“Defenseless under the night; Our world in stupor lies….”-W.H. Auden
Even now, after some many staggering and irreversible leadership mistakes on Coronavirus – grievous errors that could eventually cost the lives of very many Americans – President Donald J. Trump continues to hold undiminished US nuclear weapons authority. Though a great many American voices will respond angrily to any conjunction of these two discrete threats as manipulative or unfair, such responses would still ignore a core commonality. Incontestable and irremediable, this stubbornly shared connection on disease and war concerns Mr. Trump’s indifference to approaching complex problems analytically.
It also reveals his incapacity to feel even a scintilla of human empathy for other human beings.
What does all this really mean? In what specific policy directions should we Americans now be propelled? For the United States, at a bare minimum, it signifies that there will be a painfully heavy price to pay for Donald Trump’s multiple and compounding debilities. More precisely, looking ahead to certain more-or-less inevitable US nuclear crises with North Korea, China, and/or Russia, these bitter presidential limitations could portend fully existential harms to the United States. It follows that all citizens now ought to think more self-consciously about various key national problems of survival.
They will need to do this with decipherable logic, abundant clarity, and more robust presidential commitments to science.
Just because we Americans are presently under an unprecedented pandemic disease assault does not mean that we are immunized from the more routinely catastrophic hazards of ordinary geopolitics. At the very same moment that President Trump should be building cooperative bridges with other countries more thoughtfully and conspicuously, he opts instead for relentlessly crude reassertions of belligerent nationalism. Even now, at an increasingly uncertain time of grave collective peril for the United States, Trump reserves his monosyllabic celebratory prose not for any promising forms of expanded international cooperation, but for sustaining gratuitous conflict throughout the shattered world system’s endlessly corrosive “state of nature.”
Though it makes absolutely no intellectual or ethical sense, Donald Trump reserves his self-praising applause for the self-immolating embers of “America First.”
This can’t end well. It can’t end well because this president abhors even the rudiments of historical education, classical literature and calculation-based or problem-solving learning. For him, it’s never about understanding, but only about “making a deal.” On creating peaceful relations with North Korea, it was never about reaching any substantive understandings, but rather “falling in love.” How could such a caricatural diplomatic stance ever have been taken seriously by anyone in the US Congress or executive branch of government?
But Americans needn’t ever share this misplaced abhorrence, Accordingly, if we the citizens have learned anything at all from the easily accessible history of world politics, a pattern of structural anarchy first formally put into place after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, it is that a continuously unregulated system of win-at-all-costs thinking leads directly to war and other assorted civilizational breakdowns.
Always, history deserves pride of place. The unwinding global “state of nature” has never succeeded in the past, and shows absolutely no signs of offering any encouraging durability for the future. Taken together with an American president who has shown no willful regard for US Constitutional separations of authority (not even a tiny shred of such indispensable regard), this past reveals a singularly ominous formula for upcoming synergy. What this means, in greater detail, is a unique and prospectively lethal intersection.
It means the simultaneous occurrence of worldwide disease pandemic with the atomic war.
After recalling so much pain that we Americans have already witnessed and suffered under President Donald Trump, this newest expectation ought not to be dismissed too casually or gratuitously, as if it were merely some sort of unfounded or partisan citizen apprehension. Rather, it must finally be recognized that an inappropriate or irrational nuclear command decision by US President Donald Trump is entirely conceivable and perhaps even plausible. Though nothing conclusive can ever be said about the true mathematical probability of any such fearful scenario, there is still ample reason for concern.
To begin, we must promptly inquire: Might this unsteady and unseemly American president soon become subject to still more serious forms of personal dissemblance and/or psychological debility? Leaving aside Trump’s largely unprecedented and breathtaking venality, his open indifference to history and above all his continuing malfeasance and shameless dishonesty, should he still be allowed to decide whether we Americans should live or die? This is not a silly, exaggerated, or contrived query by any means.
In essence, today, at this nadir of widespread governmental indifference to law, a deeply flawed American president now serves with wholly insufficient nuclear command constraints.
There is more. This bold assertion is by no means controversial. Any presidential order to use nuclear weapons carries an inherent expectation to be followed. Certain identifiable figures along the operational chain of command could sometime choose to disobey such an order, but – at least initially – any such disobedience could be deemed unlawful prima facie.
Indeed, there are many informed reasons why such an argument could be properly challenged, inter alia, on the basis of original US Constitutional authority, but in these resurrected “Know Nothing” times, such authority is waning by the hour.
To wit, can anyone still seriously maintain that this president’s Attorney General or Republican leadership surrogates in the Congress would ever dispute Donald Trump’s right to do whatever he pleases in weighty matters of war and peace, including even the use of nuclear weapons?
