What Does It Mean to Have Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button?

As Bruce Blair describes in his Politico article, the idea of a potential Donald Trump presidency inspired fear in many as to his capacity to remain calm with America’s nuclear arsenal at his fingertips. With the election in the rearview mirror and Trump in the White House, should the American public still be concerned – and if so, what should we be doing about it?

I would argue that regardless of what one thinks of Trump, the Blair article raises plenty of concerns about the U.S. nuclear launch system that should be cause for concern, or at least for fear. The president’s ability to order a nuclear strike is virtually unchecked, and for good reason – in the case of an impending strike, any hesitation in the decision-making process would almost certainly mean not only the deaths of millions of Americans, but the destruction of the military chain of command that could allow for any kind of retaliation. At the same time, such a structure increases the potential for a false alarm to turn deadly. One of President Carter’s advisors was only seconds away from telling the president of an impending Russian nuclear attack; had the Colorado detection facility not explicitly broken their time guidelines and realized their mistake, there is a real chance that human civilization may not have lived to tell the tale. Seriously, it’s that terrifying.

It is for that reason that Blair can, in my opinion, correctly argue that no president can ever truly be “capable” of handling the nuclear responsibilities of the position. Until the day that nuclear weapons are eliminated entirely, it is probably unreasonable of us to expect that anybody, regardless of how levelheaded they may seem, can “process all that he or she needs to absorb under the short deadlines imposed by warheads flying inbound at the speed of 4 miles per second.” When you combine this with the knowledge that the only “defense” for a nuclear attack is retaliation, the idea of complete nuclear disarmament starts to look a lot more attractive.

Given that disarmament is almost certainly not going to happen in the near future, however, one prudent way to assuage these fears would seem to be investing in our nuclear detection facilities and potentially rethinking what should happen in the minutes following an alert. Should the president ever be able to act on one detection facility’s alert that is not corroborated by another facility? Is having a first strike capability, which President Obama (apparently quite reluctantly) kept as policy, necessary for any reason?

Lastly, where Trump specifically comes in is in an international relations regard. As Blair observes, false alarms are relatively rare; the far more likely scenario where nuclear weapons may come into play is as the result of the escalation of a drawn-out confrontation with another nuclear power. President Trump has certainly made statements in the past that may agitate foreign powers and increase the likelihood of a conflict; at the same time, U.S./Russia relations have almost undoubtedly improved since the election, decreasing the chance of a nuclear conflict there. Moving forward, at least until nuclear disarmament becomes something that is seriously considered, I believe that the best that the American people can do is take the state of U.S. international relations seriously and demand accountability from our elected leaders. After all, the best way to avoid having our president make the wrong choice is to keep them from ever having to make it. — Ben

29 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Have Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button?

  1. You make a good point about how the greater concern may not be an instantaneous and surprise nuclear attack, but rather an attack we know is coming beforehand due to escalations in political conversation. Although it is true that in crunch time an aggressive president may treat a nuclear launch decision differently than a more placid one, the real issue is how each personality treats the other major foreign powers of the world, and whether provocation to nuclear consequences is a possibility.

    Greater communication between powers is, overall, a safer tactic regardless of who is in power. Many nuclear scares in the Cold War came about because there was so little communication with the Soviet Union. We couldn’t rely on them to make it obvious that a nuclear attack was coming – we could only rely on our sensors and our radar. This isn’t to say that any future hypothetical nuclear attacks will be widely broadcasted before they occur, but that communication between nations is faster, more reliable, and more widely available today.

    That said, we have to be careful to keep the lines of communication open in an era where nations have begun to revert to isolationism and, in some cases, extreme nationalism. Globalization is imminent, but some countries fear that this will diminish their power or identity, and react accordingly (Brexit, immigration laws, etc.). Isolationism and nationalism could bring leaders into power who are more aggressive. Nations have a better chance at surviving the nuclear age if leaders, aggressive or not, communicate – let’s hope this idea persists even if we enter a period of fear of globalization.

  2. Ben, I agree with most of what you have said, especially your argument that elected leaders, no matter how intelligent or levelheaded, are incapable of handling the immense responsibilities that come with unilateral control over the nuclear arsenal. However, I would like to point out a few things. Firstly, if the President were to be warned of an incoming enemy nuclear strike, he would have roughly thirty minutes to decide the fate of both the US and its nuclear adversary. It is certainly worth questioning the necessity of a retaliatory nuclear strike. If the US burns to the ground in a massive nuclear strike, do we need to drag our adversary and potentially the rest of the world with us? Of course we never publicly address such thinking because it defeats the entire purpose of having a nuclear arsenal.

    To say that the world is lucky to have survived the Cold War is no understatement. Yet I’m not entirely sure if delegating authority for a nuclear strike to our elected leaders is the best idea, as it inevitably delays the response time of a potential retaliatory strike and weakens the deterrence capabilities of our nuclear arsenal. Perhaps a combination of the President and his Cabinet in agreement regarding a nuclear strike would be a better idea? Just a thought…

  3. Fear associated with Trump and his administration surely permeates the country at the current moment. However, fear of America and its overwhelming military capabilities is not new for the international community. When I studied abroad at Oxford last term, I wrote a paper on international security for my teacher who specialized in the subject. This was before the election and my main points of concern were the nuclear capabilities of Russia and China — with their non-democratic systems, nuclear capabilities and rising strength. The professor asked me why I hadn’t mentioned America as a possible threat to security, and I replied “because we’re America, a democracy and a kind of international police.” She called me out then — very quickly — as biased in that assumption. While America’s democratic system does hold politicians accountable to public opinion, checking the government’s power, this democratic check is not full-proof. For example, public opinion can be manipulated and certain government decisions can be shielded from the public eye. Moreover, the check provided by democracy does not extend to every area of government.

    As you point out, in terms of nuclear war, the President has the power to make immediate decisions free of other branches of government or the influence of public opinion. In terms of this quick, world-changing decision — to fire or not to fire — America is not a democracy.

    President Trump’s volatility has engendered a new fear of nuclear warfare in the American people. However, no matter who has claimed the presidential seat and how popular they were domestically, our nuclear capability has frightened countries over the world for a while now.

    I agree that under Trump the nuclear situation has become even more precarious. I would add, though, that a situation with the largest nuclear stockpile tied to one man’s decision has never NOT been dangerous. Maybe with America’s newfound fear of its own power — prompted by Trump — UN nuclear proliferation treaties will stand a better chance.

