What's Frightening? Trump with Nukes, or Anyone with Nukes?

(This post was updated on 2016/11/24)

If I can’t work up to you,
you’ll surely have to
work down to me someday.
-Bob Dylan, Narrow Way (2012)

Donald Trump’s critics have made much of the fact that he is too erratic, inexperienced and ignorant to be given the responsibility of holding “the nuclear football,” that briefcase of launch codes that is always in the presence of an American president. An article on Thinkprogress.org listed the terrifying things that Donald Trump has said about nuclear weapons, but his statements point more to the fact that nuclear arsenals are terrifying in themselves, regardless of who has the power to use them. The sum of all fears doesn't change that much when new leadership comes to power. Compared to some other world leaders who have had their fingers on the button, Trump may not be the most dangerous. Compared to a true believer who would want to go down in flames, or to the paranoia of Nixon in his final year, Trump may be a safer bet because he would prefer to cut a deal, or maximize the land in Russia that might be available for future Trump hotels and golf courses. In any case, the overall risk of nuclear war may depend largely on other factors besides who the final decider is. Furthermore, we should not forget the fundamental problem of having the nuclear launch decision left up to only one person. It doesn't have to be this way. It is a little-known fact that this was not always the norm in all nuclear-armed states:

In the United States, where the president has sole authority to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike, only the president has access to the football. The Soviet system, in contrast, divided that authority among three senior government leaders—the president, the minister of defense, and the chief of the general staff—who were required to respond together to authorize action. To make such a coordinated response possible, not only the president but also the other two senior leaders were issued chemodanchiki [the equivalent of the American “football” — the suitcase containing the nuclear launch codes.][1]

What follows are some of the points raised by the Thinkprogress article (in italics), with an explanation of why there is nothing new or shocking in what The Donald has had to say on the topic. Much of what he says is exactly what a naïve time traveler from the 18th century would say when told about the bizarre paradoxes that arise from possessing nuclear weapons. His terrifying statements are best understood as the ugly reflection of the actual nuclear doctrines that have been in place during the nuclear age.

1.Trump said he might use nuclear weapons and questioned why we would make them if we wouldn’t use them.
Most media outlets ignored the question he asked next, which made the logical anti-nuclear point: “If we can’t use them, why do we have them?” As a businessman, he seemed to be implying we should stop wasting money on them if they can’t be used.

2. Trump said he was open to nuking Europe because it’s a “big place.”
If we understand Europe to be the land between Portugal and the Urals, Europe has been a potential nuclear battlefield since the 1940s. For the 45 years of the Cold War, thousands of tactical nuclear weapons were in Europe. The INF Treaty of 1987 and subsequent policies abolished them, but the threat is still there now with NATO’s recent positioning of ABM units in Romania and Poland. Other NATO countries have US nuclear weapons, and Britain and France have their own. It is implicitly understood that these are all aimed primarily at Russia, for reasons that are never explained. The ideological enemy of communism is gone, but Russia has been resurrected as the primary strategic threat. Because of this, Russia has frantically tried to renew its arsenals and maintain parity over the last fifteen years. So Europe is and always has been a nuclear target. The basic logic applies: if you possess nuclear weapons, you are targeted for pre-emptive nuclear attack by adversaries. If we are not open to nuking Europe, why are nuclear weapons still there?

3. Trump said that “you want to be unpredictable” with nuclear weapons.
This is standard nuclear doctrine for every nation that has nuclear weapons. In August 2016, President Obama floated the idea of declaring a “no first strike” policy, but it was quickly shot down by almost all officials in his administration. China and India have promised no first use, but it’s a promise that could be readily broken. Afterwards, there would be no one left to give or receive an apology for the broken promise.

4. Trump said he wasn’t that worried about more countries getting nukes since “it’s not like, gee whiz, nobody has them.”
It’s hard to not concede that Trump has a point here. The continued possession of nuclear weapons by certain nations has been the greatest cause of nuclear proliferation. In addition, the Non-Proliferation Treaty has permitted signatories to pursue the development of nuclear energy, and every nuclear reactor produces fissile material. The UN’s record on non-proliferation is a patchy record of successes and failures, yet there has been no official international initiative to shut down uranium mining, and thus the nuclear industry, as a way of controlling proliferation.

