As US Democrats recapture the House of Representatives, inevitably the question is asked – what difference will this make to policy-making while Trump remains in the White House and the Senate remains Republican?
A debate has already kicked off about nuclear weapons policy. Writing in The Hill, Tom Z. Collina of the Ploughshares Fund, argues that the change in House control will make a big difference – that some of Trump’s wilder nuclear plans will be reined in and effective checks on policy will be introduced. Collina cites Trump’s abandonment of key arms control treaties, his drive towards ‘usable’ nukes, and new missile, bomber and submarine programmes, as decisions that need to be challenged and changed. All of these, he rightly points out, will take the US into a massively expensive and dangerous nuclear arms race. As Collina observes, ‘Congress has been plowing ahead with a $2 trillion shopping spree to rebuild the Cold War nuclear arsenal’, and he thinks it’s time to stop it.
But how can these developments be stopped? Collina puts a lot of faith in Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) who looks set to be the next chair of the House Armed Services Committee. He has been an advocate of nuclear weapons reduction for many years and has stated, ahead of the midterms, that nuclear policy will be at the top of his list for change. Clearly, Smith is for reductions not disarmament – as he says: ‘I think the Republican party and the nuclear posture review contemplates a lot more nuclear weapons than I — and I think most Democrats — think we need.’ And much of his argument hinges on the costs: ‘When we look at the larger budget picture, that’s not the best place to spend the money.’
But his approach, if it can put the brakes on US nuclear new-build, will be a big step in the right direction.
Of course there are those who point to the comparative record of Democrats and Republicans when it comes to nuclear reductions. Writing two years ago, respected nuclear expert Hans M. Kristensen asked, ‘Will Trump be another Republican nuclear weapons disarmer’? Mapping the trends since 1945, Kristensen concluded that ‘Republican presidents disarm more than Democrats’. Apparently Democrat presidents are more likely to propose reductions but they are then opposed by Republicans in Congress; when Republican presidents propose reductions they are then supported by both sides of the House.
Kristensen made that point in November 2016, with the hope that Trump and the Republican Congress would follow in that pattern. Two years down the line, however, it is looking extremely unlikely and Trump seems set to buck the trend.
The real light was shed in the online debate following the Kristensen article. As one prescient commentator observed, ‘…the caveat is President-elect Trump isn’t a Republican. All I’m suggesting is that he is just as likely to dump New START and add ten thousand new nuclear warheads to the American arsenal as he is reducing one.’
Quite so, and such are indeed the challenges that we face today, from a US president who brings succour to the far right globally and who has taken the world back to two minutes to midnight.