  4. I agree with pretty much everything that has been said thus far. The dictatorship-esque system that currently gives the President to make the ultimate decision on whether or not to fire nuclear warheads is certainly too much power and responsibility for any single person to have. Yet due to the short amount of time between receiving the signal of an incoming warheads and its landing, this system with very few moving parts seems like one of the only options. This inadequacy in any system further reinforces to me that it is incredibly dangerous to live in a nuclear-capable world.
    To echo a sentiment expressed by Obama at his speech at Hiroshima, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well.” It seems to me that we have still yet to reach this point of moral revolution where we either figure out an appropriate way to handle nuclear weapons or comprehend the damage that these weapons can do and ultimately dispose of them.
    Because our morality has not caught up with our science, perhaps, and I’m sure this is being or has been considered, we should take the human element of out the equation. Though there are an incredible number of factors–things we don’t know: the location of each warhead around the world, and things we can’t know: how each country (allies or enemies will respond to a nuclear strike on our soil)–limiting our ability to make the model with the greatest accuracy, we could use game theory to determine the best possible response for the US in the event of a nuclear attack. We would then simply act according to the numbers as opposed to a seemingly arbitrary choice of response from the President’s “menu”.
    In my opinion, a pre-calculated rational response according to the data collected is the option that makes the most sense.

  5. I tend to agree with most of what has been said. While nuclear proliferation would be a simple solution to the “single man with a button,” I do not see that happening in our lifetimes. There is just simply too many problems with giving up one’s own nuclear weapons without knowing for certain that other states, particularly ones that the United States may not be as aligned with in ideology, will follow our example. This is the classic problem of credible commitment, where there is no complete guarantee that one country can make to another to give up their nuclear weapons without any sort of doubt from the other country. The potential disaster of a nuclear attack is simply too high for a country to take that risk. That is why many countries who have signed the NPT rely on the United States’s “nuclear umbrella” as their source of immunity and threat of mutually assured destruction.

    In terms of Trump, I think that he, and any other president has too much at stake to be the sole decider on the use of a nuclear weapon. Here I agree with PJ, that there should be some sort of committee to determine whether a nuclear strike is a valid option and should be implemented. However, there must be some sort of balance between numbers of members and the expediency required to reply to a nuclear strike. If there are too many members, then the damage would have already been done while they deliberated before coming to an answer. I think a committee of two other people would keep the decision process short, but also provide two other people who can bring their own rationality and share the burden of such a decision.

  6. An idea that has been repeated in the discussion is that “Communication between nations is key to prevent a nuclear strike from either side”. Although this is definitely key in establishing positive international relations with foreign countries, in my opinion it has little to do with a decision to launch a nuclear missile in itself. This is because a nuclear strike would never be announced publicly by an enemy nation until it has actually hits its target to minimize the chances of prompt retaliation. Instead, the sole factor that can provide a nation’s leadership information about an incoming nuclear strike is nothing else but satellite and radar technology. And given the significant advances that these technologies have seen in the case of the Cold War era, along with the fact that ballistic missiles are internationally monitored, it is almost guaranteed that if a nuclear strike is launched against the US, the US leadership will know it almost as soon as it is launched.

    Therefore, there is no question of accidentally launching a nuclear strike no matter who the US president is because the technology systems can reliably determine whether there is an incoming nuclear strike. The burning question thus is whether there will be a first strike launched by the US against another country due to Trump being in power.

    Well, let’s consider the possible targets first, which necessarily are nuclear states and their allies, as US can overpower the rest with its non-nuclear military prowess:

    1) Russia: highly unlikely, as US-Russia relations have improved due to Trump’s election, as stated by previous posters.

    2) India and Pakistan: Since the US does not seem to have changed its stance against them despite Trump’s election, the situation is no different than it was before Trump got into power.

    3) UK, France: US NATO allies, so definitely not.

    4) China and North Korea: Well, here is where it becomes interesting because these are the two countries that Trump loves to talk about (here is the proof for the former country: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3R06i17lLU; for the other just read NYT). So let’s examine them one-by-one>

    a) Well, Trump is definitely pursuing a trade agenda that does not favor China. However, it is highly unlikely that dispute of this sort on economic grounds would lead to an all-out war against China that could escalate to a nuclear strike. The most likely outcome of this are trade embargoes and financial/trade warfare that can definitely harm the US financially, but cannot lead to a military strike from the US side, as an easier solution would be abandoning the proposed military policies.

    b) North Korea is a subtler situation, especially given its most recent Ballistic Missile Test in the Japan Sea. Definitely, US might have been considering launching a first strike against it because it constitutes a threat to its national security. But this is also the case for UK, France, even Russia, given that North Korea ‘s only significant ally is China. Therefore, unless US has an interest in initiating a nuclear war with China, it would never launch a military strike against N. Korea (I cannot argue for the opposite though).

    Therefore, a preemptive nuclear strike administered by President Trump is no more likely than it was by president Obama or any other president. There is really no proof that having a less liberal and more nationalistic President leads to a higher chance for a preemptive nuclear strike because of the nature of the international arena that does not provide any positive incentive for the US to launch a nuclear strike against any potential targets. Although this is the case, there is a burning question still to be answered: In the event US is the target of a nuclear strike, will Trump make the decision to retaliate and potentially “drag their adversary and potentially the rest of the world with into a nuclear war” (quoting PJ here), or will it stick to the diplomatic path and try to bear the damage of the incoming strike? And which one of these two options is truly the better one?

  7. The “Nuclear Monarch”

    Usually when we talk about policy we think about an arduous bureaucracy that takes a very long time to implement changes/decision and even longer for the effects of those changes to take place. The nuclear authority of the president presents an unusual case in which the government, embodied by the executive, can make an instantaneous decision that would forever change the world. Many people, myself included, have been somewhat comforted by the fact there are civil servants in the government who can hopefully dilute some of Trump’s crazier rhetoric (though clearly not all). In the case of a nuclear strike, all intermediaries no longer matter (unless Trump decides to give other people some authority, which, given his narcissistic personality and inability to submit to others, seems highly unlikely.)

    The nuclear strike scenario is a striking and timely example of the danger of placing too much power in the hands of a single person. While Trump’s erratic personality and impulsive behavior make a nuclear launch seem more possible (despite the fact that he does not drink, as the article points out), the article points to procedures in the launching of the nuclear codes that would be dangerous for one person to have in any situation. At the same time, the fact that there are only minutes between the detection of an incoming missile and a decision to mount a counterattack means that by the time multiple people confer, it might be too late. The only answer I can think of to remedy this would be disarmament, however that is looking increasingly unlikely.

  8. While it is important to entertain the possibilities of an all-out nuclear war between armed nations, I think one important part of the article that was brought up – but not explored fully – was the idea that a nuclear war involving the US would come as the result of an escalation of violence rather than a sudden, full-scale attack.

