Trump Presidency May Not Blow Up the World, Says History

What is it good for?

SourceMichael Dunning/Getty

Why you should care

Because nuclear warheads are scary.

For all the symbolism of the first visit to Hiroshima by an incumbent American president and the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize that applauded his vision for “a world without nuclear weapons,” denuclearization will not be Obama’s legacy. And for all his saber rattling threatening to nuke ISIS and urging allies such as Japan to nuclearize, Trump may slash more global nuclear warheads than Clinton. His work would certainly be cut out for him, since according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute:

There are 15,395 nuclear weapons in the world.

If that sounds like a lot, there were even more just a few years ago. America’s nuclear stockpile declined by 702 — to 4,571 — during the seven years of the Obama presidency, and by 3,182 under Mr. Clinton. There were even greater drops under Republican presidents after the end of the Cold War: 5,304 under the younger Bush and 9,467 under the elder Bush, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons peaked at 31,255 during Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in 1967, and the U.S. has conducted over a thousand nuclear tests to date, according to the Brookings Institution.

Despite his noble goal of nuclear abolishment, Obama has faced resistance at home and abroad. “It has been impossible for Obama to get much of his arms control agenda through,” says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Even the modest new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), he says, “was only approved by the Republican Congress in return for a promise to spend billions on modernizing the remaining arsenal.” Perhaps Obama’s most significant achievement on the nuclear front — the latest round of START signed in 2010 between Russia and the U.S. — renewed the eponymous treaty of 1991 to diminish nukes in tandem.

Even with a favorable Congress, however, Democratic presidents may face a hostile media, which helps explain the disparity between nuke reduction numbers in the Democratic and Republican eras. “There’s a Nixon-in-China dynamic at play here with nuclear reduction,” says Philipp Bleek, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Only a hawkish Republican could have aligned with China during the Cold War, he says. “If a Democrat did that, he’d have been crucified by the media.” Bleek added that Hillary Clinton’s perceived hawkishness may enable her to take more drastic measures on denuclearization.

But maybe looking at the numbers at all is beside the point. During his presidency, tensions across the Pacific, with Russia in Ukraine and China in the South China Sea, have constrained Obama’s push toward nuclear abolition. It may also be that numbers are not the best indicators of nuclear security, as how nukes are postured and deployed are just as critical. “A cynical way to look at this is that we can only destroy ourselves twice instead of 10 times now,” says Bleek. “It’s not clear that drops in the number of nuclear weapons make us safer.”

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