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.
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