    As we’ve seen in the past, conflicts between nuclear-armed nations have not involved nuclear attack and retaliation. Rather, in the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, both the US and Soviet Union approached the conflict with an attitude of gradual escalation. Neither side had been willing to initiate mutual destruction, and rather preferred to spend billions of dollars and sacrifice thousands of lives (or other’s lives) to settle the conflict without nuclear arms. Nothing has changed. Although Trump may be perceived as an irrational, hot-headed leader, Blair makes it very clear that this is not the case. He provides ample evidence to show that although Trump does not wholly reject the option of using nuclear arms (neither did Obama), he understands that nuclear arms can only be used as a last resort: when there’s nothing else left. Furthermore, national leaders must be understood in a more realistic and human light. Rather than predicting the actions of a country based off of its national ideals, or behavioral stereotypes, a country’s leader must be understood as a rational human being. And thus it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Obama, Trump, Putin, or Xi Jinping. Each leader understands the implications of nuclear war and would be similarly reluctant to bring their own ultimate destruction. Thus, the conditions for nuclear war have not changed since the Cold War: neither Russia nor the US (nor China) has their “finger on the trigger”. No armed nations are waiting for the moment to push the button and blast the world into oblivion.

    The same might not be able to be said about other, fringe leaders; namely Iran and North Korea. However, these nations do not possess the nuclear strength to incapacitate a superpower such as the US or Russia. Under their leadership, a nuclear launch is surely possible. However, retaliation from powerfully-armed nations would likely show the same level of restraint (with regards to nuclear weapons use) as we saw in the Cold War. In this scenario, a nuclear weapons attack would not lead to all out nuclear war, although the possibility for a conventional war still exists.

    Therefore, when the leaders of nuclear-armed states are viewed in a more rational light, predicting a nuclear war can be understood on a much longer time scale than the article entertains. Rather than “Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button”, the reality is much less flashy. Nations the bear the responsibility of possessing stockpiles of nuclear weapons also bear the responsibility of the world on their shoulders. And any leader, no matter how aggressive, nationalistic, or hot-headed, would rather wage an escalated war than bring about the destruction of humanity.

  9. I definitely agree with what others have said about the president having too much unchecked power when it comes to nuclear weapons. As Ben mentioned, the part of the article that concerned me was when Blair mentioned Carter’s advisor, who almost told him about a “nuclear attack” that ended up being a false alarm. Imagine what could have happened if the advisor had NOT waited to tell Carter? This example is only one of what I am sure are many examples of why there needs to be a better system of validation for launching nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, when time is concerned, I would argue that the current system we have is likely the best we COULD have, because there are only a few minutes between saving the U.S. and complete nuclear devastation.

    One element of IR that I have studied in quite a few of my classes here at Princeton is about how leaders shape our foreign and military policy. President Trump, as Blair mentions, laments the presence of nuclear weapons in the international community, but prides himself in the size and scope of our military by arguing that he will “have a military that’s so strong and powerful, and so respected, we’re not gonna have to nuke anybody.” However, I would disagree with President Trump on that point. While we indeed have an impressive military, I think there’s something to be said for other countries (like North Korea and Iran) acting out against the U.S. out of fear of this current administration. Due to the rising threat of North Korea and Iran — as President Trump has noted on numerous occasions — it seems that a U.S. first strike would be rational, if not justified, in order to protect the nation (to answer Ben’s question). I am doing my project on the probability of a U.S. first strike against North Korea, and it seems like it is a plausible option given the current political climate. There’s an interesting NYT article on the topic here if people want to read it: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/18/world/asia/us-north-korea-weapons.html?_r=0

    Because leaders are so formative in shaping foreign policy, it is my hope that President Trump continues to surround himself with intelligent and rational advisors. Blair mentions that adequate and well thought-out advising could make or break our nuclear situation, and I would agree with that point. It is important to note that President Trump does have intelligent civilian and military advisors surrounding him on this issue. GEN Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, is well-respected by the political and military community, and is renowned for being well-read and schooled in the ways of war. GEN Milley (a Princeton ROTC graduate!), the Secretary of the Army, is also well-known for being an intelligent individual. It is leaders/ advisors such as these men that I believe could make or break a situation like the one mentioned in Blair’s article. Hopefully over time, they will be able to extend their expertise and influence into the Oval Office. It is merely up to President Trump to listen to them.

  10. I agree with Ben in that improving nuclear detection capabilities will help reducing the chance of nuclear conflict. Reduced political and military animosity since the end of the Cold War implies that, if a nuclear attack occurs in somewhere, it is more than ever likely that it is by an accident rather than a calibrated military attack. A story that is similar to the false alarm during the Carter administration exists for the Soviet side; in 1983, a Soviet satellite falsely detected five ICBM launches from the United States, and a high military personnel’s decision to call off the retaliation protocol and wait to confirm whether it is an error or not potentially saved millions, or even billions, of lives. The same misdetection can happen any day, not just to the United States or Russia, but to any country with nuclear retaliation capability. And given Trump’s often unprofessional and extremist remarks (and actions), it seems that him being the commander-in-chief certainly comes at a cost of increased nuclear risk.

    However, I believe that the risk associated with his personal traits does not exceed the benefit from improved US-Russia relations, to which he has apparently contributed. With the inauguration of Trump, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight, arguing that one of its rationales behind the choice is “deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia.” Obviously, the exact opposite has happened so far, even though it is hard to forejudge how long this cooperative mood will stay in effect. Considering that the United States and Russia possess 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, increased ties and communication between the two enormously diminishes global nuclear-related risks. Of course, amicability between Washington and Moscow may do more harm than good in different parts of US national affairs. However, when it comes strictly to nuclear threats, it seems like the Trump administration has gained more than it has lost.

  11. Throughout American history, we’ve come perilously close to a nuclear exchange because of technical or human error, and it really lays bare the absurdity behind the nuclear arsenal. Perhaps the real question is not how to stop an unstable leader or a technical error from starting a nuclear launch, but instead why we still have such an arsenal capable of that level of destruction in the first place. I’m reminded of the Doomsday weapon in Dr. Strangelove — a weapon so terrible that it is never meant to be used until it eventually annihilates humanity. It sounds absurd, until we are actually faced with the possibility of the usage of nuclear weapons by an unstable leader.

    Yet, to focus on the executive or command and control networks does not eliminate the real problem. Let’s say the president were to be removed from the launch chain of command under legislation currently introduced in Congress (out of the fear that Trump would be an unstable manager of the arsenal). The fact remains that someone in the chain of command still has the authority to launch the weapons. Blair lays out a horrifying scenario, “Altogether only 15 minutes would elapse before 850 land- and sea-based missile warheads would take flight. There would be no stopping, no recall, no turning back the salvo…A global humanitarian catastrophe would ensue to seal the fate of civilization itself.” We need to ask ourselves about the moral implications of having such destructive potential. In a world that claims to abhor nuclear weapons, in most of the nuclear powers have pledged no first use or only defensive uses, what purpose does the nuclear arsenal truly serve other than as a potential threat to the continued survival of humanity?

