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Democracy Dies in Darkness
Donald Trump thinks more countries should have
nuclear weapons. Here’s what the research says.
By Gene Gerzhoy and Nicholas Miller
April 6, 2016 at 4:00 p.m. EDT
According to Donald Trump, the United States should not try so hard to stop nuclear proliferation. On Sunday night,
during a Republican town hall hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Trump declared that proliferation is “going to
happen anyway.” And just a week earlier, Trump told the New York Times, “If Japan had that nuclear threat, I’m not
sure that would be a bad thing for us.” Nor would it be so bad, he’s said, if South Korea and Saudi Arabia had nuclear
weapons, too.
We can break down Trump’s assertions into two ideas: Proliferation is inevitable, and it is good for the United States —
at least when its allies are the ones going nuclear. What can political science tell us about each of these beliefs?
It turns out that both propositions fly in the face of a wide range of recent scholarship.
Is nuclear proliferation inevitable?
Trump’s logic for this idea is based on his belief that the United States is weak and that past proliferation ensures
future proliferation. Here’s what Trump told the Times about Japan: “If the United States keeps on … its current path
of weakness, [Japan is] going to want to have [nuclear weapons] anyway with or without me discussing it.”
Trump also implied that South Korea and Japan would inexorably seek nuclear weapons — regardless of what the
United States does — because so many countries have already gone nuclear. As he said to Anderson Cooper: “It’s only a
question of time. … You have so many [nuclear] countries already.”
But as we show in a number of research articles, those assumptions don’t match the historical record. For the past 70
years, through mutually reinforcing policies — including security guarantees, troop deployments, arms sales, nuclear
umbrellas and sanctions threats — U.S. administrations from both parties have inhibited nuclear proliferation.
When another country built nuclear weapons, the United States limited the repercussions by discouraging that country
from conducting nuclear tests.
What about Trump’s belief that U.S. allies will inevitably seek nuclear weapons because the United States is
economically and militarily weak? That doesn’t match the facts, either. The United States remains the world’s
dominant military power — it spends three to four times as much on its military than China does, and it has the world’s
most advanced nuclear arsenal. The United States also has a dynamic and growing economy, while its rivals’
economies are slowing or even declining.
But even when the U.S. economy was flagging, the government successfully prevented other countries from acquiring /
nuclear arms. The 1970s were a period of high inflation and low economic growth in the United States. Yet that’s when
Washington launched some of its most determined and successful nonproliferation efforts, including founding the
Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, a global body that restricts the spread of sensitive nuclear technology, and passing laws that
imposed mandatory nonproliferation sanctions, which have successfully deterred other countries from embarking on
nuclear weapons programs.
Trump’s foreign policies would make his predictions come true
Although history suggests that proliferation is not inevitable, recent research on nonproliferation suggests that
Trump’s proposed foreign policy might make it so.
Trump says he would scale back or entirely end U.S. alliance commitments unless our allies made major financial
concessions. In his interview with the Times, Trump said that the United States “take[s] tremendous monetary hits on
protecting countries” such as Japan, South Korea, Germany and Saudi Arabia. He also denounced the U.S.-Japan
Mutual Security Treaty as “one-sided,” said that the United States doesn’t need to maintain forces in South Korea and
described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as “obsolete.”
But if those security institutions and military deployments disappeared, U.S. allies — including Japan and South Korea
— might well pursue nuclear weapons of their own. Recent research shows that alliances are a powerful tool for
preventing proliferation, both because they reassure states that their security will be protected in case of attack and
because they give senior partners the leverage to restrain their allies’ nuclear ambitions. Research also demonstrates
that the type of U.S. troop withdrawals Trump envisions have a history of prompting allies to consider developing their
own nuclear weapons.
Consider the last time the United States had a president who was skeptical about nonproliferation and who tried to
reduce U.S. commitments to its allies in Asia. As part of his Guam Doctrine — a plan to increase Asian allies’ military
self-reliance — President Nixon withdrew 20,000 troops from South Korea. Famously, he also traveled to China to
improve Sino-American relations. As a result, South Korea launched a covert nuclear weapons program, and Taiwan
ramped up its own nuclear ambitions. So why didn’t they end up with nuclear weapons? The administrations that
followed Nixon’s redoubled efforts to stop them.
Research does not support the idea that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable. But isolationist “America First”
policies could prompt that spread. Defining U.S. strategic interests primarily in terms of monetary gain, and curtailing
U.S. global engagement toward that end, would boost the probability that our allies would respond by going nuclear.