And there is still more. Some derivative questions now also arise. Should this particular incumbent or any future US president ever be granted such extraordinary decisional authority over uncountable lives, a grant that plainly could never have been foreseen by the Founding Fathers? Could such a steeply lopsided allocation of nuclear authority fairly and propitiously represent what was originally intended by America’s Constitutional” separation of powers?” Can anyone reasonably believe that such unhindered existential power could conceivably have been favored by the “Fathers”? Even by definition, there is only one possible answer.
Significantly, even for the vast legions of Trump supporters who never read a single book, the correct answers are obvious, uncomplicated and altogether irrefutable.
At a minimum, we can readily extrapolate from both Articles I and II of the Constitution that the Founders displayed an almost palpable concern about expanding Presidential power long before nuclear weapons. This plausibly presumptive concern predates even any imagination of such apocalyptic possibilities. So, in order to progress sequentially, we must ask: What next?
Both as scholar and policy-centered nuclear strategist, I have been involved with these critical security issues for the past fifty years, for interests in both Washington and Jerusalem. On 14 March 1976, in response to my direct query concerning American nuclear weapons launching authority, I received a letter from General (USA/ret.) Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The principal focus of this letter (attached hereto) concerned assorted nuclear risks of US presidential irrationality. Most noteworthy, in this handwritten communication, was the straightforward warning contained in General Taylor’s closing paragraph.
Ideally, Taylor wisely cautioned me, presidential irrationality – an inherently grave problem – should be dealt with during an election process, and not in the throes of any subsequent decisional crisis.
“….the best protection is not to elect one…”
By definition, of course, regarding our current presidential nuclear security problem, it’s too late to follow General Taylor’s now-prophetic advice. We must inquire, therefore, with a more decidedly narrow but still aptly undeflected focus: “What is the actual US governing situation regarding this most vital security issue?” Always, of course, there are assorted structural protections built into any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, including substantial and multiple redundancies. These ought never to be disregarded.
Nonetheless, virtually all these reassuring and reinforcing safeguards could become operative only at the lower or sub-presidential nuclear command levels. Expressly, these pertinent safeguards do not apply to the Commander-in-Chief, that is, to the democratically elected President of the United States. What about him (or, in the future, her)?
Inter alia, there seemingly exist no permissible legal grounds to disobey a presidential order to use nuclear weapons. In principle, perhaps, certain senior individuals in the designated military chain of command could still sometime choose to invoke variously selected “Nuremberg Obligations,” but any such last-minute invocation would almost certainly yield to certain more recognizable (and manipulable) considerations of U.S. domestic law.
Now, already approaching the proverbial eleventh hour, reasonable scenarios of nuclear war safeguards must be carefully postulated and closely examined. Should an American president choosing to operate within bewildering chaos of his own making sometime issue an irrational or seemingly irrational nuclear command, the only way for the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Adviser and several possible others to effectively obstruct this wrongful order could be “illegal” on its face. Under the very best of circumstances, certain informal safeguards might manage to work for a time, but too blithely accepting the unrealistic assumption of a “best-case scenario” is hardly a durably sensible path to protracted US nuclear security.
Under the worst of circumstances, which ought not to be wished away by fiat, some or all of the designated and authoritative decision-makers could also be laid low by “biological” or disease-based adversaries, by a two-pronged assault on US security structures with wholly unpredictable outcomes. What then?
At a minimum, We the people ought to inquire promptly about identifying more suitably predictable and promising institutional impediments. These barriers could better shield us from a prospectively debilitated or otherwise compromised US president. “The worst,” says Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt instructively, “does sometimes happen.”
The US is already navigating in “uncharted waters.” While President John F. Kennedy did engage in personal nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union back in October 1962, he had then calculated his own odds of a consequent nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.” This seemingly precise calculation, corroborated both by JFK biographer Theodore Sorensen and by my own later private conversations with former JCS Chair Admiral Arleigh Burke (my lecture colleague and roommate at the Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference of 1977) suggests that President Kennedy was (1) technically irrational in imposing his Cuban “quarantine;” or (2) wittingly acting out certain untested principles of “pretended irrationality.”
Significantly, in markedly stark contrast to the present moment, JFK was operating with tangibly serious and intellectually capable strategic/legal advisors. He did not choose Adlai Stevenson to represent the United States at the United Nations because he was “glamorous” (a standard of selection openly and generally favored by current US President Donald J. Trump).
