the Trump era.

By Zachary Marks, February 22, 2018

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has had its shortfalls but has experienced a rather large degree of success in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. There are only nine nuclear weapons states which has stayed constant for twenty-five years. There are a set of robust multilateral export control regimes that limit access to components necessary for the development of weapons. The Nuclear Threat Initiative and other projects have safeguarded “loose” nuclear material in high risk areas such as the former Soviet Union. However, continued success seems increasingly doubtful. North Korea continues to rapidly advance its ballistic missile technology. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has slowed Iran’s nuclear program down, however, Iran could resume its program once the deal ends.

The Trump Administration’s attempt to scrap the JCPOA could have much more of a meaningful impact on nuclear proliferation. President Trump has called the agreement the worst deal ever negotiated. The deal was a multinational effort and the U.S. withdrawing from the deal may make Iran change its decision calculus and decide upon a new course of action. We have also lost most of the leverage we had at the outset of the deal which was the frozen assets that numbered nearly 100 million USD (although this number is in dispute and ranges from 30-100 million). Those assets have been unfrozen as part of the agreement and were our largest bargaining chips. There is no indication that our European, Chinese or Iranian counterparts would want to be part of a renegotiation in the event that we pull out.

In the event that this deal falls apart and countries feel threatened in the Middle East, they will be pushed to a decision on whether or not to nuclearize. Saudi Arabia may fear it is their only course of action to stay safe and relevant in the region. The Saudis have relied on our assurances and military forward projection in the Middle East to contain Iran and make them feel more secure. If the Saudis lose confidence that the U.S. will honor its defense commitments, they may decide to fend for themselves. While Saudi Arabia has always been cognizant of Israel having nuclear weapons (the open secret) and have said they would like to have one to counter that threat, a nuclear Iran could tip them over the brink and ensure they embark on a path towards a nuclear weapon. It is considered a civilian program, and it would take many years and even decades for it to become weapons grade, but Saudi Arabia has begun investing heavily into nuclear infrastructure. This indicates that they may already be on the way to trying to solve this problem themselves.

Dealing with North Korea and Iran are the top priorities for the U.S., but there are other steps that we can take to reduce the likelihood of more nuclearization. We must reduce the incentives for other states to go nuclear. This specifically entails our allies South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. We must bolster our commitments to these allies, reinforce our forward-deployed military presence in the region, and let our allies know that we are there to fight for and with them.

Export controls have been an effective tool curbing proliferation, but these need to be stepped up. Working with China will be key because they are the number one target of illicit procurement networks. They have a comprehensive set of export controls but, these programs lack the resources necessary and China lacks the political will to carry out their task effectively. Increased US-Chinese cooperation will be necessary to solve this.

These solutions seem to not be a part of the Trump Administration’s ‘America First’ strategy. Nuclear proliferation is not mentioned as part of the White House’s foreign policy. President Trump campaigned on the fact that we were giving too much money in foreign aid when it could be better spent domestically. His budget in May of 2017 sought to reduce foreign assistance by thirty-seven percent.  It remains unclear if he will also seek to reduce funding for non-proliferation programs as well.

President Trump seems content to browbeat his adversaries into submission and expects the world to bend to his will. There are avenues available to weather the storm that is the oncoming 21st century threat of proliferation but it seems unlikely that the Trump administration will put its focus into these efforts. It appears the President will continue to abandon Obama era policies and strategies. President Trump will have to work hard to negotiate with China and Russia to get them to do the heavy lifting required for installing a successful worldwide nonproliferation regime, if we are unable or unwilling to fund and lead it. Only time will tell if the master of the deal will be successful.

Zachary Marks is a first year Master’s Degree student in the International Security Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. He is originally from Florida. His research interests include the rise of China, ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, and the changing landscape in the Asia-Pacific region. He hopes to end up in an embassy abroad helping to solve problematic issues with other countries.


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