Would nuclear proliferation be good for U.S. interests?
What about Trump’s second proposition: that proliferation by our allies would be good for U.S. interests? This
argument is based on the idea that nuclear-armed allies could help contain U.S. adversaries and enable the United
States to save money. As Trump told Cooper, “I would rather see Japan having some form of defense, and maybe even
offense, against North Korea.” And as he suggested, the United States can’t afford to protect Japan and South Korea —
and therefore, “they have to pay us or we have to let them protect themselves.”
Reducing military commitments and letting allies build their own nuclear weapons might save money for the United
States. But international relations scholarship suggests that allied proliferation would have broader negative
repercussions. Among these would be declining U.S. influence. When nations gain their own military capabilities, they
rely less on their allies and become less subject to their sway. And that can undermine a senior partner’s ability to hold
its junior allies back from risky military actions.
In other words, allowing or encouraging proliferation would worsen the “American weakness” that Trump decries.
Recent nonproliferation research underscores this proposition. Mark Bell shows that nuclear allies are likely to become
more independent of their patrons and in some cases can develop more assertive foreign policies. And Francis Gavin
and Matthew Kroenig show that the fear of declining influence was one reason why most American administrations
vigorously opposed the spread of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear allies can also become security risks. Vipin Narang demonstrates that when weaker states gain nuclear
weapons, they often seek to coerce their senior partners into intervening on their behalf by threatening to use nuclear
weapons. That’s what Israel did at the height of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. That’s what South Africa did during its 1988
confrontation with Cuban forces in Angola. And that’s what Pakistan did in the midst of its 1990 military crisis with
Instead of relieving the United States of a military burden, as Donald Trump suggests, having more nuclear allies could
increase the risk that the United States would get involved in conflicts that might turn nuclear.
Furthermore, were South Korea or Japan to begin developing nuclear weapons, their rivals might be tempted to launch
preventive military strikes, which research suggests has been frequently considered in the past. The road to nuclear
acquisition is often rocky and increases the likelihood of militarized conflict. For example, Soviet worries that West
Germany would acquire nuclear weapons helped trigger the Berlin Crisis.
And if Japan or South Korea actually acquired nuclear weapons, we could possibly see a nuclear arms race in Asia.
Japan’s neighbors, including South Korea, would fear resurgent Japanese militarism. North Korea would expand its
nuclear capabilities. China would continue to expand its own nuclear arsenal.
Why haven’t we seen nuclear arms races before?
Nuclear “domino effects” have not been common historically. But that’s largely because of determined U.S. efforts to
stop them.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the United States has pursued nonproliferation as a top policy priority. That
includes sponsoring and enforcing the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Research suggests the NPT has been
instrumental in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, in part by coordinating states’ beliefs about one another’s
nonproliferation commitments. To develop nuclear weapons, Japan and South Korea would need to violate or
withdraw from the NPT. That could prompt U.S. allies and adversaries in other regions — including Saudi Arabia,
Germany and Iran — to question the treaty’s viability and consider seeking their own nuclear arsenals.
Would this be so bad? After all, no two nuclear armed states have fought a major war with each other, and nuclear
weapons have not been used in conflict since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
But the conclusion that nuclear weapons produce peace is subject to debate. It’s true that there has been no war
between major powers since 1945. But that may be due to other factors. The quantitative evidence linking nuclear
weapons to a reduced risk of conflict is limited at best.
Further, theoretical and historical evidence suggests that nuclear accidents and miscalculations are likely. More
countries with nuclear weapons would mean more opportunities for catastrophic nuclear mistakes.
So what’s the takeaway?
A look at history shows us that nuclear proliferation is anything but inevitable. U.S. nonproliferation efforts have been
surprisingly successful, even when the United States was weaker than it is today.
Without firm U.S. opposition to the spread of nuclear weapons — a policy implemented through “carrots” like alliances
and “sticks” like sanctions — the world would probably have far more than nine countries with nuclear
weapons. What’s more, research suggests that nuclear proliferation would reduce U.S. world influence, undermine
global stability and increase the risk of nuclear war.
Gene Gerzhoy is a congressional fellow with the American Political Science Association.
Nick Miller is an assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
Education, interrupted
The pandemic has forced Haila, Jingchu and many other
Chinese students to rethink dreams of a U.S. diploma.
(Yue Wu for The Washington Post)
“I could never have imagined any of this.”
