By Lawrence M. Krauss
Donald Trump’s candidacy has been a source of anxiety for many reasons, but one stands out: the ability of the President to launch nuclear weapons. When it comes to starting a nuclear war, the President has more freedom than he or she does in, say, ordering the use of torture. In fact, the President has unilateral power to direct the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. Cabinet members may disagree and even resign in protest, but, ultimately, they must obey the order of the Commander-in-Chief. It’s all too easy to imagine Trump issuing an ultimate, thermonuclear “You’re fired!” to China, Iran, or another nation—and perhaps to the whole human race.*
Richard Nixon, famously, conducted his foreign policy according to the “madman theory”: he tried to convince enemy leaders that he was irrational and volatile, in an attempt to intimidate them. But this was a potentially useful approach to foreign policy only because it was an act. Trump, on the other hand, genuinely seems to be a man who speaks and acts without significant forethought. He’s also someone who—as his debate performances have shown—responds to slights by lashing out against adversaries irrationally and without thinking about the consequences. And Trump has done little to reassure us about nuclear weapons specifically. He has expressed an affinity for massive bombing, proposing to “bomb the shit” out of oil fields in Iraq to counter ISIS. During a March interview with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, he said that he would consider using nuclear weapons in Europe, of all places. More generally, he’s disengaged from the realities of international affairs. In August, Trump vowed that, as President, he would prevent Russia’s Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine—“He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down”—apparently not knowing that Russia is already there. He’s also announced a plan to back out of our current nuclear-weapons accord with Iran without any stated replacement for it. Trump’s ignorance is already dangerous; it becomes even more so with nuclear weapons in the mix.
This summer, Scarborough cited an unnamed source who said that Trump, in discussing nuclear weapons with his foreign-policy advisers, had asked, “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” Trump’s campaign has denied that he asked this question. But elsewhere Trump has said he would consider using nuclear weapons against ISIS and suggested that it would be good for the world if Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia acquired them. These comments demonstrate a fundamental confusion about the role nuclear weapons have played among the superpowers. During the Cold War, the fact that the United States and Soviet Union possessed massive nuclear arsenals capable of destroying either country many times over allowed the policy of mutually assured destruction to enforce détente. Each side was dissuaded from attempting a unilateral first strike against the other by the recognition that to do so was to commit national suicide. Robert Oppenheimer described the situation using a metaphor: two scorpions trapped in the same bottle.
Nuclear proliferation destabilizes the equilibrium of mutually assured destruction. In a multipolar nuclear world, in which many countries have a few nukes and threaten to use them, the possibility of a “limited” nuclear war—one in which all of civilization is not obliterated—begins, for some people, to appear feasible. The truth, however, is that there’s no such thing as limited use of nuclear weapons. Retaliation and escalation are extremely likely. Even the use of nuclear weapons in a “local” conflict—say, between India and Pakistan—would have disastrous consequences. Millions would die in the initial nuclear exchange, of course. But the residue from the nuclear blasts would also produce long-term climate changes that would affect global agriculture for perhaps a decade, killing as many as a billion people through starvation. If he acted on his statements, Trump would usher in a chaotic, unpredictable, and dangerous nuclear future.
The fact that Trump has so cavalierly raised concerns about nuclear weapons may have a silver lining. It underscores how dangerous and irrational our nuclear policies already are.
It has long been recognized that there is no rational strategic goal actually furthered by the use or proliferation of nuclear weapons. It’s for this reason that, in 1969, under President Nixon, the U.S. signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The five nations possessing nuclear weapons at that time—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France—committed to nuclear disarmament; in exchange, a hundred and eighty-six other countries pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons. Since 2007, George Schulz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn—none of whom can be classified as pacifists—have, as the “Gang of Four,” advocated for a world free from nuclear weapons. In 2008, while running for President, Barack Obama also spoke out forcefully in favor of disarmament, saying, “It’s time to send a clear message to the world: America seeks a world with no nuclear weapons.”
Early in his Presidency, Obama did initiate a small reduction in our nuclear arsenal. He’s also overseen nuclear negotiations with Iran. But, in general, during the Obama Presidency, we have only deepened our dangerous embrace of nuclear weapons. At the moment, around a thousand nuclear weapons are still on a hair-trigger alert; as they were during the Cold War, they are ready to be launched in minutes in response to a warning of imminent attack. (Eric Schlosser, in his book “Command and Control,” describes many instances in which such warnings were mistaken.) The Obama Administration has proposed a trillion-dollar program designed to modernize the technical capabilities of our nuclear-weapons infrastructure and arsenal. It has also resisted the calls of a number of former senior national-security experts—ranging from researchers at the Brookings Institution to the late George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy, and Robert McNamara—for a no-first-use policy, a pledge that the United States would not use nuclear weapons unless it were first attacked using them. It’s true that there are cogent arguments against a no-first-use policy. In 2001, a Nuclear Posture Review carried out by the George W. Bush Administration argued that the threat of nuclear weapons might be necessary to deter a large-scale biological-weapons attack, or an attack by a massive conventional force. Others have argued that a no-first-use policy would diminish confidence among U.S. allies, perhaps encouraging them to build their own nuclear arsenals. Finally, since such a policy would originate in the executive branch, in a perceived crisis a President could override it. Nevertheless, if such a policy were officially in place, it would presumably raise the bar for making a first-use decision.
Perhaps because of the threat posed by Trump, the current election season has seen some encouraging developments on the nuclear front. The Obama Administration has held a few meetings to discuss the adoption of a no-first-use policy. Although Hillary Clinton has not publicly weighed in on that idea, she has signalled her opposition to the proposed nuclear-modernization program. But this is the moment for Clinton to do more. She should argue, correctly, that Donald Trump’s proximity to the nuclear button shows that we need a more rational nuclear policy. Such a policy would reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal, thereby putting pressure on Russia and other nations to reduce their arsenals. It would reëxamine a no-first-use policy. And it would abandon prohibitively expensive nuclear-modernization plans. We should be investing in education and infrastructure, not nuclear war.
Clinton should also reaffirm that total disarmament remains the ultimate global goal. At the end of the day, there is no such thing as ironclad protection against accidental or planned nuclear conflagrations as long as the U.S. and Russia possess thousands of nuclear weapons. That’s why the Non-Proliferation Treaty didn’t just restrict non-nuclear nations from obtaining nuclear weapons but also required nations possessing them to disarm. For as long as we continue to ignore this fundamental reality, we will continue to hover at the brink of Armageddon. It should be impossible for Trump, or any President, to push us over it.
* This post has been updated to clarify that the Secretary of Defense does not need to confirm a Presidential order to use nuclear weapons.
Lawrence M. Krauss is the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He is chair of the board of sponsors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and is on the board of the Federation of American Scientists. His newest book, “The Greatest Story Ever Told . . . So Far,” will appear in March, 2017.