Given US President Donald Trump’s tendency to scramble the news narrative several times a day with controversial talk, tweeting, and action, policy continuity can sometimes seem like a quaint notion from an age long past. But regardless of who occupies the White House, the most difficult challenges that he, the government he leads, and other governments around the world face are dealt with over time spans counted in years, and often decades. In this issue, four top experts assess the Trump administration’s performance in regard to major, continuing global threats at the heart of the Bulletin’s mission: nuclear weapons, climate change, man-made biological agents, and cyber attacks on democracy.
Sharon Squassoni, a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, is the longtime director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her article, “Through a fractured looking-glass: Trump’s nuclear decisions so far,” finds that, across the spectrum of nuclear affairs – from relations with Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran to nuclear arsenal modernization and international arms control efforts – “the Trump administration is hampered by a deficit of expertise, of patience in the White House, and of deference for the normal workings of government.” As the administration matures, Squassoni writes, it could create coherent policy guidelines to deal with the range of nuclear issues. But if that does not happen, she concludes, both allies and adversaries will have to continue to navigate their way through “the set of confusing and sometimes contradictory statements and actions that have characterized US nuclear policy during the first eight months of the Trump presidency.”
Harvard Kennedy School climate policy expert Joseph Aldy writes that the Trump administration has largely failed in its efforts to reverse Obama-era climate change policy – but that is not necessarily good news for those who support climate change action. “When the future looks back on this period, it may view it as four lost years in climate policy, where US efforts were in stasis. The concern is that the risks posed by climate change may not mean we have four years available to waste,” Aldy writes. “And underinvestment in the international climate policy infrastructure today could have lasting implications well into the future.”
University of California Berkeley cybersecurity experts Steven Weber and Betsy Cooper note that the Trump administration has done little as yet to confront serious cyber issues facing the country, in no small part because cyber concerns have become entangled with politics as a special counsel investigates digital attacks from Russia on the 2016 presidential election, and any possible connections to the Trump campaign or administration. But Weber and Cooper do at least hold out hope that the administration can eventually lead the way on “relatively apolitical and potentially bipartisan initiatives [that]could make an important difference at a time when the cybersecurity environment is visibly deteriorating.”
Military historian and biosecurity expert Reid Kirby, on the other hand, sees little room for hope in his assessment of the Trump approach to national biodefense. His ultimate conclusion is no less than damning: “Severe White House dysfunction calls into question the administration’s ability to successfully oversee a national biodefense strategy, as does a failure to appoint high-ranking officials to crucial positions in a timely fashion. The administration has also exhibited an anti-science attitude nearly across the board and has proposed deep budget cuts for several of the government agencies most crucial to executing a national biodefense strategy. The future of US biodefense is at significant risk under the Trump administration.”
None of these assessments is heartening; all point up significant and undeniable problems in the Trump administration’s approach to existential dangers and to public policy in general. It is unclear that President Trump ever welcomes or even attends to advice from those outside his administration – especially advice from the kinds of experts he has spent much of his presidential campaign and administration attacking or deriding. Regardless of whether they register with the president, however, the expert assessments in this issue may be useful to leaders of US executive agencies, to members of the US Congress and their staffs, and to officials in other countries who are interested in steering the United States and other world powers onto safer and more consistent courses than they have followed in the frenetic and confrontational months since Donald Trump’s election last November.