Donald Trump, Foreign Policy Incoherence and Inadvertent Nuclear War

“In a surrealist year….some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at his prayers on the 19th green.”-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

From the start of his presidency,  Donald Trump has displayed unmistakable signs of debility, venality and intellectual impoverishment. Most conspicuous, in this regard, is Mr. Trump’s evident unfamiliarity with history, diplomacy, intelligence and law. Slightly less obvious, but only if one were willfully blind to unassailable evidence, is this president’s rancorous and brittle emotional state.

Even when considered separately, these presidential liabilities are worrisome.

Taken together, however, they become palpably fearful and potentially intolerable.

This cumulative liability reaches its nadir when considered with a debilitated  president’s lawful exercise of nuclear command authority.

In principle, at least, these risks and consequences of US presidential shortcoming are generic; that is, they are not necessarily “Trump specific.” At this level, they also represent bewilderingly complex matters about which I have been lecturing and publishing for half a century. Some of my long term personal conclusions can be pried interpretively from historical examination and from certain more-or-less coinciding logical extrapolations.

In all such matters, analytic competence and confidence must stem from calculably valid assurances that both complementary operations are being carried out dispassionately, and in tandem.

The bottom line here is unhidden. Principal national security risks America currently faces as a nation are prospectively immediate and formidably existential. Such risks can be fully understood only in light of the plausible or at least conceivable intersections arising between them. This is because such critical intersections are more-or-less likely (a conclusion based on formal logic, and not on any actual history) and because some of these reinforcing intersections could sometime prove “synergistic.”

Contradicting what was first learned in the eighth grade, this means (by definition)  that the “whole” of  intersectional nuclear risk effects must be greater than the simple arithmetic sum of component “parts.”

Always, in any staggeringly complex strategic risk assessments regarding military nuclear intentions and military nuclear forces, the concept ofsynergy must be included.[1]

Always, any such necessary inclusion must be reasonable, rational and purposeful.

The only conceivable argument for a president ignoring possible effects of synergy  is that US defense policy consideration is “too complex” (i.e., intellectually bewildering) and therefore “too daunting.”

When US national security is at stake – as it is in this case – any such dismissive argument is unacceptable.

Prima facie.

How could it not be?

I have been thinking about precisely such difficult issues for fifty years. For analytic purposes, the development of my own personal conclusions about strategic national security decision-making can be summed up in the following brief paragraph:

 After four years of doctoral study at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear thought (recall especially Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer) I began to consider adding a modest personal contribution to an already evolving nuclear literatures.  By the late 1970s, I was cautiously preparing a manuscript on US nuclear strategy, and by variously disciplined processes of correct inference, on  certain corresponding risks of a nuclear war.[2]  

Already, at that early time, I was especially interested in US presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons.

From day one of my studies, I learned, inter alia, that allegedly reliable safeguards had very systematically been built into all operational nuclear command/control decisions, but that these same safeguards could not be applied at the highest or presidential level. To a young scholar searching optimistically for nuclear war avoidance opportunities, this ironic disjunction didn’t make any obvious sense.  Nonetheless, within the broader context of credible nuclear deterrence requirements, there did exist a reasonable argument for accepting such a significant gap in relevant decisional protections.

For needed clarifications, I had reached out directly to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. In reassuringly rapid response to my query, General Taylor sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the distinguished General’s informed letter concluded presciently: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”

Until recently, I had never given any extended thought to this candid and authoritative response. Today, during the increasingly problematic presidency of  Donald J. Trump, General Taylor’s 1976 warning must take on  substantially greater and more demonstrably urgent meanings. Based on ascertainable facts and logical derivations (technically called “entailments” in philosophy of science terminology) rather than on narrowly wishful thinking, we should reasonably assume that if President Trump were ever to exhibit any accessible signs of emotional instability, irrationality or openly delusional behavior, he could still order the use of American nuclear weapons. He could so this officially, legally and without any compelling expectations of  nuclear chain-of-command “disobedience.”

Still more worrisome, President Trump could become emotionally unstable, irrational or delusional, but still not exhibit such intolerable liabilities manifestly or plainly.

