Far from making America great again, Trump is more likely to make America grope again in the darkness of the post-nuclear age.
Hillary Clinton lost the election, but a question she tweeted during the campaign remains critically important for the world. Can a man so easily baited by Twitter be trusted with the nuclear codes?
Donald Trump’s likely policies after assuming office later in January require triangulation of three known character traits. First, his twitchy thumbs can jump into action to spray his thought bubbles over the Twitter-sphere before his brain is engaged. Second, he possesses a unique capacity to deny outright something he said, even if digitally recorded. Third, he is a professional deal maker.
Trump’s nuclear Twitter spray
During the US election campaign, Trump thrice asked a foreign policy adviser: if we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them? In a New York Times interview, he seemed to suggest Japan and South Korea could obtain their own nuclear arsenals. On December 22, President-elect Trump tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” The same day President Vladimir Putin also spoke of the need to do the same with Russia’s deterrent.
One positive spin on the Trump tweets is to suggest that far from threatening Russia, Trump is issuing an open invitation to Putin to team up against emerging powers: two superpowers to rule the world. This is a pipe-dream in a multi-polar world with Russia at best a regional power and Russian and US interests coinciding on a few but diverging on several key interests, goals, threats and enemies.
Trump’s spokesman Jason Miller explained that in the December 22 tweet, “Trump was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it,” which is almost Trump-like in attempting to convey a meaning exactly opposite of that actually said. A day later Trump said, “Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
A third positive spin would be that by asking why not use the bomb, Trump grasped their essential uselessness. His musings on Pacific allies underlined the fundamental paradox of nukes for some but not for others if they are useful for deterrence and operationally usable.
But then, why not encourage a free-for-all proliferation? In international diplomacy, relationships are often transactional. Will Trump dismantle the nuclear deal with Iran if it jeopardises his incipient partnership with Russia to defeat ISIS? Will he move closer to Taiwan and risk undermining China’s cooperation on checking North Korea’s nuclear ambitions?
Four sceptical notes
The Obama administration committed itself to a trillion-dollar nuclear upgrade over the next 30 years. Enlarging the US nuclear stockpile would reverse decades of policy by successive Democratic and Republican presidents. The rationale for weapons cutbacks was best provided by former president Ronald Reagan with his genius for soundbites. “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” Reagan said in 1984. There are four grounds for scepticism about nuclear weapons being the pathway to making America great again: dis-utility, cost, risks, and a deepening global anti-bomb norm.
A nuclear bomb has not been used again after 1945, largely because it is essentially unusable. If used against a non-nuclear nation, the political cost of damage to the international reputation of the user would far exceed any expected military utility. This explains why America and the Soviet Union accepted defeat and withdrew from Vietnam and Afghanistan instead of escalating to the nuclear level. Their only – and even then limited – utility is deterrence of another nuclear power. But here too, there is an inescapable paradox which renders them unusable. If deterrence breaks down and the enemy does use the bomb, retaliation in kind leaves both sides worse off.
To be credible, possession must be accompanied by the full infrastructure of delivery, command and control systems, the capacity to absorb a surprise first attack, survive and retaliate with sufficient destructive power against the enemy. There must also be robust safety and security features at every stage of the cycle, from design of facilities and rigorous screening of personnel, to storage, assembly and deployment of nuclear materials, warheads and delivery systems. This makes the nuclear weapons complex extremely costly. Belief in the bomb being a cost-effective substitute for conventional military power – which, because of the strong taboo against nuclear weapons, remains essential for capacity to use force in support of diplomacy – has proven to be delusional.
The number of times that we have come frighteningly close to nuclear holocaust is simply staggering:
- In January 1961, a 4MT bomb (that is, 260 times more powerful than Hiroshima) was just one ordinary switch away from detonating over North Carolina when a B-52 bomber on a routine flight went into an uncontrolled spin.
- In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the US strategy was based on intelligence that no nuclear warheads were present in Cuba. In fact there were 162 warheads already stationed there, the local Soviet commander had taken them out of storage to deployed positions for use and the top three commanders split on whether or not to launch them against US targets.
- On October 28, 1962, a missile launch base in Okinawa received an authenticated order to launch missiles. The local commander used rare common sense and further clarifications confirmed the order was a mistake. Other veterans dispute this account.
- On June 3, 1980, amidst the tension of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened close to the proverbial 3 am by his military aide General William Odom with the news that the Soviets had launched 220 SLBMs at the US. Brzezinski asked for confirmation and Odom called him a second time with a correction: the number of missiles hurtling towards the US was 2,200. Brzezinski decided not to wake his wife, preferring she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call President Jimmy Carter to authorise US retaliatory strikes, Odom phoned for the third time: it was a false alarm triggered by a 46-cent defective computer chip.
- In November 1983, in response to NATO war games exercise Able Archer, which Moscow mistook to be real, the Soviets came close to launching a full-scale nuclear attack against the West.
- On January 25, 1995, Norway launched a scientific research rocket in its northern latitude whose stage three mimicked a Trident SLBM. Within seconds, the Russian early warning radar system tagged it as a possible US nuclear missile attack. Fortunately the rocket did not stray into Russian airspace owing to system malfunction and the alert subsided.
- Following the Ukraine crisis, in the one year period March 2014 to 2015, one study documented 67 specific incidents between Russia and NATO – 13 of which were “serious” and five, “high risk.”
The nuclear equation is biased against peace
For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time. For nuclear armageddon, deterrence or fail safe mechanisms need to break down only once. This is not a comforting equation. Deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being always in office on all sides – a dubious precondition. From later this month, leaders with their fingers on the nuclear buttons will include Trump and Kim Jong-un. It depends equally critically on no rogue launch, human error or system malfunction. The above examples prove conclusively that this is an impossibly high bar.
The more the number of nuclear weapons in existence and the more countries that possess them – the more the risk of a nuclear war multiplying exponentially. If not by design and intent, this could result from an accident, a rogue launch, human error or system malfunction. When we combine this with the proliferation of fake news, the risks of a nuclear launch by mistake are magnified manifold under current conditions. Recently, for example, Pakistan’s defence minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif threatened a nuclear attack on Israel – via a tweet, of course – in response to a fake news story that Israel had threatened Pakistan with nuclear weapons.
The strengthening global norm against the bomb
With growing global consciousness of nuclear risks and threats, has come a strengthening determination to act to reduce and eliminate them. On December 9, 2014, 127 states signed the “humanitarian pledge” to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. In pursuit of that promise, on December 23, 2016 the UN General Assembly resolved to convene a conference in New York in March and June-July 2017 “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.” The resolution was adopted by a massive 113-35 (13 abstentions) majority. The US and allies that shelter under its nuclear umbrella voted against.
All this shows why, should Trump try to implement his nuclear thought bubbles, he will quickly find himself swimming against the global tide of opinion on the wrong side of history and humanity. Far from making America great again, Trump is more likely to make America grope again in the darkness of the post-nuclear age.
Ramesh Thakur is co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. The second edition of his book The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect has just been published by Cambridge University Press.
This article was first posted in The Wire on 1 January, 2017.