Jingchu Lin
By Emily Rauhala
Aug. 14, 2020
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
Through days of schooling and nights of studying, the two Chinese students
pictured the big moment: Telling their parents. Posting the news. Haila Amin off
to the University of Virginia. Jingchu Lin en route to Yale.
It would be a personal triumph and a turning point. A chance to chart a new
course in a new country. That was what they worked for. That was the plan.
But between the time they applied to U.S. schools and decision day in the spring,
a virus changed the world around them, upending nearly everything.
For Haila, Jingchu and other Chinese students bound for the United States, fall
2020 looks nothing like what they expected. Some returning students are
stranded in the United States. Incoming students are stuck in China. Nobody
knows what will happen in September. Nobody can believe this is happening at
That uncertainty is changing lives and trajectories. It will reshape American
education, potentially making U.S. institutions less attractive. And it may
diminish what remains of the United States’ soft power in China as ties between
the world’s two largest economies hit fresh lows.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
Chinese students have much on the line: Years of work, family sacrifice, the
chance to study in an environment where they can for the most part browse,
speak and write as they please.
U.S. schools do, too. For more than a decade, Chinese students have been one of
the biggest stories in American higher education. Between 2009 and 2019
Chinese students in the United States nearly tripled, according to data from the
Institute for International Education.
There were more than 360,000 Chinese students in the United States in the
2018-2019 academic year, making up about a third of international students, the
IIE reported. According to a Department of Commerce estimate, these students
put $15 billion into the U.S. economy in 2018.
Even before the coronavirus hit, there were signs of a slowdown. After years of
double-digit growth, new Chinese student enrollment is leveling off.
Surge of Chinese students to the U.S. is tapering off
The number of Chinese students in the U.S. nearly tripled over 10 years, but growth is slowing.
400,000 students
South Korea
Source: Institute of International Education
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
Universities knew the boom would not last forever, but few anticipated the
impact of tough talk and visa threats from President Trump — not to mention a
“This has not been the easiest admissions cycle, that’s for sure,” said John
Wilkerson, assistant vice president for international services at Indiana
Gavin Newton-Tanzer, the co-founder and president of Sunrise International, a
company that works with Chinese students and foreign schools, said that for the
last few years most Chinese families had taken a long view, wagering that the
political vitriol would pass and a U.S. degree would pay off long term.
“But there is a threshold,” he said, “There is a point where they are going to be
like, ‘I’m done.’”
Global distancing
This is Part 4 in a series of stories on how the coronavirus is disrupting an interconnected world.
Part 1: How the coronavirus pandemic is undoing globalization
Part 2: Coronavirus is crushing tourism and jeopardizing wildlife conservation in Kenya and
other parts of Africa
Part 3: How manufacturer Flex navigated covid shutdowns to keep Apple products and Philips
ventilators on the market
That moment may be drawing nearer. As Haila and Jingchu powered through
their senior years at different Beijing high schools, they mostly focused on essays
and applications, not great power politics.
Haila daydreamed about watching college basketball and trips to Chick-fil-A in
Charlottesville. Jingchu pre-wrote a social media post for acceptance day: “stay
true to your mission.”
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
But by spring, as they waited for their big moment, the crisis unfolding in the
United States became impossible to ignore. “I could never have imagined any of
this,” Jingchu said.
Their American Dream
For Haila and Jingchu, like many incoming Chinese undergraduates, the road to
an American education started in childhood.
They met at a Beijing primary school. She was outgoing. He was bookish. They
joke now that they were both popular — just in different ways.
In elementary school, good grades make you a certain kind of popular, Haila
said. Jingchu was that kind of popular. Jingchu remembered Haila as
extroverted and social: “American popular,” he quipped.
“It was very unrealistic to imagine the states as
such a fancy country.”
Haila Amin
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
(Yan Cong for The Washington Post)
By the time Haila entered middle school, she was one of a growing number of
Chinese kids hoping to one day study in the United States.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
In 2002, the year she was born, just under 65,000 Chinese students went to
study in the United States. When she started middle school in 2014, there were
more than 300,000, according to IIE.
The surge was part push, part pull. Many families were frustrated by China’s
relentlessly competitive school system, where every year of schooling builds
toward the national college entrance exam. As the economy expanded, more
families could afford to explore options abroad.
American institutions offered a different, more flexible style of education.
Tuition was steep, but a U.S. degree was seen as a good investment — and
something of a status symbol.
In the smoggy winter of 2014, Haila decided to get a head start on her American
She enrolled the next fall at a private school in Virginia. “Back then, I thought
the U.S. was extremely prosperous and people were super kind, super rich —
that it was the greatest king of this world,” she recalled.