What then?

A corollary core question must now also come to mind:

What precise stance should be assumed by the National Command Authority (Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several others) if it should ever decide to oppose an “inappropriate” presidential order to launch American nuclear weapons?

Could the National Command Authority (NCA) “save the day,” informally, by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or should indispensable preparatory steps already have been taken, preemptively – that is, should there already be in place certain credible and effective statutory measures to (1) assess the ordering president’s reason and judgment; and (2) countermand the presumptively inappropriate or wrongful order?

 Presumptively, in US law, Article 1 (Congressional) war-declaring expectations of the Constitution aside, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would have to be obeyed. To do otherwise, in such incomparably dire circumstances, would be illegal. Here, in other words, any chain-of-command disobedience would be impermissible on its face.

There is more. In principle, at least, US President Donald Trump could order the first use of American nuclear weapons even if this country were not under any specifically nuclear attack. In this connection –  again, in principle at least – some further strategic and legal distinctions would need to be made between a nuclear “first use” and a nuclear “first strike.”

While there exists an elementary yet markedly substantive difference between these two options, it is a distinction that candidate Donald Trump had fully failed to understand during the 2016 presidential campaign debates.

What next? Where should the American polity and government go from here on such urgent decision-making issues? To begin, a coherent and comprehensive  answer will need to be prepared for the following basic question:

If faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the  National Command Authority be: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing such expressions of disobedience?

In any such literally unprecedented crisis-decision circumstances, all authoritative decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes, not hours or days. As far as any useful policy guidance from the past might be concerned, there could be no scientifically valid way to assess the true probabilities of possible outcomes. This is because absolutely all scientific judgments of probability – whatever the salient issue or subject – must be based firmly upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events.

In relevant matters of nuclear war, there are no pertinent past events. This is, of course, a markedly fortunate absence, but one that would inevitably stand in the way of rendering reliable decision-making predictions. The irony here is both conspicuous and problematic.

Still, whatever the scientific obstacles, the optimal time to prepare for any such incomparably vital US national security difficulties is now.

In the immediately specific matter of North Korea (Iran is not yet nuclear), President Trump must take special care to avoid any seat-of-the-pants analogies  (whether openly expressed or “merely” internalized) between commercial and military brinksmanship. Faced with dramatic uncertainties about his counterpart Kim Jung Un’s own expected willingness to push the escalatory envelope, the American president could sometime (suddenly and unexpectedly) find himself faced with a stark choice between outright capitulation and nuclear war.

Even for a genuinely gifted US president, any such grievously stark choice could prove paralyzing.

To avoid being placed in such a limited choice strategic environment, Mr. Trump should understand from the start that having a larger national nuclear force (a “bigger button”) in these sorts of negotiations might not bestow any critical bargaining advantages. To the contrary, it could actually generate unwarranted US presidential overconfidence and various resultant forms of decisional miscalculation. In essence, in any such wholly unfamiliar, many-sided and basically unprecedented matters, size might “count” inversely, or even not at all.

The field of international foreign policy making is not comparable to the commercial bargaining arenas of hotel construction and casino gaming. While the search for “escalation dominance” may be common to both sorts of deal-making, the cumulative costs of any corollary losses would be wholly incomparable. In brief, money or status losses in the commercial sector can never reasonably be compared to mass death or civilian dismemberment.

In  certain matters of world politics, even an  inadvertent decisional outcome could sometime be a nuclear war.

Here, whether occasioned by accident, hacking, or “simple” miscalculation, there could be absolutely no meaningful “winner,” not even for the side with the once cherished “bigger button.”

In the paroxysmal aftermath of any unintended nuclear conflict, those authoritative American decision-makers who had once accepted President Donald J. Trump’s stated preference for “attitude” over  “preparation” in strategic negotiations would question their once-visceral loyalties. But it would assuredly be too late. Most plausibly, as survivors of a previously preventable conflagration, these now-disoriented officials would merely envy the dead.

With their president, they too would have been caught unprepared on the “19th green.”

[1] See earlier, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School):

[2] This book was subsequently published in 1980 by the University of Chicago Press: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics.

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.