  12. I agree with all that Ben said on the matter and my opinions echo much of the others stated above, but I especially wish to place more emphasis on the question Ben raised of the benefits of maintaining a first strike capability. While I agree with many here that the world would be much better off if free of nuclear weapons, given that they do still exist I can of course at least understand the rationale of having a nuclear armoury and thereby the capacity to retaliate, at least as a deterrent. What I’m not sure I can understand, however, are the benefits of a first strike capacity. It is one thing to place the extremely high-pressure responsibility of responding to an attack on the shoulders of a hot-headed, unpredictable man such as President Trump, but it is another to grant him the freedom to keep his finger on the nuclear button at all times. We are told that Obama refrained from uprooting this policy despite taking issue with it due to an advisor who presented the “scenario in which a quick U.S. nuclear strike offered the only available tool to eradicate an unfolding terrorist operation meant to spread deadly biological pathogens from a makeshift production laboratory in a remote location to cities worldwide.” I admit that such an advisor would likely know a little more than I on this issue, but I find this specific scenario rather difficult to imagine, in which no other form of weapon or non-nuclear missile would be sufficient to prevent the attack. Furthermore, it may be ignorant to assume that just because we haven’t seen a biological weapon have a large-scale effect yet that it doesn’t have the potential to do serious harm, but it seems likely that the damage done from a nuclear strike on these facilities would be far superior to that which we would likely see from the potential biological threat.

  13. I think that one of the key points that Ben brought up in his piece was that of the unlikelihood of nuclear disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist, it seems, we have to rely on the temperament and restraint of the few who can control them. Trump has cautioned against disarmament treaties like the 2011 New START Treaty, which reduced the nuclear capabilities of both the United States and Russia, calling the agreement “bad deal.”
    Though there is an argument that the possibility of nuclear warfare reduces the chances of conflict between world powers, as General John Hyten argued in a recent Politico article (http://www.politico.com/story/2017/03/john-hyten-nuclear-weapons-ban-united-nations-236751). The phenomenon of deterrence suggests that the more immanent a nuclear war is, the more carefully countries around the world would tread. I suppose it could be argued that the fear that Trump could erratically spark a nuclear war could, in fact, make countries like Russia tread especially thoughtfully in foreign policy with the United States. In this way, the President’s supreme control over the nuclear codes could be an asset to creating a more stable world.
    Of course, the inherent danger is that Trump could just as easily cause a nuclear war through antagonistic behavior and shortsightedness.
    For these reasons, it is unclear if disarmament could actually help or hurt the prospect of all-out war. Yet without disarmament, there exists a much more daunting, existential danger.

  14. From the text: “Trump’s teetotaling lays that concern to rest, but his quick temper, defensiveness bordering on paranoia and disdain for anyone who criticizes him do not inspire deep confidence in his prudence. Can we trust a President Trump to remain grounded and sensible under extraordinary pressure in a crisis that appears to be crossing the nuclear Rubicon?”

    I found the question posed here to be the crux of the conversation. The personality characteristics that Trump has exhibited as a public figure are definitely concerning when I think about the power that is in hands. With literally the push of one finger, Trump could launch an international nuclear crisis. And, as the article mentioned, Trump has the power of five—not one—fingers when it comes to military action and decision making.

    I largely echo the sentiment stated in a few posts above. The total power given to the president, or other heads of state, is much too concentrated. That fact that one person has hundreds of thousands of lives in his or her hands is almost inconceivable, and is something I do not believe anyone is fully capable of wielding. Yet, despite my fundamental disagreement with the system, I cannot come up with a better way to handle the nuclear situation. Putting two, three, four people in a position of shared power when it comes to nuclear decisions could surely prevent action from being taken efficiently and effectively, if for some tragic reason it was ever needed. One disagreement on what the proper nuclear response is could have disastrous consequences resulting in either an unnecessary detonation, or a type of detonation gridlock where nothing is accomplished. Unless a new and improved system is developed, I am afraid one individual will be stuck with the fate of many—and a world legacy—in his or her hands.

    I also want to quickly discuss the scenario posed in the article during which a nuclear warhead is suspected to be heading for the United States, potentially decimating the country and its ability to fight back. The idea that the president has to either determine that the threat is a false alarm or respond to the attack with a nuclear attack of his own is not exactly logical. Would it truly be necessary to launch an immediate counter attack against the aggressor? If so, the United States has allies with nuclear capabilities. In a worst-case scenario where another attack is necessary, the aggressor likely is acting on fundamental principles that contradict those of the U.S. and its allies. If these were confirmed to be threatening enough to warrant a return attack, then perhaps it would fall on another country to stop the aggressor from acting inappropriately on a world scale further. I do, however, predict that third parties would be hesitant to get involved. Nevertheless, it is possible that a counterattack is not even necessary, so the sentiment that the two options mentioned are all that exist is wrong.

  15. Since disarmament seems unlikely, it is worth thinking about the other possible scenarios and their outcomes. America could receive a false alarm about an impending nuclear attack, an accurate warning, or a non nuclear provocation. In the case of a false alarm, if Trump or a future president responds it would be a disaster. If their power is checked and cooler heads prevail, the crisis would be averted, which is obviously preferable. In the case of a non nuclear provocation, it would also be a disaster if Trump or another president behaved hotheadedly and launched a nuclear strike, and so it would be better again if their power were checked. Even in the case that a nuclear strike were actually launched, it is unclear that an attack immediately fired back would be the best course of action. Perhaps it would be better to wait and assess the situation- it is possible that the other country had received a false alarm or even a hacking, and so blowing them up and receiving even more attacks is not necessarily better for America.

    In all scenarios, it seems better to wait and deliberate strategically as a group rather than give one person the power to immediately launch a counteroffensive. The odds do not seem good that a nuclear response would make things better for anyone. Having said that, it makes sense to outwardly project the image of a country willing to fire nuclear weapons back in response to aggression. This may deter other nations from initiating a conflict. Rather, America should distinguish between its outward policy/image and internal structuring. It would be ideal for the rest of the world to believe that American presidents can respond with nuclear force, but in reality have their power limited with hidden checks and balances. Since this is likely not possible, the next best step would be to limit their power publicly. Nothing good will come of a trigger-happy or even a thoughtful and reserved president deciding the fate of the world on their own.

