by Joe Cirincione
It’s said that the only two people Donald Trump does not criticize are Vladimir Putin and Stormy Daniels. You can add Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to that list.
With the prince’s two week trip to the United States coming to a close, Trump remained stone silent after the heir apparent to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced his nuclear plans on American television. “Without a doubt,” MbS told CBS host Norah O’Donnell, “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” Not a single voice of protest was heard from the Trump administration.
For that matter, the rolling shocks of the Trump presidency seem to have dulled the response mechanisms of most of America’s national security establishment. Very few have objected to the prince’s statement that he would break his treaty commitments and go nuclear if his neighbor did. Just so you know: this is not normal.
There is no excuse for any nation under any circumstances getting a nuclear weapon. There is no exception allowed in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Saudi Arabia has signed. There is no Get A Bomb Free Card in international law. U.S. policy for over 72 years has been to oppose any nation from getting the bomb. Period.
On the contrary, U.S. leaders have tried through persuasion and punishment to prevent the spread of these weapons to foes and friends alike. It hasn’t always worked, but each time, Washington tried.
This policy began at the dawn of the nuclear age. In 1946, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, prohibiting nuclear weapons technology transfers to any third party, including the United Kingdom. Even though the UK was a key partner in the Manhattan Project that built the first weapons, President Harry Truman refused to assist the UK when it declared its intent to develop the bomb in the late 1940s. Even after it detonated its first device in 1952, the U.S. restricted British access to U.S. nuclear programs for years, including the development of the H-bomb.
All presidents until now have agreed with John F. Kennedy’s admonition: “The deadly arms race, and the huge resources it absorbs, have too long overshadowed all else we must do. We must prevent the arms race from spreading to new nations, to new nuclear powers and to the reaches of outer space.”
This was not just a policy applied to hostile nations. When Kennedy learned that Israel was secretly trying to build nuclear weapons, he tried to block the program and insisted on U.S. inspections of the Dimona reactor, where Israel was making the fuel for its bombs. President Richard Nixon did the same both before and after Israel got its first weapon in 1968. Could they have done more? Almost certainly. But they never okayed the program.
Similarly, the United States could have done more to stop India and Pakistan’s nuclear programs, but, again, it tried. After India detonated a “peaceful nuclear device” in 1975, there was a fierce debate inside the Ford administration on how harshly the U.S. should denounce the test. As Carnegie Endowment scholar George Perkovich details in his masterful India’s Nuclear Bomb, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger decided that “public scolding would not undo the event, but only add to US-India bilateral problems.” And it would make Kissinger look foolish for having been “generally neglectful of non-proliferation issues.” Congress was much tougher, passing major legislation to strengthen U.S. policies to stop the spread of these weapons, including laws that eventually curtailed aid to Pakistan over that nation’s secret program.
After India tested again in 1998, Pakistan announced it would match any nuclear advances made by India. The United States did not sit idly by and stay silent. President Clinton urged Pakistan, “not to follow the dangerous path India has taken.” The pressure and persuasion failed, but the president did not stand on the sidelines. Again, Washington tried to stop it.
North Korea detonated a nuclear device in 2006, but President George W. Bush did not give South Korea or Japan the green light to develop a nuclear weapon in response. Instead, Bush issued a joint statement with the leaders from Russia, South Korea, and Japan that “reaffirmed our commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
In the 12 years since North Korea went nuclear, no U.S. official has ever said its neighbors should get the bomb in response—until now. As a presidential candidate Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that it was “only a matter of time before other countries get nuclear weapons.” He talked favorably about Japan and South Korea having their own weapons. Most pointedly, when Cooper asked if Saudi Arabia should get nuclear weapons, he responded: “Saudi Arabia, absolutely.”
Saudi Arabia lacks the industrial and technological ability to build a bomb. But it has an expansive Saudi nuclear energy program now underway that could provide the basis for a future bomb program. If there were any doubt as to the intent of that program, Mohammed bin Salman’s naked boast should dispel them.
Until now, Saudi Arabia has been partially restrained by the lack of ability. But it has also known, as Colin Kahl, former national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, argued in Atomic Kingdom, that “pursuing nuclear weapons could lead to a rupture in the vital security relationship with the United States.” The same is true of Pakistan, should that nation be tempted to sell a nuclear weapon to the Saudis.
But what if the United States didn’t care? What if the president actually encouraged such a sale, or endorsed a Saudi atomic program? Would international treaties or opprobrium stop the Saudis? Not likely.
If Trump breaks with seven decades of U.S. policy, it is all the more important for independent experts and elected officials to reaffirm core American beliefs and sound security policies. A Saudi billionaire should not be allowed to go home with the mistaken impression that America approves of his spreading more nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Joe Cirincione is the president of Ploughshares Fund and the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late.