By Kjølv Egeland
Trump, Reagan, and nuclear disarmament
When he enters the White House in January next year, Donald Trump will, by my totally unscientific measurements, become the wackiest US President ever to grace America and the world.
The wackiest US president so far, by the same unscientific measurements, is Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s personal amendments to speech drafts consistently made his team of speechwriters cringe and swear. His media statements were often off the cuff and erratic. The only major initiative he himself ever came up with – to protect the United States by means of a space-based missile defence programme, the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative – was cartoonishly moronic.
Reagan’s 1980 election campaign was one of the most jingoistic and warmongering in recent US history. During his first term in office, Reagan famously vowed to consign the USSR to the ‘ash heap of history’ – a somewhat disturbing turn of phrase given the two countries’ continuous nuclear standoff. Reagan was a ‘straight talking’ anti-establishment candidate, who was never afraid to be politically incorrect.
Sounds a bit like Trump, doesn’t it?
Like Reagan’s, Trump’s campaign was hawkish to an almost comical degree. Trump promised, among other things, to bomb ‘the hell out of ISIS’, to start a trade war with China, and to reintroduce torture as an instrument of US statecraft. The Iran nuclear deal, ha has said, will be ‘ripped up’.
Like Reagan, Trump is politically incorrect, intellectually challenged, and disturbingly unpredictable (but I won’t lie, Trump is clearly worse). Like Trump, Reagan was a bit of a loose cannon. And like Trump, who reportedly badgered security experts to explain to him why the US couldn’t use nuclear weapons, Reagan never ‘got’ the nuclear deterrence orthodoxy. As long as they existed, nuclear weapons could and would be used to devastating effects, Reagan thought.
The comparison doesn’t stop there: Before becoming a politician, Reagan acted in B-films. Trump, for his part, was – among many other things – a reality TV figure. It is tempting to speculate that the two men’s political performances have often been just that – performances. Although the degree of substance behind the two politicians’ various masks can undoubtedly be questioned, their capacities for taking on particular roles cannot be doubted.
Starting off as a typical foreign policy ‘hawk’, Reagan left office as the only nuclear abolitionist to have served as president of the United States. At the Reykjavik summit in 1986, the only thing that came between Reagan and Gorbachev and an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide was Reagan’s pet project, the dim-witted Strategic Defence Initiative. We were this close to disarmament.
Reagan developed great chemistry with Gorbachev. Trump seems to be good chums with Putin.
What I am suggesting, then, is that for all of Trump’s hawkishness and vices, I actually wouldn’t put it past him to do something radical on nuclear disarmament. (I certainly wouldn’t put it past him to use nuclear weapons either.) As Reagan, he is ‘crazy’ enough to propose something that might actually have a qualitative impact. The cautious step-by-step approach to arms control favoured by ‘responsible’ statesmen like Obama, Bush, and Clinton will never deliver genuine disarmament.
It should be said that today’s international situation might pose obstacles to disarmament that weren’t present in 1986. For one thing, Russia is much more reliant on nuclear weapons for its major power status than the Soviet Union was. Without nuclear weapons, Russia is nothing more than a geographically large country with an Italy-sized economy, an ageing population, and serious structural problems.
But you never know. Radical changes are almost never predicted in advance. The financial crash of 2008, the end of the Cold War, and the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire all happened remarkably rapid. So I shall make this prediction: President Donald Trump will set in motion a radical nuclear disarmament process. You heard it here first.
Photo credit: MICHAEL VADON.