  16. I agree with Ben that nuclear disarmament is unlikely, though it is the ideal situation, as continued investment in nuclear weapons is essentially a negative-sum game (i.e. These weapons are highly destructive and have little social benefit but high social costs.) However, since nuclear arms will be present for the foreseeable future, we must consider how best to deal with the nuclear status quo.

    With regards to whether the president should be given unchecked power over launching nuclear weapons, I believe that the current system in place provides too much power to the president. Indeed, there is a time constraint on the decision making process but I believe there should be a set protocol requiring that the president reach out to nuclear detection facilities to gauge the situation before making a decision. Of course, due to the limited timeline provided during a nuclear crisis, the much information may not be available, but I believe a protocol should exist that requires an effort to gather as much information as possible within the limited time frame should be put in place. To make this protocol possible, it would be prudent to have emergency communication channels that can be used for extremely swift communication.

    On the subject of first strike capability, I believe that possessing first strike capability does lend certain benefits. First, it may provide the United States with increased bargaining power, since they can credibly threaten another party with nuclear force. In other words, this first strike capability is a very powerful enforcement mechanism in negotiations. Second, this capability allows the United States to possibly incapacitate states or parties with limited nuclear arms (ex: North Korea). However, once more, I believe that there should be a protocol in place to gather as much information as possible from nuclear detection facilities before taking action to prevent irrational actions from being taken.

  17. I disagree.

    It is not feasible, advisable, nor safe to convene a committee and introduce any internal politics, deliberations, and complexity into the time-sensitive and deeply tragic decision-making process that takes place in between the detection of a nuclear threat and the initiation of a retaliatory response. It makes sense for this decision-making power to lie within the presidency—the president is privy to more information than anyone, he commands the whole of the military forces of the United States, he is elected, and he is a civilian. Yes, having a finger on the nuclear button is a big deal, but there’s only room for one finger, and the President’s finger is the least bad finger.

    Moreover, it seems to me that much concern—from Blair and from my classmates—is about *this President* having control over the nuclear arsenal, not *the President*. I think that this belief, as well as Blair’s claim with which Ben agreed that “no president can ever truly be ‘capable’ of handling the nuclear responsibilities of the position,” suggests that the 2010s don’t resemble much the 1960s.

    But this invites the question, is this because we’ve so fundamentally incorporated Cold War thinking into the way that we nowadays approach nuclear issues, or because we’ve abandoned that thinking?

    Suppose we’ve incorporated the idea of deterrence. Then, I would argue that in fact *every* president has been capable of handling the nuclear responsibilities, as we’ve never had a catastrophic mishap involving ours or an adversary’s nuclear weapons.

    But suppose the opposite: that we’ve abandoned the core elements of deterrence and Cold War strategic thinking. I think that everyone considering this question should study Herman Kahn, both as a cultural-historical icon but also his writings and ideas. To save my classmates the trouble of reading the 668-page “On Thermonuclear War,” here’s an excerpt from a 2005 New Yorker profile [1] of Kahn describing one of the key concepts in Kahn’s book:

    “[Kahn’s] point is that unless Americans really do believe that nuclear war is survivable, and survivable under conditions that, although hardly desirable, are acceptable and manageable, then deterrence has no meaning. You can’t advertise your readiness to initiate a nuclear exchange if you are unwilling to accept the consequences. If the enemy believes that you will not tolerate the deaths of, say, twenty million of your own citizens, then he has called your bluff. It’s the difference between saying, ‘You get one scratch on that car and I’ll kill you,’ and saying, ‘You get one scratch on that car and you’re grounded for a week.’ ‘Massive retaliation’ sounds tough, but unless a President can bring himself to pull the nuclear trigger, it’s just talk.”

    This seems unrealistic or callous outside of the Cold War context, and that was part of Kahn’s point. But to me its actually reassuring that my classmates are concerned that when this President talks tough about nuclear weapons, there’s some thought that he might mean it. Let’s hope our adversaries are thinking the same way. Because if the assumption that underlies American nuclear deterrence erodes—and if it turns out that we haven’t incorporated the theory but rather abandoned it—the United States will need credibility to be able to deter aggressive actions and first-use by other parties. A see-through, tip-of-the-hat mention to “all options being on the table” I fear cannot stand up to a credible nuclear threat.

    This probably sounds morbid, troubling, and unsettling. Nuclear war usually is.

    [1] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/06/27/fat-man

  18. I agree with Eli that decentralizing the ability to launch a nuclear weapon is both dangerous and impractical. If the scenario involves the standard 30-minute window we would expect from a Russian missile launch, every second between a weapon’s launch and a final response is critical to make an informed decision. The more individuals that would be involved, the more emotions and human error can interfere with a decision-making process of awesome proportions. Indeed, one must account for the time it would take to locate a committee or group of people responsible for oversight or agreement on the use of a nuclear weapon, properly brief them, issue a recommendation, and deliberate before a final decision can be made. All of this takes time, something that decision makers don’t have a lot of in the face of nuclear Armageddon.

    Although a lack of oversight in a high-risk decision making process is not ideal, I would argue the best check on a president’s power to launch a nuclear strike is one that already exists: the voting public. We cannot forget that the President is elected by the American people, and it’s the American people who judge a candidate’s stamina, intelligence, expertise, and nerve in times of stress. The problem with this method, like any oversight method, is that it can subject to misguidance, which is what I would certainly argue in the case of Trump’s election to the White House. Rather than establish a new check on the president’s prerogative, we need to reconsider our priorities as a voting public when choosing the Commander-in-Chief. As Blair mentions, “Voters should want to consider whether Trump or any other candidate possesses the steely nerves and competence to deliberate intelligently and calmly at the moment of truth.” To me, this must be at the forefront of a voter’s mind when he or she enters the poll station on election day.

  19. As is made abundantly clear in the Blair article, the current system of nuclear controls is cause for alarm. The current system leaves the President’s right to deploy American nuclear missiles essentially unchecked. Blair argues that the current system is cause for concern under any leader. However, I disagree. Under an intelligent, level-headed, and forward-thinking president, the system currently in place is effective and arguably the optimal means of managing America’s nuclear capabilities. I think that the current system only become problematic, when we find an unstable and at times irrational leader at the helm of the country. The risk is not so much that an unstable president would order a counter attack upon receiving intelligence of an impending nuclear attack (because after all, as you yourself say, the only defense for a nuclear attack is retaliation). Instead, the main risk would be that an unstable president would initiate a first strike.