The reality was different. There was much she liked, but she missed Beijing.
After a year and a half, she went home.
The Chinese education system is like a highway that runs from elementary
school straight through to the college entrance exam. By exiting early she had all
but eliminated the path to a Chinese university.
She enrolled in the international division of a local high school and set her sights
on returning to the United States, ideally to Virginia, where she still had friends.
“The moment I returned back to China I was aiming to go back to the states,”
she said.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
Her old classmate, Jingchu, would soon be on a similar path.
“This pandemic de nitely disillusioned us about
the United States.”
Jingchu Lin
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
(Yue Wu for The Washington Post)
After primary school, he enrolled at one of Beijing’s best middle schools. He
initially assumed he would follow generations of great scholars to Peking or
Tsinghua, China’s top universities.
But in his last year of middle school, he started to consider the freedom that
might come with studying elsewhere. His mother encouraged him. “She
brainwashed me into believing the U.S. system was better,” he said.
He chose the international division of a top-ranked high school and set his sights
on the Ivy League.
First signs of trouble
For a couple of years, Haila and Jingchu kept in touch the way many teenagers
do: following each other’s social media posts without actually talking much.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
In the summer of 2018, they reconnected in real life at Yale Young Global
Scholars, a summer enrichment program in Beijing that features lectures by Yale
faculty and excursions around town.
“The kind of program that tries to make some money from Chinese students,”
Jingchu joked.
The Yale Young Global Scholars event in Beijing in 2018, which childhood friends Jingchu Lin and Haila Amin
attended. (Yale Center Beijing)
Training, recruiting and educating Chinese students was by then a huge, but
slowing business.
Part of the problem was politics.
The Trump administration’s immigration threats led parents to worry about
student and work visas.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
They also asked a lot about gun violence, said Lukman Arsalan, inaugural dean
of admission at Franklin & Marshall College. “I’m seeing, just in the past three
years, more interest from Chinese students looking at the U.K., Australia and
Canada. Students have been frank about it,” he said.
That summer, as Haila, Jingchu and other young scholars mulled “Asia in the
21st century” with Yale faculty, the U.S.-China trade war raged and Chinese
students got caught in the crossfire.
The U.S. State Department started to shorten visas for Chinese graduate
students in certain fields, citing national security concerns. Trump reportedly
told a group of CEOs, without citing evidence, that almost all Chinese students
in the United States were spies.
That fall, as they entered their junior year of high school, there were reports that
the administration was mulling a total ban on Chinese enrollment.
Not long after, news broke that the business and engineering colleges at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, known for having a huge number of
Chinese international students, had taken out an insurance policy on its Chinese
student population.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
If enrollment dropped 20 percent, the colleges would be covered for $60
million. Jeffrey Brown, dean of Gies College of Business, told Inside Higher Ed
at the time that it was to guard against “a visa restriction, a pandemic, a trade
war.” (Brown declined to comment on whether the policy had kicked in, citing a
confidentiality agreement.)
For Jingchu, Haila and many others, there was no insurance policy. They were
already years down the road to a U.S. education.
They put their heads down and kept working.
‘Don’t go to the United States’
On March 26, 2020 Jingchu stayed awake for 24 hours, then checked a selection
of the schools he applied to — Duke, Cornell — saving Yale for last.
When he saw the good news, he yelled to his parents, called his headmaster,
then posted the news to WeChat. He remembered thinking to himself, “I am
now able to dictate my life.”
He knew he would accept the offer. He ordered himself a celebratory pizza, then
fell fast asleep, exhausted by years of work and worry.
For Haila, the moment of elation and relief she imagined did not come right
In late March, she was accepted to one of her safety picks, the University of
California at Santa Barbara and wait-listed for her first choice, the University of
“Okay, they didn’t reject me,” she thought to herself.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
A few days later, she learned she was offered a spot in a joint program between
Columbia University and Sciences Po, in France — a backup option she had
applied to “for fun,” she said.
Haila had been hoping to make a triumphant return to Virginia, where she
attended middle school. The leafy campus seemed to epitomize U.S. college
culture; she could not wait to watch U-Va. play Duke or Notre Dame.
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia, where Haila Amin had anticipated watching college basketball and
taking trips to Chick-fil-A. (Norm Shafer For The Washington Post)
But the chaos unleashed by the pandemic changed her priorities. By the time her
offers were in, the coronavirus was laying siege to New York City. She started to
wonder if the United States was safe.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
Every day, there were stories in the Chinese press about surging case counts,
protests and anti-Asian violence. When Haila left her Beijing apartment
building, the security guard warned her about the United States. Her extended
family in Inner Mongolia did too. “Don’t go to the United States, go anywhere
but the United States,” they said.
