Every time Donald Trump blurts or tweets a shocker – "maybe it’s the calm before the storm," for instance – questions flood the media.
Is he serious? What did he mean? Yes, of course, but beyond these, larger questions hover half-asked, cutting into the soul of who we are. This is painful, but not necessarily a bad thing. For me, one question that keeps emerging is: What is the relationship between Trump and the military-political system he stepped into?
That is to say, is he furthering its covert agenda (creating the conditions for more war) or, contrarily, exposing it for what it is?
Back in February, for instance, Trump the pugnacious 14-year-old told a Reuters reporter: "I am the first one that would like to see . . . nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power. It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack."
America, America! It’s at the top of the pack, man. Trump puts what’s really going on into the language of the playground, delighting his base (a third of the country) and convulsing pretty much everyone else. Of course, what’s really going on is more than just bully blather. With Trump at the helm, the United States of America, the planet’s premier superpower, is putting the planet, in the words of Republican Sen. Bob Corker, "on the path to World War Three."
We were on that path anyway, just with more dignity and decorum. And more ambivalence. As the U.S. prepared for war it also negotiated peace: in particular, the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump wants to decertify. Most security experts have hailed the agreement as a remarkable achievement, halting Iran’s nuclear weapons development, curtailing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, easing tensions with the U.S. and helping establish an international framework for creating peace.
The foreign policy establishment remains wary of Iran and considers the agreement flawed, but nonetheless crucial. Which Iran, former CIA analyst Paul Pillar asked recently, is most likely to act with destabilizing aggressiveness?
"Is it an Iran," he wrote, "that is being reintegrated into the community of nations, that sees material benefit from negotiating restrictions on itself and then scrupulously observing those restrictions, and sees the opportunity for gaining more respectability and influence as long as it plays by the international community’s rules? Or is it an Iran that is kept isolated and punished, sees any significant agreement that it does negotiate get destroyed or reneged upon by other parties, that is the target of unending confrontation and hostility, and that is treated forever as a pariah? The answer should be obvious."
Creating peace is a complex process – and this, unfortunately, is not always obvious. The point Pillar and others are making in support of the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, is that trying to punish and dominate our enemies tends to create results that are the opposite of what we want, or claim to want.
The idea that enemies are permanent, which is how a segment of the U.S. foreign policy establishment regards Iran, hardens our national commitment to militarism. Listening to countries with whom we are at odds – working with them, finding power in solidarity with them rather than threatening to annihilate them – calls militarism into question.
We live with and build national policy around the compromise between these two ways of being in the world. Thus, even in an agreement as mutually beneficial as the JCPOA, the U.S. maintains a state of assumed dominance: Iran has to stop its nuclear weapons development. But the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the agreement’s other signatories, which include China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom, are not under discussion. The unspoken assumption, it seems, is that some nukes are necessary, and some countries must remain in possession of them.
All of which brings Trump’s "top of the nuclear pack" comment back into the conversation. Dominating the world, especially by possessing the most weapons of mass destruction, is by far the simplest way to understand power, and there are enormous interests in the U.S. that revere – and most importantly, benefit from – the domination outlook. Trump both promotes this agenda and exposes it to the world.
Indeed: ". . . recently we hear (an) alarming announcement by a nuclear-weapon state that it intends to continuously strengthen and expand its nuclear arsenal to ensure its place ‘at the top of the pack.’"
The words are those of Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, speaking at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 26, the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, who warned that the United States – which he referred to as "a certain nuclear-weapon state" – was not only modernizing its nuclear arsenal but developing low-yield, which means, my God, ‘usable’ nuclear weapons, and thus launching a new, global nuclear arms race.
This project, part of a trillion-dollar planned ‘upgrade’ of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, began during the Obama, not the Trump, administration.
But now the world has President Trump, commander-by-impulse and reckless reality-TV host with the power to launch war. He wants to decertify the Iran deal and declare it not to be in the country’s interests. Is he exposing the final phase of an international politics based on military dominance?
Here’s another question he forces us to ask: How is universal nuclear disarmament possible without a nuclear-armed, external force imposing it? This is not just a question to be pondered by the 122 nations that recently voted in favor of the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Those who boycotted the vote hold the answer.