    The election of Donald Trump shows that American democracy is capable of elevating an unstable person to the position of commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world. In light of this capability of our imperfect democratic system, I think we must put restrictions on our president’s ability to strike first (but not deconstruct the system of unchecked presidential power to respond to impending nuclear attacks). This first strike capability must have a lot of checks to prevent an over-reaction from a very reactionary president in the form of a preemptive nuclear attack. Although I don’t think that a president’s ability to singularly react to impending nuclear strikes is a bad thing, I do agree with your proposal for increased investment in detection facilities. This investment would prevent accidental first strikes.

    Although I agree with much of your argument in this post, I think that your conclusion that the solution to the current system of unchecked presidential control over American nuclear capabilities is unrealistic and idealistic. You suggest that the best way to manage the nuclear arsenals is to keep the current system, but essentially “regulate” presidents’ actions by having the people hold the president accountable. Even if this is possible in some areas of American politics, I think that it is exceedingly difficult to do regarding a President’s nuclear controls. These lie deep within executive power, far away from popular control. President’s also singularly control much of American military power and have a huge handle on American foreign policy. Thus, I think that in the case of America’s nuclear arsenal, “the people” holding the president to account is just not realistic or feasible. Rather, I think the most practical solution would be to curtail presidents’ ability to initiate first strikes.

  20. I agree with you in that executive control over nuclear power is beyond the duties of any president, especially Trump. The bomb has allowed American government to develop into a semi-monarchy, as the executive is now far beyond the realm of Madisonian checks and balances. Not only has the bomb enshrined this, but also the nature of national security policy as a whole through the executive-run agencies of the NSA, CIA, and Joint Chiefs of Staff. There is something to be said in that thermonuclear war has yet to happen, under very stressful circumstances. Today’s modern geopolitical landscape focuses much less on the bomb than past eras, such as the 1950s and 1960s, but that doesn’t mean that it is no longer a threat.

    I would like to comment on Trump’s point of view that it might be beneficial for South Korea or Japan to have nuclear weapons. While I don’t personally agree, some scholars have forwarded the argument that nuclear proliferation actually helps global security. At this point, no major global wars have occurred since the invention of the bomb and negotiation is more likely than direct military confrontation. I think Trump’s view is seriously misguided and underestimates the irrationality of international actors. Obviously, my view is the majority view, but I think it demonstrates that President Trump might have a lot of thoughts on nuclear policy that run contrary to popular opinion, ergo a nuclear change-up might be possible.

    Lastly, Blair talks a lot about the advisers that would help President Trump make these bomb decisions. That concerns me more than the actions of the President himself, in that his National Security Adviser is already under investigation for something possibly illegal. Personally, I don’t feel confident in the advice given to the President on nuclear policy, ergo I don’t feel confident in President Trump having his “finger on the button”, per se.

  21. I agree with all of the points that Ben has made in this post. Trump’s volatility is cause for concern, particularly now that he has the American nuclear arsenal at his fingertips. Furthermore, regardless of the levelheadedness of our leader, the decision to follow through on a nuclear strike seems far too monumental for one individual to make alone. This is especially true if the “clock is ticking.” I recognize that seeking further consult potentially wastes precious time, but it would argue that it is worthwhile to have an expert weigh the risks before a choice is made.

    One thing I would like to understand better is the increased concern regarding an American first-strike. The blog and several of the comments focus in on a retaliatory scenario, where Trump must make a 30 minute decision after an incoming attack has already been detected. However, given Trump’s demeanor and willingness to pick a fight, I personally am more afraid of him starting a nuclear war than simply participating in one. I would be interested to gauge whether other people’s concerns align with mine, and if so, how well-founded these concerns? Ben mentioned that improved US-Russia relations may actually decrease the probability of nuclear warfare, but what about other nations that Trump is less tolerant of? If China or North Korea provoke him in some way, is it possible he would try to teach them a lesson, or do we think he knows better than that?

    Ultimately, I agree that disarmament is the best course of action. However, I cannot envision a scenario where disarmament will ever occur, especially during the remainder of our president’s tenure. Given this, I hope that we develop policy that puts some extra protection on our nuclear “trigger,” so that our impulsive president does not inadvertently put the whole world at risk.

  22. To start my response, I would have to disagree overall with Easton Orbe’s point that we have “still yet to reach this point of moral revolution where we either figure out an appropriate way to handle nuclear weapons or comprehend the damage that these weapons can do and ultimately dispose of them.” In fact, I think an important article that is illuminating in light of the discussion here is Nina Tannenwald’s tracing of the development of a prohibitive norm against the use of nuclear weapons. Noting that deterrence can’t account for real world examples in which nuclear states decided against using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states (e.g. Britain in the Falklands war) or in which non-nuclear states attacked nuclear states (e.g. China in the Korean War), Tannenwald argues (convincingly IMO) that nuclear weapon use is almost globally stigmatized and seen by most as a ‘taboo’ weapon thereby further explaining its non-use. The foundation of this taboo is primarily moral, which is rested on our understanding of the deep destruction that nuclear weapons generate.

    I would also like to respond to the sentiment that we should reconsider our first-strike capability and constrain the president’s power to unilaterally respond to a potential nuclear strike on our homeland given our newly elected President. The crux of the argument is probably best summarized by Sophie Helmers: “The election of Donald Trump shows that American democracy is capable of elevating an unstable person to the position of commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world.” True, I don’t totally disagree, but I would say the logic is flawed in that it seemingly treats ‘unstable’ as a binary or a switch that applies to all decisions and events equally. It’s one thing to conclude that Trump is ‘unstable’ given his multiple outbursts on twitter, his overall disposition, his narcissism, and his lack of self-awareness, but it’s a leap, and an illogical one at that, to conclude that Trump therefore (1) doesn’t understand the deeply horrifying effects of nuclear weapons, and (2) wouldn’t act with an abundance of caution when launching potential counterstrikes or when utilizing our strike-first capability. I think Trump would indeed rise to the occasion, but I understand that the scary part is that we can’t now until it actually happens and his previous public interaction doesn’t do much to soothe us.

    On a more general note, I side with the current decision-making hierarchy regarding impending nuclear strikes on our homeland. For one, I agree with what others have already pointed out: there is precious little time and adding other deliberators with decision making power can potentially compromise our ability to respond with the quickness that the emergency necessitates. Richard, on the other hand, argues for protocols that would ensure the president “reach out to nuclear detection facilities to gauge the situation before making a decision.” Specific guidelines and protocols could also hamper quick and effective response. Some guidelines/protocols could be completely irrelevant to the issue at hand, but moreover, such an argument assumes that the president wouldn’t act with the best intelligence on hand, an assumption that I do not share.

