Despite efforts from inside and outside of the Republican Party, attempts to prevent Donald Trump from becoming the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee have come to naught. After the Indiana primary, with 1,053 out of a required 1,237 delegates and the suspension of his rivals’ campaigns, Trump’s path to the nomination is now unimpeded. Should the GOP unify and rally behind him? Or is it time for Republicans to consider opposing Trump, putting country before party? As of the end of April, many in the GOP, including Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, were on record as stating that a Trump presidency would be a dangerous proposition.
Trump is well-known for his controversial remarks: about forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall, Mexicans being drug-dealers, killers, and rapists, banning Muslims from travelling to the United States, and advocating torture and the summary execution of terrorists’ families, not to mention a litany of misogynist remarks. Yet none of this has prevented the property-tycoon-turned-reality-TV-personality from becoming the GOP’s presumptive nominee. America’s image abroad has been tarnished; the British Parliament even debated banning Trump from the U.K. on account of his inflammatory and racist remarks. Domestically, however, it cannot be denied that there exists a disenfranchised base for whom Trump’s simplistic messages resonate. But this depressing populism is not a reason to dismiss American democracy. Now is the time for Republicans and Democrats alike to take a harder look at Trump’s statements and seriously consider whether he is actually fit to serve.
All of Trump’s many hyperbolic and factually incorrect assertions are of little consequence compared to issues of national and global security. In particular, Trump argues that the United States should encourage Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons capabilities to stand up to the “maniac” regime of North Korea. This suggestion, if implemented, effectively consigns the most important non-proliferation endeavor of our time, the 190-nation 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to the dustbin of history.
This shallow, alarming, and troubling suggestion, putting populism above statesmanship, has profound implications for the world. It is true that domestic conditions in Japan and South Korea alike would not permit the development of nuclear weapons. In Japan, for example, many remaining survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings continue to passionately advocate for a nuclear-free world. The nuclear plant failures following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami have further fortified Japan’s innate allergic reaction to all things nuclear. Rather than making the region more secure, a nuclear Japan would incense China and possibly ignite a nuclear arms race across the Pacific region. While a nuclear Japanese state remains unthinkable, the mere discussion of such a scenario by a presumptive presidential candidate makes the world a more dangerous place, and implicitly green-lights an option for other non-nuclear states to become nuclear.
Trump has also committed to tearing up the recently signed P5+1 Iranian nuclear deal. While arguably an imperfect agreement, it was seen by the Obama administration as the best deal that could reasonably be achieved given the prevailing circumstances and, moreover, the most effective way to prevent nuclear proliferation across the Middle East. Were this agreement to be annulled, as Trump advocates, it would likely propel Iran toward the full development of functional nuclear weapons. Such an outcome would, in turn, pressure Saudi Arabia to respond in kind, again potentially instigating a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.
Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks in terms of nuclear security and his laissez faire approach to proliferation are, quite frankly, terrifying and stand in contrast to longstanding American bi-partisan efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons dating back to President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech.
Eisenhower’s initiative was followed by President Kennedy’s signature of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), paving the way for the NPT of 1968. In turn, President Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in 1972, the latter agreement being pivotal as the first to put a numerical limit on the number of nuclear warheads that the United States could deploy.
SALT II was signed in 1979 by President Carter, itself significant as the first treaty to mandate a reduction in the number of nuclear warheads that could be deployed. President Reagan, in 1987, signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Agreement, the first agreement ever to completely outlaw an entire class of nuclear weapons.
The 1991 and 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START/START II) and the 2010 New START (fully ratified in 2011 under President Obama) have continued the steady and successful path of denuclearization. The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has, with the exception of the few and sporadic tests by the non-signatory states of India and Pakistan, and North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT in 2003, effectively ended nuclear weapons testing.
While nuclear weapons remain with us, the key point is that much non-proliferation and disarmament progress has been made. In May 2010, for the first time ever, the United States made public details of its nuclear weapons stockpile, declaring a total of 5,113 warheads. This represented an 84 percent reduction compared to the 31,255 warhead stockpile of 1967. In the words of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “For those who doubt the United States will do its part on disarmament, this is our record, these are our commitments … And they send a clear, unmistakable message.” Regrettably, Trump is now sending a message in stark contrast to Secretary Clinton’s 2010 statement.
Not since Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate of 1964 who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent President Johnson, has such an irresponsible U.S. presidential candidate emerged. Goldwater, who argued for the tactical use of nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War to defoliate the jungle, and questioned the special status attributed to nuclear weapons, ran with the campaign slogan “In your heart you know he’s right.” That was countered by Democrats who retorted, “In your heart you know he might [use nuclear weapons].”
With the rise of Donald Trump, the GOP once again faces a Goldwater moment and the American people face a critical choice. Goldwater lost in 1964 by a landslide, carrying a mere six states. Hopefully, such collective common sense will prevail in 2016, and the prospect of a Trump presidency, with all its attendant national and global security threats, will be averted.
Yukari Easton is an ACE-Nikaido Fellow at the East Asian Studies Center at University of Southern California whose research focus is upon international relations, diplomacy and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Previously, she worked for ten years in international banking in Europe and Asia.