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A new nuclear arms race? We hope not

United States President-elect Donald Trump appeared to have started a nuclear arms race when he pronounced, via Twitter, his communication method of choice, that the US “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

He later expanded on this in an interview with a morning news TV program. “Let it be an arms race,” he said. “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

Trump’s statements represented a major shift in US policy on the role of nuclear weapons in defense. The US has an arms control treaty with Russia. For decades, they have followed a policy of reducing their stockpiles of nuclear warheads.

The US stockpile is said to be around 4,500 warheads, of which 1,500 are deployed, that is, aimed and programmed to be fired at target enemy cities and bases around the world. Russia‘s nuclear armaments are said to be nearly identical. The two countries account for 90 percent of the world’s existing nuclear weapons.

The US and Russia have been steadily reducing these nuclear armaments under their treaty. They are due to meet their targets in February, 2018, when they are to agree on further reductions in the next five years. Now all this appears to have been overturned by Trump’s 140-word tweet, described by one nuclear weapons expert as “bizarre, unprecedented, and completely out-of-bounds behavior for a president-elect.”

Trump’s tweet may have been caused by remarks made by Russian President Vladimir Putin at his annual marathon news conference that Russia needs to continue modernizing its armed forces, including nuclear weapons, but that the level of spending should diminish in the coming years. The deployment of NATO missiles in countries around Russia was said to be a sore point for Putin.

It was apparently in reaction to this that Trump tweeted he would expand America’s nuclear capability and the US would “outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

Trump’s own supporters have hastened to downplay his nuclear threat. One said Trump must have meant merely modernizing the US nuclear arsenal. Another spokesman said Trump was just citing the need to improve America’s deterrent capability “as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.”

Trump has been advised to keep his views to himself until he takes his oath as president of the US on January 20, 2017. But this will not stop many world leaders from worrying about the new US president. We can only join in hoping that he was simply speaking about the need for greater US military strength as a way to peace, that he was not really leading the US and the world down the road to a new nuclear arms race with its threat of global annihilation at the most unexpected moment.