5. Trump had no idea what the “nuclear triad” was.
At the Republican candidates debate in December 2015 only Marc Rubio knew what the triad was, and knowing about the triad wouldn’t necessarily make someone an expert or a reliable person to have a finger on the button. Most of the American public doesn’t know what the nuclear triad refers to, most government employees don’t know, journalists who laughed at Trump had to look it up, and most elected officials don’t know, either. Trump’s answer to the question about the triad was juvenile and incoherent, but then again it isn’t possible for the superpowers to make a rational argument as to why the lesser nuclear powers should disarm first, or smaller nations should not try to obtain their own deterrent force.

6. Trump said he’d be OK with a nuclear arms race in Asia.
India, Pakistan, China, Russia and North Korea have nuclear weapons. US submarines patrol the Western Pacific with nuclear-armed submarines. South Korea and Japan live under the American nuclear umbrella, so this makes them essentially nuclear-armed as well. Japan has a large stockpile of plutonium from its nuclear reactors that it could turn into bombs on short notice. If Trump “would be” OK with a nuclear arms race in Asia, he is mistaken only in not knowing that the international community already is OK with it.

7. Can I be honest with you? It [proliferation] is 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.
He is probably right here. This is the stark warning that the anti-nuclear movement has been repeating for decades. Proliferation will continue if the countries that have nuclear weapons don’t start to disarm. It is hard to predict what Trump would actually do in a crisis, based on his contradictory statements on many issues, but here he should get some credit for talking some plain common sense about nuclear proliferation. So far, Hillary Clinton’s only discussion of nuclear issues has been to denounce Trump as too dangerous to have his finger on the button. Otherwise, we have no idea whether she has serious ideas about moving forward with strategic arms reduction in the midst of a tense relationship with Russia, one that she seems eager to intensify.

The satirical Trump proposal below is a sarcastic way of pointing out that no political leaders anywhere want to discuss the toxic and expensive legacy of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. If we really understood what we have already done to the planet, in addition to what we might do, people might feel more urgency about shutting down the entire nuclear enterprise. The statement imagines in Trumpese language what Trump would say if he wanted Americans to worry about this issue as much as he wants them to get frightened about border security and foreigners.

If we have nukes, why can't we use them? And if we can't use our nukes, why do we have them? And let me tell you something about these nukes. They're expensive, and they've left a hell of a mess in this country. One hell of a mess, folks. A mess all down the ages, my friends, let me tell you. You probably don't want to know. Unbelievable. But I'm gonna do something about it. Only I can do it. It'll be a huge cleanup, folks. Yuge! Rocky Flats, that old dump outside of St. Louis, Hanford. All that radiation spilling into the Columbia River! And don't even get me started on the Nevada Test Site, all that fallout that came down on our beautiful casinos. Washington's been trying to clean it up for decades, but they can't. They can't. It's that simple. Only I can clean it up. And let me tell you how I'm gonna do it. The Russians and the Chinese with their communism! Because of them we had to build all those nukes to fight communism, so they're gonna pay. And believe me, they'll pay. We're gonna dig a hole--and nobody digs holes better than me, believe me--and they're gonna pay for it.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not an American citizen. I didn't vote in the American election. This is not an endorsement of Donald Trump, but I felt I had to acknowledge his powers of persuasion and the way his rhetorical style have connected with millions of people. If he were willing to focus Americans’ outrage on environmental crimes rather than racial discord, he would accomplish more in a day than I have done in five years with this blog, but then he would probably find a way to blame foreigners for the ecological damage. With all my highfalutin’ “fag talk” (as such polysyllabic talk was called in the film Idiocracy) I haven’t raised awareness as much as The Donald could do with this single imaginary Trumpesque statement on the legacy of the nuclear project begun in the 1940s. This year the voices of the dis-empowered and neglected are speaking up, whether they be those of “low-information” voters or the “basket of deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton referred to them. They are voicing the challenge to the coastal big city elites laid down in Bob Dylan’s Narrow Way: If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday. 

For a more serious review of this topic, including both Donald Trump's and Hillary Clinton's handling of nuclear security questions, see Andrew Bacevich's excellent essay entitled The National Security Void.


[1] Richard Rhodes, Twilight of the Bombs (Random House, 2010), p. 85.  

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