I Worry About the Nuclear Chatter

Terry Schwadron
4 min readApr 30, 2018


Terry H. Schwadron

April 30, 2018

Look, I know I can’t do much about it. But I do worry that with all this uncertainty circling about nuclear weapons, someone is going to let one go loose.

And the more I heard this week about the gaps between European and American leaders, and even with some vague progress between the Korean leaders, the less confidence I have that realistic worry and reasoning will govern the outcome the current brouhahas with North Korea and Iran. Even today, there were more words that are hard to swallow whole that North Korea will denuclearize if the U.S. agrees not to invade; neither side likely would stick to those statements.

I fully expect that within a year, we will be hearing that other countries are developing like technology, and it seems within understanding that some terrorist group somewhere in the world will get its hands on the makings of a small nuclear device.

My evidence for this level of heightened worry is that despite months if not years of notice, the White House has managed to maneuver itself into a corner with simultaneous nuclear showdowns halfway around the world from one another.

There is no hurry for President Trump to rip up the Iran agreement to halt nuclear weapons development,

if he insists on doing so. Waving around a fake deadline two weeks from now, just as he is preparing to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un makes for the worst of all negotiating positions. Between them, we can expect North Korea and Iran to use threats and fears to make the United States an uncomfortable supplicant rather than the belligerent, bellicose figure that Trump wants us to project.

Even the meeting between the South and North Korean leaders, resulting in promises of a formal end to hostilities and common work towards denuclearization, seems as much political theater as substance. There were no hard deadlines or listed steps towards the achievement of either goal.

I’m no nuclear expert, but I do understand something about negotiating. The question in negotiations are always two — what do the sides want, and at what price, literal or in spirit. If you don’t have what the other side wants, your job is to create a desire for cooperation.

What we do is to threaten to blow up the other side, building up military options and weapons technology to underscore our own threat — exactly what the other side is doing.

In these nuclear talks, we face manically ruthless dictators, whose word has often proved to be less than diplomatically reliable. Both were driven to the negotiating table by worldwide economic sanctions that threaten their financial stability, and each turned to nuclear weapons as a means to gain regional — or more — standing and recognition from the West.

On the other side, the United States faces tangling with multiple players among its friends even before turning to any negotiations. In Asia, China, Japan, South Korea and regional players all have varying must-haves out of the negotiations; with Iran, the Europeans want to stick by an agreed-upon treaty that Trump hates. That’s why French leader Emmanuel Macron went through the star-spangled welcoming talks with Trump this week — to get him to stand down from a promise to throw out the existing treaty with Iran without a Plan B.

Both the Iranians and the North Koreans have their eyes on the long plan, as do China and Russia. Only the United States has a policy attention span of short-term fixes.

Trump and Macron apparently came up with some vague idea of a new side agreement that will address many of the items that the United States wants to curb by an aggressive Iran — its testing of stronger and more deadly, non-nuclear ballistic missiles and its meddling in regional conflicts, including antipathy for Israel. The first problem is that other European partners will need to sign on, and, of course, they must still figure out what the agreement would be.

But the bigger issue is that Iran lacks any incentive to accept another agreement.

And Kim is watching all of this, most certainly wondering what any American agreement to terms really means if the United States can then turn around and simply say no, my predecessor made a lousy agreement. Even the concession this week, that Kim would abandon a nuclear weapons site, seemed hollow after reports fromChinese geologists went public suggesting that the mountain above North Korea’s main nuclear test site has likely collapsed, rendering it unsafe for further use.

The Trump approach seems to be a continuing series of blowhard slogans and name-calling, followed by economic sanctions of increasing proportion — all done in the personal name of the president without discussion, approval or even participation by Congress. And then to publicly praise the same opposition leader who he had labeled as a jerk in the previous week as an honorable person because of some recent concessions.

We’re negotiating now, impulsively, without a real overall strategy, without the organized support of friends, without a real sense either of what we want or what the other side wants.

It does not sound like a good formula for success. So, I’m worried.

What makes it worse is that the United States has not had its full security team in place, and now is scrambling to make a new national security adviser, a new secretary of state, a new CIA head, a new economic policy chief and others try to guess at what a mercurial president needs to achieve in these negotiations.

Try not to worry.