    Lastly, I generally advise that we maintain our first strike capability and echo Eli’s point. In contrast to Matt Allen, I generally see the example given to Obama to keep our ‘first strike’ capability as a positive and reassuring example: it is generally understood that only in extreme, extreme examples would we exercise our strike first capability. Here at play is Tannenwald’s taboo, constraining the use of nuclear weapons to the imaginary. Moreover, I think Matt missed the point, which Eli pointed out… it’s not necessarily about us using our strike first capability, but convincing our adversaries that we would which has potential positive global security ramifications. Thomas Nichols, in our reading this week, lays out the logic underpinning NATO’s decision against abandoning such an option: “if the Soviet Union truly intended to menace Europe, NATO thinkers reasoned, a ‘no first use’ pledge would be an open invitation to Moscow to try to keep the conflict at the conventional level, where the Soviet advantage was greatest.” (pg. 26)

  23. This is a really interesting topic, and, as the article points, I heard it come up multiple times throughout the primaries and general election. On the issue of Trump and nuclear weapons, I actually agree with Yannis and found his post to be very insightful as to how he broke down relations with each country. I just do not buy into the hysteria that Trump is a madman who is likely to trigger some sort of nuclear Armageddon.

    I think that there are serious concerns about how the president’s ability to launch a nuclear strike is unchecked, but I cannot think of another effective system that would efficiently produce a decision on a counter-attack. If Congress would have to approve such a strike, the whole world probably be up in dust before the bill even left its committee! The fact of the matter is that the president attains his role after a massive amount of scrutiny and with the blessing of millions of Americans – and most have to trust his judgment, regardless of political affiliation.

    I do question one statement with in the blog post – “When you combine this with the knowledge that the only ‘defense’ for a nuclear attack is retaliation, the idea of complete nuclear disarmament starts to look a lot more attractive.” In my opinion, it is the complete opposite. If the only defense against a nuclear attack is retaliation, then why would a country rid itself of its only defense? It may work as more of a deterrent than anything else, but it has worked so far. And the idea of nuclear disarmament for the United States would make it seem vulnerable on the world stage – especially as North Korea continues to test missiles.

    PJ also addressed this and said: “It is certainly worth questioning the necessity of a retaliatory nuclear strike. If the US burns to the ground in a massive nuclear strike, do we need to drag our adversary and potentially the rest of the world with us?” To me, the short answer to this question is yes. At the very least, the thought of retaliation is a major deterrent, and I could not imagine doing nothing to a country that strikes us. What would North Korea do if it had no expectation of a retaliatory strike from the United States? Perhaps I am cold-hearted, but I would most definitely drag our adversary down with us in the case of a nuclear strike – I could not imagine otherwise.

    Either way, the different scenarios and possibilities of nuclear attacks are frightening to say the least. I did not know about the Carter story before reading the Politico article, and that is a rare but very real possibility. However, I have faith in our intelligence and systems that have worked thus far. Yet, I would not mind a little investment in advancing the technologies as well!

  24. I also agree with everything that has been said. I especially agree with Ben’s point regarding how a nuclear attack is more likely to be retaliation for an attack than a first-strike, and for that reason nuclear disarmament is something to strive for. Something that concerns me with this conversation, however, is the assumption that everyone else (by which I mean global actors) is just as rational as us in terms of knowing that the use of nuclear weapons is something that should be prohibited. While Trump may be misguided as to his thoughts on the spread of nuclear weapons around the world, I am not completely sure that he himself would follow through on a first-strike policy. Perhaps that’s idealistic, but in reality it’s the other nuclear powers that I worry about committing to a first-strike action.

    As a quick aside, I think that the use of Russia as a potential source of nuclear conflict, while possible, is a little outdated–we are not nearly to a point of diplomatic breakdown with that nation for a return to a U.S.-Russia Cold War to be an imminent possibility. To focus overly on such a Cold War mentality with Russia, as such, is not how we should be focusing our mental energies.

    Instead, I think it is much more interesting (and perhaps much scarier) to think about the possibility of a first strike from North Korea (I choose not to include Iran in this because I believe they are farther away from having the capability to commit such an action), whose motivations and sense of logic we are much less certain of. In my mind, a much more likely scenario is one in which NK launches a first-strike nuclear attack on South Korea, Japan, or even the U.S. (if they develop the necessary missiles to have that kind of capability). I believe that this is a much scarier option because not only is it one we have less control over (unlike in the case of Trump and reforming the level of presidential control over the nuclear arsenal), but it is also one where we would be forced to retaliate with all necessary force.

  25. While I have always feared the potential destructive power of a nuclear war at some level, the election of Donald Trump has certainly heightened my concerns (as many others have noted).

    This discussion has highlighted a general consensus among all of us that the nuclear weapon decision is too large for one man. No one person is smart, or strategic, or morally sound, or knowledgable enough to be able to predict all of the broad-reaching consequences of a nuclear attack; yet, the immediate nature of this type of warfare prevents group decision-making or the requirement of a consensus. By the time all of the relevant parties would agree on a course of action, the opportune moment may have passed. Therefore, all we can hope for is that the one person to whom we give this tremendous power approaches the responsibility with humility and an appropriate degree of fear. Unfortunately, as the Blair illuminates for us, this is not currently the case. Instead, Donald Trump is impulsive, dismissive, impatient and egotistical. He tweets whatever comes to mind, refuses to apologize when found in error, cannot find the time to fact check before spreading information, and quickly fires back at anyone who criticizes him with petty insults. These personality traits not only make him unfit to hold the nuclear codes, but also increase the likelihood of irrational nuclear instigation against foreign powers. And while the task of deciding whether to deploy a nuclear weapon was still too consequential for one man under former President Obama, his calm and thoughtful demeanor gave the country confidence that he would at least think clearly, deeply, and seriously about the duty.

    These observations are part of an important policy discussion regarding the unchecked power of the President in the realm of nuclear warfare. Contrary to our founders’ vision of a government rife with checks and balances, the technological advances that brought us nuclear weapons consolidate the decision-making power on this issue in the hands of one individual. If the framers were alive today, is that what they would have wanted? Is this what they envisioned when they established the president as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces? In my opinion, the example of nuclear weapons illuminates an area where the constitution suffers from its outdated nature and fails to accommodate a modern day issue. For me, the frustrations felt about this problem are similar to those felt by gun control activists, who see the 2nd amendment as out of touch with modern gun technology and societal dynamics.

  26. As much as the thought of President Trump’s finger on the button frightens me, Eli’s point that a single finger on the button is objectively better than a process leading to the pressing of the button is undeniably true. Nuclear war, were it to ever occur, would necessitate instantaneous response, and even if I and many others, perhaps even the majority, were to disagree with the action taken, the office of the Executive exists to make executive decisions that, while they may be later judged, checked, and balanced by other branches of government, are for the immediate good of the nation.

