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Commentary | 1 March 2018

What would a Clinton NPR have looked like?

Image of Alexandra Bell

Alexandra Bell |Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation

Arms Control CTBT INF NPT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons United States Global Security

In the summer of 2016, Hillary Clinton cautioned “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with nuclear weapons.” Despite that warning, President Trump is now in control of an enormous nuclear arsenal — an arsenal that, according to his recently-released 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), is not good enough.

The 2018 NPR, steeped in aggressive language, alarmed observers around the world by calling for new nuclear capabilities and expanded scenarios under which the United States would use nuclear weapons. According to its drafters, the harsher nature of the 2018 NPR was unavoidable, due to the deteriorating international security environment.

The drafters are not wrong about the problems. Over the last eight years, Russia has invaded (and continues to occupy) a sovereign nation; developed, tested, and deployed an intermediate-range missile in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; and engaged in needless and provocative nuclear saber-rattling. China has embarked on its own nuclear modernization program and allowed experts to doubt their commitment to a “no first use” policy. And, of course, North Korea’s nuclear program has grown in scope and size, deepening the crisis on the peninsula.

Things are indeed challenging and complicated, so would a hypothetical Hillary Clinton Administration have oriented its NPR any differently? In a word, yes. Based on her tenure in government and the policies extolled during her campaign, there would most likely have been four major areas of difference in a Clinton NPR.


First, a Clinton NPR would have reaffirmed the common-sense policies from the 2010 NPR, including the “three no’s”: no new nuclear warheads, military capabilities, or military missions. Worst-case scenarios about a supposed low-yield warhead gap would have been rejected, as would euphemistic calls for a “supplement” in nuclear capabilities, specifically a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile or sea-launched cruise missile. The officials that would have undoubtedly accompanied Secretary Clinton into the Administration would have agreed that our extended deterrence requirements and commitments are being met with U.S. nuclear, conventional, and non-military assets. They would have also known that a signal from the United States indicating a reemphasis on nuclear weapons-reliance would only serve to encourage other countries to follow suit.

The 2010 language on negative security assurances would have remained constant. Clinton officials would have avoided the Trump Administration’s missile-sized loophole reserving the right to withdraw any assurance based on “the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.” Given the endless creativity of U.S. government war planners and lawyers, coupled with the unclear definition of what exactly “non-nuclear strategic” means, that reservation could be used to cover all manner of sin. A Clinton Administration would have understood that this type of loophole devalues the very nature of a negative security assurance and would accomplish little more than increased anxiety levels among U.S. allies.

Regarding nuclear explosive testing, a Clinton NPR would have likely reaffirmed the 2010 NPR’s goal of ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It certainly would not have hidden behind the specter of “geopolitical challenges” as a reason not to pursue this goal. While it is less clear whether a Clinton Administration would have adopted “No First Use” or “Sole Use” policies right out of the gate, it is a safe assumption that more expansive long-term studies would have been commissioned.


Second, the importance of diplomacy would have been evident throughout a Clinton NPR. Arms control, nonproliferation and nuclear security policies would have been infused throughout the document, not just stapled at the end as an afterthought. There would have been acknowledgement of the threats posed by Russia, China, North Korea and others, but non-military responses would have received equal attention. They would have emphasized that there is not a military solution to every problem.

The Trump NPR takes a passive approach to arms control and nonproliferation and paints an image of the United States as a nation that things happen to, as opposed to a nation that makes things happen. A Clinton NPR would have presented the United States as a leader on reducing nuclear threats, even in the face of obstacles. The document would have certainly affirmed the desire to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and outlined a serious diplomatic effort to save the INF Treaty. Concerns about whether the Russians would use an “escalate to deescalate” approach in a conflict would have been present, but the solution would have been to talk first, and build any necessary weapons later. Further, Clinton officials would have understood the need for patience and persistence when dealing with nuclear matters. There would have be no illusion that every challenge can be fixed in four to eight years.


Third, the overall NPR process would have been managed much better. The influence of all relevant agencies would be apparent, resulting in a text that would have been consistent and even-toned. The final product would have been presented by Cabinet-level officials, as was done in 2010. To friendly (and perhaps unfriendly) observers, the Secretaries of State, Defense, Energy and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff appearing together to outline the policies in such an important document demonstrates solidarity and common purpose. It’s also a relatively safe assumption that embarrassing errors, like maps that show Taiwan as part of China, would have been avoided. In the event of a leak, a Clinton Administration would have probably moved the public release forward to avoid having others frame the discussion. Upon receiving questions and criticism, a Clinton Administration would have delivered consistent responses and avoided any appearance of trying to present the document as something it was not. Further, Clinton Administration officials would  have presumably had a coordinated public affairs plan that would have precluded spats and Twitter fights with independent experts.


Fourth, and most importantly, a Clinton NPR would have been different, because Secretary Clinton was prepared to accept the grave responsibility of being in sole command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. She would have understood the importance of every word uttered by the Commander-in-Chief, and the fragility of nuclear diplomacy. She would have actively participated in the formation of her NPR and upon its release, she would have avoided any appearance of undermining her own policies.

President Trump was not prepared for the awesome responsibilities with which he is now burdened. It would not be surprising to find that he had simply been briefed on his NPR, rather than having read it himself. He has repeatedly demonstrated that he can change his views and opinions, often without warning. That habit weakens any policies and goals laid out in his NPR.

Had she become President, Secretary Clinton would have supported and championed the work of the Department of State to mitigate nuclear threats. It should not come as a surprise that the 2018 NPR does the opposite. After all, President Trump said that when it comes to diplomacy, he is “the only one that matters.” By doing that, he signaled to the world that his diplomats do not speak for him, weakening them before they even get the chance to sit at a nuclear negotiating table.

Given the challenges facing the United States, Secretary Clinton’s NPR might have not been as optimistic as President Obama’s NPR.  It is impossible to state with certainty all of the particulars that would have been present in the document. Still, there should be little doubt that it would have retained the overall goal of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. national security strategy.

Secretary Clinton warned that her campaign opponent was not a man to be trusted with nuclear weapons. Now the world holds its collective breath, faced with the fact that President Trump controls about 4,000 active nuclear weapons.  Based on his NPR, he seems set on retaining or even increasing that number.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.