Donald Trump's Stance on Nuclear Weapons

Carlos Ezquerro
May 29, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: American land-based launch facility for a Delta-09 missile. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Following Donald Trump's election in November, 2016, many individuals waited expectantly to learn what his nuclear policy would be. After all, North Korea's aggressive nuclear program posed an increasing threat to United States interests at home, and abroad, Russia continued to be a nuclear competitor; meanwhile, nuclear energy in the United States had faced declining support in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. A year and a half into his presidency and following key moments in the nuclear world, it becomes important to look back and reflect upon Mr. Trump's evolving nuclear policy.

Nuclear Weapons and North Korea

While all administrations have formal, written policies and more informal policies that occasionally diverge from those written, Mr. Trump's written policies are disproportionately less important than the policies he speaks or tweets, as they are followed closely by domestic and international players. In this regard, Mr. Trump's actions regarding North Korea provide in interesting insight into his policies regarding nuclear weapons.

In the past, following a North Korean missile test that signified substantial process toward the development of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, Mr. Trump said, among other things, that they would be met with "fire and fury like the world has never seen." Later on, he reiterated that the continuation of North Korean missile testing would have consequences that were "both catastrophic and unacceptable," and later suggested the United States could "totally destroy North Korea." [1] Twitter comments notwithstanding, many observers took these statements as driving the United States and North Korea closer to nuclear war. Many critics suggested Mr. Trump was mentally unfit to serve as President or was deranged. Other observers suggested that it was a more extreme version of the nuclear deterrence that is generally accepted as commonplace. [2] In either case, it is clear that Mr. Trump is willing to use the threat of force - whether credible or not - as a mechanism to combat North Korea's nuclear program.

Recently, Mr. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un agreed to a summit, where the United States and North Korea discuss their priorities and, presumably, attempt to reach an agreement regarding nuclear weapons in North Korea and American troops in the region. Slated for May 2018, this meeting will be the key indicator of what kind of policy Mr. Trump truly embraces. [3]

Nuclear Weapons and Russia

Russia has recently returned to the national conversation about nuclear weapons with information regarding new threats. In his State of the Union Address, Mr. Trump suggested the United States should "modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal." [4] Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has called for an additional $1.2 trillion in spending in order to modernize the nuclear force, including bombers, submarines, and land-based nuclear weapons as show in Fig. 1. [4] Currently, the United States and Russia comprise the vast majority of nuclear weapons in the world, with the United States possessing 6800 warheads, of which 1800 are deployed, and Russia possessing 7000. [5] Given the high number of nuclear weapons between the two countries, there remains an impetus to understand the internal dynamics that influence the potential use of these weapons.

The President's policy is often seen reflected in agency policy, as well. For example the Pentagon's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review suggested the United States increase its nuclear deterrence, a policy of intimidation that has the potential to lead to nuclear competition. [6] Among these, the Pentagon recommended increasing plutonium pits; training conventional forces to fight alongside nuclear ones; and improving the readiness of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe for what had been symbolic reasons. [7] Notably, it also suggested increasing low-yield weapons use, which many critics argue might legitimize the use of nuclear weapons, since they are seen as less destructive than high-yield weapons. It should be noted that low-yield nuclear weapons are still many times more powerful than the largest conventional weapons.

© Carlos Ezquerro. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Hamedy and J. Tseng, "All the Times Trump Has Insulted North Korea," CNN, 9 Mar 18.

[2] D. E. Sanger, "Washington Eyes a Cold War Strategy Against North Korea," New York Times, 30 Nov 17.

[3] N. Gaouette, L. M. Koran, and M. Kosinski, "As US Preps for North Korea Summit, Kim is Silent," CNN, 13 Mar 18.

[4] D. E. Sanger, and W. J. Broad, "To Counter Russia, U.S. Signals Nuclear Arms Are Back in a Big Way," New York Times, 4 Feb 18.

[5] A. Abramson, "How Many Nuclear Weapons Does the U.S. Have?," Time, 9 Aug 17.

[6] K. vanden Heuvel, "The Nuclear Posture Review Signals a New Arms Race," Washington Post, 13 Feb 18

[7] J. Daniels, "Trump's Nuclear Posture Review Shows Greater Willingness to Use Nukes First, Say Critics," CNBC, 2 Feb 18.