Going forward, the most urgent threat of a mistaken or irrational U.S. presidential order to use nuclear weapons flows not from any “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack – whether Russian, North Korean, Chinese – or American – but from a sequentially uncontrollable escalatory process. Back in 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “blinked” early on in the “game,” thereby preventing any mutual and irrecoverable nuclear harms. Now, however, any seat-of-the-pants escalatory initiatives undertaken by President Trump could reveal stunningly unstable decision-making consequences.
At that late point, the once potentially lethal effects of a nuclear war would no longer be hypothetical. They would have become a “glowing” fait accompli. Literally.
None of this is just another political or partisan “witch hunt.” Immediately, especially while a disease pandemic remains existentially threatening by itself, Donald Trump should be made to understand the unprecedented risks of being locked into a stubborn or refractory escalatory dynamic with another country, one from which there could sometime appear no recognizable range of choice except a presumptively abject American capitulation or a nuclear war. Although this US president might sometime be sincerely well advised to seek “escalation dominance” in certain selected crisis negotiations with identifiable adversaries, he would still urgently need to avoid any catastrophic miscalculations.
Moreover, this is not even to factor in the corresponding and potentially intersecting problems of hacking intrusions, accidents, or Covid-19 mental/intellectual impairments.
For the immediate future, this key imperative concerning miscalculation avoidance would seemingly apply most directly to certain one-upmanship scenarios with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, an always impossible-to-predict process wherein both countries could ultimately emerge with fully unsatisfactory outcomes. Here, a good deal would depend upon more-or-less foreseeable “synergies” between Washington and Pyongyang, and on various difficult-to-control penetrations of cyber-conflict or cyber-war. Americans might sometime even have to acknowledge the out-of-control interference of certain cyber-mercenaries, unprincipled third parties working only for personal or corporate financial compensations.
Whether we like it or not, and at one time or another, nuclear strategy is a challenging “game” that US President Donald Trump will, despite intrinsic intellectual deficits, have to play. Prima facie, this will not be a contest for amateurs, that is, for those who would expressly prefer “attitude, not preparation.”
To best ensure that this too-easily-distracted president’s strategic moves would remain determinedly rational, thoughtful and cumulatively cost-effective, therefore, it will first be necessary to enhance the formal decisional authority of his most senior military and defense subordinates. As indispensable corollary, any such enhancement would be at the discernible expense of pertinent presidential authority.
At a minimum, the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and one or two others in appropriate nuclear command positions should prepare in advance to assume certain more broadly collaborative and secure judgments in extremis atomicum.
Still, even such a proposed widening of pertinent authority could not be “guaranteed.” In the end, following General Maxwell Taylor’s earlier letter sent to me in 1976, the best protection is still “not to elect” a president who is unfit for such unmatched leadership responsibility. Beyond any reasonable doubt (an evidentiary judicial standard that also fits well in this particular extra-judicial context), we are discussing here an incomparable leadership responsibility.
There is something else. From the standpoint of correctly defining all relevant dangers, it is important to bear in mind that “irrational” does not necessarily mean “crazy” or “mad.” More specifically, any prospectively fateful expressions of US presidential irrationality could take very different and variously subtle forms. These forms, which could remain indecipherable or merely latent for a long time, include (a) a disorderly or inconsistent value system; (b) computational errors in calculation; (c) an incapacity to communicate correctly or efficiently; (d) random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of strategic decisions; and (e) internal dissonance generated by some structure or other of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of authoritative individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a unitary national decision-maker).
From the singularly critical standpoint of US nuclear weapon control issues (problematic issues likely to be worsened by the continuous American strategic postures of both “First Use” and “Launch on Warning” and by the potentially devastating consequences of still-spreading Covid-19 harms), legitimate reasons to worry about the Trump presidency do not hinge on any exclusive expectations of “craziness.” Rather, looking over the above list of five representative decisional traits, there is already good cause not just for worry (which per se could never represent a rational or purposeful US reaction), but for manifestly non-partisan objectivity and for very consistent prudence. It won’t be easy, and it won’t necessarily succeed longer-term or indefinitely by electing a different president.
But, for the immediate moment, US national security and even US literal survival require the prompt and law-based restraint of an irremediably-flawed American president. It follows also that the security benefits of any such needed controls would have corresponding security benefits for the world as a whole. In principle, at least, the full importance of this corollary or “spillover” benefit could sometime prove authentically overwhelming.
The country must take heed. If we Americans continue to abide such a blatantly law-violating and science-averse president, we would be risking nothing less than a viable national future. To recall the poet Auden, we would then have condemned ourselves to remaining “defenseless,” and in an irreversible “stupor.” This is not a condemnation the Founding Fathers of the United States could ever have foreseen – or excused.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy