By Steve Chapman
The world’s most astonishing and beneficial achievement of the past 70 years is not something humanity did but something it avoided doing: using nuclear weapons. After the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan during World War II, it was entirely plausible to think they were just a mild preview of how future conflicts would be fought. But since then, these devices have been strictly off-limits to actual use.
If Donald Trump becomes president, though, the exclusion may expire. In a campaign that appears to be systematically engineered to disqualify him from consideration for any position of responsibility, nothing comes close to his pronouncements on nuclear weapons. They combine ignorance, nonchalance, naivete and irresponsibility in quantities never before seen in a major-party nominee.
His alarming inclination gained new attention when MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough reported that a foreign policy expert who briefed Trump said the candidate asked him repeatedly, “Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?”
Trump denied the report, but his public statements lend it credence. He has said, “The last person that wants to play the nuclear card, believe me, is me. But you can never take cards off the table.” When an interviewer said foreign leaders worry when they hear a possible president talk about possibly using doomsday weapons, Trump retorted: “Then why are we making them?”
The answer, blindingly obvious to anyone with a rudimentary grasp of the issue, is simple: to deter rivals from using them or threatening to use them. Because no enemy could survive a nuclear war with the United States, no government would start one. In the nuclear age, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill accurately predicted, “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”
Nuclear deterrence underlay the peace that prevailed between the United States and the Soviet Union during the tensest days of the Cold War. Had Moscow enjoyed a monopoly on the bomb, it might have invaded Western Europe and answered any U.S. response by obliterating American cities. Our nuclear arsenal not only deterred the Soviets from using theirs but also deterred them from risking even a conventional war with us.
Any freshman student of international relations would immediately grasp this simple reality. Yet it utterly eludes the understanding of someone who, five months from now, may have control of our military forces.
Trump has never educated himself on the most consequential matters a president would ever have to decide — and obviously doesn’t realize such education would be useful. He assumes his career in business has prepared him to deal with the most formidable matters of life and death.
Averting nuclear proliferation has been a paramount goal of U.S. foreign policy for decades. Trump, on one hand, said he agrees with that position: “I hate proliferation.” But asked whether he thinks Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia should get nukes, he said airily, “It’s going to happen anyway. It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely.”
He thinks it is the height of brilliance to let our adversaries try to guess whether we would use nuclear weapons. “You want to be unpredictable,” he insisted. “And somebody recently said — I made a great business deal — and the person on the other side was interviewed by a newspaper. … ‘How did Trump do this?’ And (he) said, ‘He’s so unpredictable.'”
In his pathetically shallow worldview, a geopolitical confrontation between military adversaries is the equivalent of negotiating a hotel sale. One notable difference, however, is that if your bargaining tactics don’t work in a business environment, you may lose a deal that costs you millions of dollars. If they don’t work against Russia or North Korea, you may cause a war that costs millions of lives.
Safety argues for leaving Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un no doubt that we will not use nuclear weapons first — and that we will definitely use them if any are used against us or our allies. Deprived of that predictability, our foes might decide to launch their missiles out of fear that we will strike first, leaving them nothing to lose.
Giving someone like this access to the most powerful weapons ever created would be like giving a chimpanzee a machine gun. Trump’s favorite word for the policies he abhors is “disaster.” For the likely consequences of President Trump’s uninformed, clueless approach to nuclear weapons, “disaster” would be a gross understatement.