Media reports would have us believe that Donald Trump is more than a little bit trigger happy when it comes the use of nuclear weapons.
MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough told the story last week of a “foreign policy expert on the international level” who paid Trump a visit a few months ago. “Three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons,” Scarborough said. “Three times he asked, at one point if we have them, why can’t we use them?” The implication is, evidently, that Donald Trump wants to “use” them.
First, there’s no way to confirm this story without Scarborough naming names. It could be he fabricated the whole thing. The Trump campaign denies the story completely. But let’s play Scarborough’s game and presume that Trump did ask the question. It’s actually not a bad question to ask.
Little about nuclear deterrence is intuitive. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a dearth of serious thinking about how nuclear deterrence fits in the context of the United States needing to deter not just one nuclear power, but several, with very different kinds of regimes. It wouldn’t be strange if a presidential candidate, unfamiliar with deterrence strategy, would ask questions about weapons he knows intuitively are in a category separate and apart from conventional weapons.
The nuclear idealists—those who have an ideological opposition to nuclear weapons themselves—make the case that because the United States would “never employ one,” nor should it, it doesn’t make sense to have them at all. Trump seemed to be making the corollary point: if we have them, surely we would use them. This gets to the heart of the nuclear deterrent paradox.
If we take the posture that we are never willing to employ a nuclear weapon (or, if we are, in fact unwilling to employ them under any circumstances) our allies will doubt our commitments, and this will decrease the credibility of the deterrent and invite aggression. Or, as the great nuclear strategist Herman Kahn put it, “Usually the most convincing way to look willing is to be willing.”
We want the threat of nuclear force to be credible. We want our adversaries to believe we just might respond with nuclear force when we assess our nation is in grave danger. In other words, we want our adversary to alter his calculus, thereby precluding our need to employ nuclear weapons at all. That’s the way deterrence works.
If I were the one answering Donald Trump’s alleged question, I would say, “Well, we want to have the kind of nuclear deterrent force that we may need to employ to prevent catastrophic harm to the United States so that our enemies understand that whatever they think they will achieve by harming the United States, it is not worth the cost. So really, we use nuclear weapons every second of every day—to deter the worst kinds of war, preserve peace, and protect the lives of Americans and our allies.”
If we reach the point where our adversaries no longer believe the United States would use nuclear weapons, even in the face of the most egregious acts of aggression, the effect would be to tempt adversaries into behaving aggressively. This is no mere academic exercise. The behavior coming out of Russia over the past few years clearly reveals why it refused to shrink its tactical or “battlefield” nuclear arsenal when the Obama administration negotiated the New START Treaty. The United States has one tactical nuclear weapon in Europe for every 10 of Russia’s. It wasn’t in Russia’s interest to cut that particular category of weapons, so it didn’t—and the American negotiators capitulated. Tactical nuclear weapons often have lower yields than strategic nuclear weapons, or have variable yields. Russian officials have been threatening explicitly, implicitly, and by conducting nuclear war-games, to launch tactical nuclear weapons against U.S./NATO defensive military sites in Poland, and it’s not too difficult to imagine that they just might.
In June 2015, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral JamesWinnefeld, testified, “Russian military doctrine includes what some have called an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy—a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use.” See what this means? Russian strategists may be thinking Russia could get away with employing a smaller nuclear weapon against NATO because NATO might immediately cry for mercy and sue for peace rather than respond with a nuclear weapon and risk escalation. Unlike NATO, Russia has no qualms about leveraging the fear of nuclear conflict to further its national objectives. Cracks in the credibility of U.S./NATO nuclear deterrence is highly destabilizing.
A lack of credibility in the U.S. response is what tempts Russia to catastrophic behavior. The weaker the United States, the more provocative the threats against us.
But Trump’s alleged question about nuclear use prompted former Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney adviser John Noonan to send up the emergency flares on Twitter due to Trump’s possible “interest in nuclear First Use.”
Noonan admitted the quote is unsubstantiated and advised readers to take it with a grain of salt. He also rightly pointed out that the hope is that nuclear weapons are never used (I take a small issue with the phrase “used” because, again, they are being used right now to deter war). Noonan also said Trump’s disputed quote shows his “interest in nuclear first use would be undoing six decades of proven deterrence theory…This would be the single greatest strategic shift in U.S. national security in decades.” That is categorically untrue. But the #NeverTrump machine, including a slew of leftist rags like Mother Jones and Slate, and right wing ones like RedState, reposted Noonan’s tweets, praising them, and pointing out the writer’s established Republican and military bona fides.
But if we take a sober look at what Trump supposedly said, it’s clear he never said anything about actually employing nuclear weapons. But even if he had, current U.S. nuclear policy permits nuclear first use. The United States has always maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” This means that the United States does not say whether we will employ a nuclear weapon first in a conflict or only in response to a nuclear attack. We do not want to say we will not employ a nuclear weapon for certain kinds of acts of aggression for fear it would tempt enemies to calculate that a non-nuclear (think of a massive conventional or biological or chemical) attack on us is worth a certain U.S. retaliatory response as long as it’s not nuclear.
Trump’s question, if it was asked at all, was asked in the privacy of a briefing with a nuclear weapons expert. If he asked this question, it actually suggests a willingness to engage in a serious consideration of a subject that is complex, has enormously high stakes, and it possibly reveals a hint of a willingness to use nuclear force if the country needs to—something this administration has refused to do.
At the very least, it seems to suggest a rejection of the liberal anti-nuclear idealists’ irrational objection to nuclear weapons themselves. They are means to an end, and that end is peace and the protection of the American people and our allies.
Considering Trump has run his entire campaign on a platform with strong aversions to war, it would make sense that he would be interested in deterring war in a serious way so that the United States could avoid it at all costs. Critics of Trump might point to his seeming lack of rhetorical discipline as a cause for concern in conducting foreign policy, or his skepticism of our closest (and I would argue, indispensable) allies, but it is a far stretch to go from there to accusing Trump of looking for war, let alone accusing him of being anxious to start a nuclear one. We are long past the point in this election, however, where one can have concerns with some of Donald Trump’s policies and style without believing he is a villainous sociopath itching for a nuclear holocaust.
Coincidentally, at the same time media outlets were panicking over Trump’s non-statement about not changing U.S. nuclear policy, the Wall Street Journal claimed President Obama is considering further weakening the U.S. nuclear deterrent, possibly by changing the long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity to one of “no first use.” At a time when U.S. adversaries are investing in nuclear weapons, and Russian nuclear provocations are increasing, relaxing commitments to U.S. nuclear modernization or hinting at a resolve in our willingness to employ them if necessary could have the unintended consequence of inviting nuclear aggression. Just six short years ago, the Obama administration published the “Nuclear Posture Review,” which states the country’s views on nuclear threats, challenges, and policy, and even it maintained the policy of strategic ambiguity. But for the president, with only a few months left in his term, ideology may once again triumph over reason and at the great cost of American strategic security.
But don’t let the facts disrupt the fear-mongering and hysteria over an inevitable Trump induced nuclear war. Carry on.