Instead of waiting to hear from U-Va., she opted for the Columbia-Sciences Po
program, which starts with two years in France. It would keep her from
America’s coronavirus chaos, save tens of thousands of dollars on her first two
years of tuition — and still get her the name brand, U.S. degree she craved.
She posted the news to WeChat, just as she’d once imagined, but felt a tinge of
regret. “I really wanted to go to U-Va.,” she said.
By May, Eli Lam, an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan who
runs the school’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, was fielding frantic
queries from parents.
They messaged him about medical supplies, supermarket shortages and the
protests then rocking several American cities. “They were asking us, how can our
kids live there?” he said.
Gloria Chyou, the co-founder of InitialView, a company that interviews
international applicants to U.S. institutions, said the parents of Chinese high
school juniors were also concerned.
By June, it was tough-to-impossible to get a visa and flights were still scarce.
Jingchu realized he might not make it to New Haven by fall.
Haila, meanwhile, was prepping for France.
“The French Embassy is open,” she told Jingchu.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
“I’m jealous,” he said.
Hope and regret
The summer brought little respite.
The pandemic raged on, with a second lockdown in Beijing and spikes all across
the United States.
On July 1, Yale said it would reopen in the fall with a mix of online and inperson classes, but Jingchu did not see how he could get to campus — or if he
wanted to.
His parents were nervous about the idea of him traveling to New Haven. He did
not want to take a gap year because it would only “extend the uncertainty,” he
said. That meant online classes — not great given the time difference, but
Days later, the U.S. announced that foreign students would not be admitted to
the United States if they were only taking online courses.
International students typically must attend most courses in person, not online,
to be admitted to the United States. But, through the spring, the rule was not
enforced. The new directive seemed to suggest that international students could
be deported if their schools did not reopen.
“This is appalling,” Jingchu said.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
It was not immediately clear what the measure meant for students who either
could not get a visa or did not want to go to the United States in the middle of a
pandemic. “I’m not sure if this might mean I need to go to the United States to
earn credits,” Jingchu said then.
In China, people joked that the United States was offering Chinese students
complimentary “patriotic education” by making them appreciate the motherland
and doubt the U.S. It felt, Jingchu said, like the United States was treating
Chinese students as “disposable.”
After swift pushback, including a lawsuit from Harvard and MIT, the United
States rescinded the directive. Then, in late July, immigration officials issued
new guidance, saying the rule against a 100 percent online caseload does, in fact,
apply to new students.
With just weeks to go, Jingchu is still trying to gather information about what
comes next.
Karen Peart, director of university media relations for Yale, said the school
understands that many incoming Chinese students have not been able to get
visas. But, she added, Yale hopes they will be able to make it to campus in the
first few weeks of fall semester.
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
Yale students make their way past Sterling Memorial Library in January. On July 1, Yale announced it would
reopen in the fall with a mix of online and in-person classes. (Stan Godlewski For the Washington Post)
Yale will be offering some in-person courses for new students, she said. Those
who are unable to get to New Haven can take courses online.
Jingchu’s plan is to study remotely, keeping U.S. hours as necessary. Studying
online is not what he signed up for, but he will “put up with it,” he said, “along
with many other things.”
He has connected with other Chinese students who are stuck in China. “This
pandemic definitely disillusioned us about the United States,” he said.
Haila’s regret over missing out on U.S. campus life has faded. She will not get
cheerleaders or collegiate basketball, but she will get weekend trips to European
Coronavirus disrupts Chinese students’ plans for a U.S. education – Washington Post
“It was very unrealistic to imagine the states as such a fancy country,” she said.
She wonders if younger Chinese students will have the same enthusiasm for
American colleges that she once did. Juniors at her high school will probably
apply to several countries, just in case, she said.
She is hoping to get to France by September, October at the latest.
“I don’t think my American dream is broken,” she said. “It just needs time.”
About this story
Graphics by Lauren Tierney. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design and development by
Irfan Uraizee. Copy editing by Thomas Heleba.
Emily Rauhala
Emily Rauhala writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. She spent a decade as
an editor and correspondent in Asia, first for Time magazine and later, from 2015 to 2018, as
China correspondent in Beijing for The Post. In 2017, she shared an Overseas Press Club
award for a series about the Internet in China. Follow
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