    As for Blair’s argument that no president can be truly “capable” of handling nuclear weapons, I believe that this is a slight misreading of the word “capable”. It is, one can safely say in these terms, unreasonable to expect the President to know the full-depth nuclear physics behind each of the weapons he orders dropped and the entire known history of the areas he orders them dropped on. But by this logic it is totally unreasonable to expect anyone to fulfill the Office of President, an office who’s duties include overseeing the working of the largest economy in world history, coordinating domestic policy with State governments of all 50 States, and perhaps aiming to connect personally to each of the 65 million or so voters necessary to achieve re-election. The Office of the President does not and never has comprised of a single person; it is a huge, but focused body that exists to communicate it’s recommendations through a single person because of the rare necessity of immediate or unilateral action. Whether or not I agree with these actions has no bearing on whether the Office has the right to proceed with them; as I mentioned earlier, the only bodies that can remand the Executive Branch are the other two Branches of Congress on the grounds that the majority did not wish for such an action or that the action was Unconstitutional under the United States Constitution.

    Nuclear War is the extreme situation, the final step before armageddon. The Executive Branch, whether or not I or others can stand its current occupant, is tasked with preventing it or limiting its effects, and we cannot cast in doubt its ability or right to do so without exposing ourselves to almost certain destruction in the face of true crisis.

  27. Ben raises many questions in this post; it seems that his most pressing questions are as follows: As Trump is now in the White House, should the American public still be concerned with his ability to remain calm with America’s nuclear arsenal at his fingertips, and if so, how should the public take action on this concern? The answer to this question seems to appear at the end of the blog post, where Ben says he believes the best the American people can do is take the state of US international relations seriously and demand accountability from our elected leaders. This statement seems a bit vague to me, so I thought I would expand upon what could possibly be meant by it. Personally, I believe that demanding accountability from our elected leaders in the context of the usage of nuclear weapons is equivalent to demanding that leaders be properly educated about the science behind the weapons, as well as the extent of their destruction; for instance, this class makes an attempt to establish such a connection between science and policy, but at the undergraduate level. However, it seems to me that the success of establishing this connection has failed at the highest levels of our government for the same reason that it has failed in this class: namely, because it is taught from a proliferant perspective. Rather than asking questions like “How can we minimize critical mass to create the most effective nuclear bomb, and how many people will this kill?” educators should initiate a shift towards a nonproliferant standpoint, such as “How can we reintegrate separated plutonium safely, economically, and efficiently into nuclear fuel to decrease the size of nuclear stockpiles?”. We can’t have a defense program rooted in nonproliferation with an inherently proliferant education strategy.

    Other questions Ben raised include the following: Should the president ever be able to act on one detection facility’s alert that is not corroborated by another facility, and is having a first strike capability, which President Obama (apparently quite reluctantly) kept as policy, necessary for any reason? These questions are so difficult to answer considering the quick reaction to a nuclear threat necessary to save American lives versus the possibility of a false alarm and mutually assured destruction. Because of this, I can’t think of a way to answer the first question, other than to suggest that alerts provided by detection facilities be analyzed in an in-depth, case-by-case basis. In response to the second question, I am firmly against maintaining an American nuclear first strike capability. I see no outcome from this strategy other than mutually assured destruction. Perhaps after factoring in the abilities of other nuclear states, especially up-and-coming proliferant states that have not signed the NPT, to launch preemptive nuclear strikes this opinion seems ignorant or irrational, but nevertheless I argue that working towards the highest degree of nonproliferation is the best solution.

  28. To directly answer your question posed in the first paragraph, Ben, yes—the American public should certainly still be concerned about President Trump’s access to our nuclear arsenal. There are two main reasons for concern. First, nuclear deterrence theory, like most game-theoretical models, requires two or more rational actors. In this respect, we expect all actors to consistently act in a way that maximizes their utility. The first problem then, is quite simple: many military and civilian foreign policy professionals fear Trump’s irrationality.

    There are also many reports that President Trump views the international arena as a zero-sum game. If this is the case, President Trump will never agree to reducing our nuclear capabilities because it could make the US weaker than our adversaries. Thus, nuclear disarmament, which I deem to be a global good, seems insufferable. Trump does not have the Clausewitzian clairvoyance required by military leaders to act rationally.

    The second problem is not Trump himself, but the unchecked power of the President in nuclear decision-making. Many have written about Carter’s potential nuclear attack, but there are several other cases where we have been close to nuclear war. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy put the possibility of total nuclear war at a 1/5 chance. By allowing the President final authority, it only takes a second of bad judgment to provoke nuclear war. The President is also a civilian. The President should have an advisory council composed of civilian and military advisors that sign-off on the use of nuclear weapons. This would make our threats no less credible, just more responsible.

    As for first strike capabilities, the US would do well to preserve this Cold War policy. Maintaining first strike capability is undoubtedly terrifying, but in a geopolitical arena of uncertainty, nuclear weapons can be justified if it means protecting American lives. We can, however, work to reduce our nuclear stockpile in accordance with international agreements. As long as we have similar numbers of warheads relative to other nations, we can sustain first-strike capabilities while getting closer to disarmament. In other words, maintaining first strike capabilities does not mean we cannot work towards disarmament.

  29. Though this strays a bit farther from the article’s point, I believe a more sinister danger to the U.S. is not if we were to be attacked but how the U.S. would respond to a nuclear exchange between two different states. As was already mentioned, many countries who have signed the NPT rely on the United States’s “nuclear umbrella” as their source of immunity and threat of mutually assured destruction. If these countries that have signed the NPT depend on the U.S. for protection and then get attacked themselves, suddenly the burden is on the President to make a decision whether or not to intervene even though the U.S. is not directly affected. This places the United States in a very problematic position.

    While North Korea’s missile test causes some concern, it still seems very unlikely that any country would make the essentially suicidal decision of attacking the United States. A better debate is how can the U.S. properly respond to a nuclear outbreak elsewhere in the world, and how we can better construct our system of emergency-preparedness in a nuclear war to treat each different case. If North Korea decided to attack South Korea with nuclear weapons, do we trust President Trump (or any president) to react quickly and know the best plan of action? Would the President respond differently if it was India and Pakistan? What if Iran attacked Israel with a nuclear weapon?

    Despite some comments made above based on Trump’s personality and platform, such decision-making with regard to nuclear weapons should be made as a general protocol for Presidents in this new age of nuclear proliferation. In other words, responses to nuclear attacks should not be dependent on any change in the administration. As citizens we should hope that Obama or Trump or any President would make a decision that is in the best interest of the American people – not dependent on meager party politics.

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