On Tuesday night, during a televised town hall, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Donald Trump about one of his more provocative comments during a recent foreign policy interview with the New York Times, in which he seemed to suggest he would allow or encourage South Korea or Japan to get nuclear weapons.
Here's what he said:
COOPER: It has been a U.S. policy for decades to prevent Japan from getting a nuclear weapon.
TRUMP: That might be policy, but maybe...
COOPER: South Korea as well.
TRUMP: Can I be honest are you? Maybe it's going to have to be time to change, because so many people, you have Pakistan has it, you have China has it. You have so many other countries are now having it.
There you have it: Trump is suggesting that the US should consider allowing Japan and South Korea develop nuclear weapons.
This fits with Trump's broader worldview, inasmuch as he has one. He believes America is paying too much money to defend its allies around the world — and that they should either pay the US for its trouble or develop their own means of protecting themselves. Nuclear weapons, in Trump's view, would allow Japan and South Korea to deter North Korea and China without the US spending a single cent. Everybody wins!
This, as my colleague Max Fisher explains, profoundly misunderstands the post–World War II international order: US security guarantees benefit the US far more than any "tribute" from Japan or South Korea would. One of those benefits is that they prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and thus limit the risk of nuclear war. Either Trump doesn't recognize this as a benefit or he doesn't care.
Cooper, to his credit, pushes Trump on this point, asking him if he's fine with more nuclear proliferation in general. Trump says, "No, no, not proliferation," insisting, "I hate nuclear more than any." He cites the fact that his uncle was an MIT physicist (this is, implausibly enough, true) as evidence that he understands the risk of nuclear weapons.
Cooper presses him on the contradiction. What comes next is very confusing:
COOPER: Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, absolutely.
COOPER: You would be fine with them having nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: No, not nuclear weapons, but they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.
Here's the thing, with Japan, they have to pay us or we have to let them protect themselves.
Here you see another classic Trumpism: He says Saudi Arabia should "absolutely" have nuclear, but then immediately seems to change his mind. It seems like he either didn't understand the question or is making his answer up off the cuff.
COOPER: So if you said, Japan, yes, it's fine, you get nuclear weapons, South Korea, you as well, and Saudi Arabia says we want them too?
TRUMP: Can I be honest with you? It's going to happen anyway. It's going to happen anyway. It's only a question of time. They're going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely. But you have so many countries already, China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia, you have so many countries right now that have them.
Now, wouldn't you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?
So now he's said the Saudis should have nuclear weapons, that they shouldn't, and then that maybe it's inevitable so they probably should anyway.
In any event, Trump's flirtation with, if not outright support for, nuclear proliferation is one of the scariest things about his candidacy. It's easy to treat Trump as a joke — until you remember that the stakes here involve weapons that can destroy the world.