Trump and Nuclear Command and Control: The Donald Fits Deterrence to a T.

For the world, US society, just about everything and everybody save the mega rich, the election of Donald Trump as US President is a veritable disaster.

One of the more interesting, and potentially disastrous, aspects to a Trump presidency that many have focused upon, both before and after the election campaign, is his unpredictable irrational persona in the context of nuclear command and control.

One of the world’s leading nuclear analysts, Joshua Pollack, writing at the armscontrolwonk blog post-election observed,

During the campaign, Trump showed himself to be impulsive, prickly, vengeful, ignorant… in brief, ill-qualified for the job of commander-in-chief by any ordinary measure. As Alex Wellerstein, among others, notes, it’s been hard for many people to accept that President Trump, like any other American president, will indeed have the exclusive and unappealable authority to employ nuclear weapons – at any time and in a matter of minutes. No checks, no balances. None at all. None.

However, judged in terms of the Clinton administration’s essentials of post-cold war deterrence study, developed by US Strategic Command during Bill Clinton’s term of office, Donald Trump fits the criteria of nuclear commander in chief to a T

The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’ can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts in the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.

I have the belief that these words were, effectively, put into place in March 2003 with the invasion of Iraq. I have the hunch that hitting Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, was partly about showing the world that the US would indeed “become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked.”

Herein lies the problem with much of the critique. It assumes, tacitly, despite the empirical record, that command and control of US nuclear weapons has been a sober risk free affair up until now, that is up until Trump. This isn’t true, as the above quote shows.

I have read a similar point being made in a declassified Ford administration document by Brent Scowcfroft, the dean of sober realists. If memory serves Scowcroft made this point at a meeting of the National Security Council.

Consider also the astonishingly reckless behaviour of President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy stated that during the crisis there was a 1/3 to 1/2 chance of nuclear war. If you study the Crisis carefully you will see that Kennedy quite consciously ran this risk, 1/3 to even of nuclear war, for little more reason than to maintain the prestige of the US, what analysts in the strategic literature refer to as “credibility.”

The operative value of US nuclear commanders in chief is that credibility matters more than human survival.

But try and find any analysis of the Crisis from a liberal arms controller, or anybody else for that matter, which reproaches Kennedy for his reckless conduct that so imperilled humanity, on so trivial grounds. One can’t do this for that would be to puncture the saintly aura of Camelot.

The maintenance of a posture of irrationality is something emphasised by formal models of deterrence in game theory or rational choice theory. The noted game theorist Thomas Schelling referred this to as “the threat that leaves something to chance.” This threat is made credible upon the cultivation of a certain posture of irrationality. From the perspective of rational choice theory James Dean, and the Donald, makes for credible deterrence.

The United States strategic triad is maintained because it provides an umbrella of power upon which a certain conception of world order rests, one based on US hegemony for reasons of state and profit, not so much to deter the continental United States from a nuclear first strike. Beneath this umbrella the US projects conventional military firepower to prop up world order.

Deterrence under such circumstances is best made credible through a certain irrational posturing, through the threat that leaves something to chance. The problem with Trump is not that he is, or will be, a nuclear outlier it is that his, seemingly, irrational and unpredictable persona is all too consistent with the essence of deterrence.

Trump should alarm us, but we should be alarmed with Trump because he fits snuggly into a long line of irrationality and recklessness that came before him. The problem here is not one man. The problem is deterrence itself.

A system of world order based on hegemony and global injustice propped up by the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation is irrational and dangerous. That should be the primary focus of our concerns.