“Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action, and we have trusted only to rhetoric. If we are really to be a great nation, we must not merely talk; we must act big.”  

Theodore Roosevelt

2016 has been a year marked by upheaval and radical change in every sphere – and not much of it is positive. With the deteriorating relationship between the US and Russia over the past year, the global nuclear order was facing its greatest challenge since the end of the Cold War. That is, until November 9th 2016 and the historic US elections that, come January, will have placed Mr Trump in the Oval Office, and with it marked the end of Pax Americana as we have understood it. 

If the President-elect’s campaign promises are to be considered any roadmap for his policies, with the inauguration of this new US administration, the world will be ushering in a new, unprecedented era of nuclear uncertainty. While ‘unpredictability’ – a defining characteristic of the ‘Trump philosophy’ – may have won him the White House, it is fast becoming the single most worrisome feature of his tenure for all that had hailed Obama’s global zero agenda and looked towards the US to lead the way towards it. 

Predicting Trump’s policies on nuclear issues will undoubtedly determine how the new international security order will pan out in the coming years. Several experts, including Mr Krepon have argued that the future will be almost entirely dependent on the people appointed as Trump’s advisors - the ones he ‘chooses to listen to’. But to whatever extent Trump shifts US policies will also be dependent on the ground realities he is inheriting. As such, in order to determine the future, one must first ascertain where it is we actually stand right now. 

In the context of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, President Barack Obama’s Global Zero Agenda, announced in April 2009, is particularly important. The rhetoric behind the former President’s Prague address was ‘a world without nuclear weapons’. And the idea itself was a beautiful one: joint efforts to curb nuclear proliferation, the threat of nuclear terrorism, and measures to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. He spoke “clearly and with conviction, [of] America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” by pledging to take “concrete steps” like a complete ban on nuclear testing, prohibitions on further production of fissile material, effective measures to halt proliferation, diplomatic resolution of the Iran and DPRK nuclear issues, with the aim of re-engaging them into non-proliferation regimes as well as any other necessary measures. 

Eight years on, and with some exceptions, the Prague Agenda has become something of a “political mirage”. While pushing nations like Pakistan and India to practice restraint, the US continued to emphasise the importance of its nuclear arsenal for its national security. New declassified data by the Pentagon (analysed by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) shows that in 2015, the US dismantled only 109 retired warheads – the lowest recorded number since 1970. Simultaneously, the Obama Administration also pushed for a fund of a trillion dollars for the upgradation and modernisation of nuclear weapons over the next three decades. This included funds for a new class of nuclear capable ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines, new stealth bomber, upgrades to the current stock of nuclear weapons, a new cruise missile project, and billions of dollars of other programs. The US Navy seeks to introduce 12 new nuclear submarines, estimated at USD 100 billion, and the Airforce bombers – while no official figures have been released - are estimated at approximately USD 55 billion. The rhetoric by the leader of the free world is further frayed by the fact that between 700-800 nuclear missiles remained on hair-trigger alert during his tenure, ready for launch in seconds. This is particularly disturbing since in the past, US early warning systems have been known to send incorrect alerts of nuclear attack due to technical glitches. 

The CTBT bill has been another key item on the agenda, but has failed to pass neither from the US Congress, nor the several other key nuclear states. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review stated that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on US and allied soil, in contradiction of the American ‘First Use’ policy. The Prague agenda also raised questions of whether the US 180 B61 tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe would be removed, but instead we have seen programs for upgradation, to make them ‘useable’.

The rhetoric of Prague was followed by the rhetoric of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) initiative, aimed at securing nuclear-related material and technology. Given the exacerbating ground realities however, consensus continued to elude the NSS. In the final summit, Russia did not even participate, while other relevant players – Iran and North Korea – were deliberately kept outside the process, placing a question on the importance and authenticity of the NSS. 

Similarly, progress on the Conference on Disarmament (CD) remains dormant due to the discriminatory policies of major powers toward smaller states. This has particularly damaged strategic stability in South Asia, where unilateral deals with India – a non-NPT strategic partner of the US – have undermined the non-proliferation regime, and enhanced the possibility of an arms race in the region. This includes deals like the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement, inclusion into the MTCR and now a push for unilateral Indian membership of the NSG, as well as significant assistance on ballistic missile defense systems and anti-satellite technology. Ironic, considering Obama’s remarks in Prague: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.”

It has also resulted in a lack of development on the issue of FMCT and other important agendas of CD, such as Negative Security Assurances, Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) and Nuclear Disarmament. The DPRK alone has conducted four nuclear tests since Obama’s Prague speech. 

The discrepancy between rhetoric and reality is a consequence of ignoring the simplest of premises, i.e. security is a prerequisite to disarmament. Essentially, when ground realities are ignored and unilateral, dual policies enacted, rhetoric remains just that, and sustainable peace cannot be achieved. Under the Obama Administration, convenient commercial interests have trumped international regulatory regimes. Such is the legacy that will be inherited by the Trump Administration, and this fact must be remembered when considering the options the new President will have and the choices he may like to make.  The onus now lies on us to ensure that this Administration understands our perspective and realities, so that hypocritical practices are discarded to pave the way for a more stable nuclear world order.