Questions are swirling about whether President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE will follow through on suggestions during the campaign that he might allow other countries to develop nuclear weapons.
His comments on the nuclear issue have created unease among world leaders, many of whom fear a new global arms race could be triggered by a change in U.S. policy.
“Nobody likes uncertainty, and the U.S. has been a champion of nonproliferation for decades,” said James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University. “To have a candidate during the campaign suggest that it’s fine — and also suggesting with more than a hint that the U.S. didn’t necessarily view traditional alliance obligations the same way — is unprecedented. So it creates uncertainty.”
At various points during the campaign, Trump said that if Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia had nuclear weapons, he’s “not sure that would be a bad thing for us.” He said that those countries might be better off with nuclear weapons, adding that he’s “prepared to” let them become nuclear powers if they don’t pay more for U.S. protection.
But in sometimes the same breath, Trump has said he “hate[s] nuclear more than any” and that the “biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation.”
The seemingly conflicting remarks have created uncertainty about where he stands on the issue.
Allowing other countries to develop nuclear weapons would reverse decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy, which has focused on providing a so-called “nuclear umbrella” to non-nuclear allied countries.
Trump took an apparent step Thursday to reassure foreign leaders rattled by his comments with his first in-person meeting with a world leader, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Speaking after the meeting, Abe would not disclose specific subjects addressed. But he appeared reassured by what he heard.
“The talks made me feel sure that we can build a relationship of trust,” Abe said.
In general, world leaders have been calling on Trump to clarify his campaign remarks on a host of foreign policy matters, from nonproliferation to Russian aggression to the fight against terrorism to climate change agreements.
“This American election opens a period of uncertainty," French President Francois Hollande said last week.
In South Korea, Trump’s surprise win prompted emergency meetings of the country’s National Security Council and Defense Ministry to discuss the future of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said she received assurances from Trump that he would maintain existing alliance agreements in a phone call after the election, according to a statement from Park’s office last week.
Trump could go a long way to alleviating global anxiety if he publicly and clearly stated he does not support other countries developing nuclear weapons, Goldgeier said.
“He needs to start saying it,” Goldgeier said. “It’d be nice if he could start reassuring, but that hasn’t really been the theme since last Tuesday.”
South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia are all parties to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they would have to withdraw from it or violate their treaty commitments to develop nuclear weapons.
Experts say Japan is unlikely to pursue a nuclear weapon because of its history as the only country to have ever been attacked with a nuclear bomb.
But hawks in South Korea who want their country to have its own nuclear weapons have been empowered by Trump’s win.
"If such visions of Trump are actually made true, South Korea will face major changes in the security environment that cannot be ignored," Won Yoo-chul, a senior South Korean parliamentarian, said last week, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap.
Won previously said in February that his country “cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor whenever it rains.”
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has reportedly sought to buy nuclear weapons in the past to counter Iran, though Saudi officials have denied those reports.
Nonproliferation advocates are hopeful Trump’s campaign talk was just talk.
Tom Collina, director of policy at nonproliferation group Ploughshare Fund, said the foundation’s recently released recommendations for Trump didn’t bother mentioning his campaign comments because the group doesn’t think he was sincere.
“We didn’t even address it because we don’t take it seriously,” he said. “We don’t think he’s going to go there.”
Trump’s Cabinet appointments could go a long way toward shaping his nuclear policy, Collina added. Until then, he said, people are in wait-and-see mode and “reading tea leaves.”
Trump has made two national security appointments so far: Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) as CIA director.
Pompeo made a name for himself in part as a staunch opponent of the Iran nuclear deal. Flynn also opposes that deal.
When asked in July if Trump was encouraging a nuclear arms race by saying Japan and Saudi Arabia can become nuclear powers, Flynn said he was educating Trump on world history.
“The threat of nuclear warfare is very, very low,” Flynn said in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel. “Trump is no fool, and he sees the world as a globalized world. In the conversation we're having right now, we're talking about historical aspects of regions of the world, so sort of world history.”