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August 27, 2018 8:21 am

The Deteriorating Trump Presidency: The Risk of Nuclear War

avatar by Louis René Beres


President Donald Trump participates in a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, July 18, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Leah Millis.

At a moment when the Trump presidency is plainly in steep decline, the ultimate hazard remains a nuclear incident. In essence, there are now various plausible reasons to fear that this president could sometime make “inappropriate” nuclear command decisions. Whether by deliberate intent, inadvertence, miscalculation, or even outright irrationality, any such decision could rapidly spawn intolerable consequences.

At the more generic level, I have been examining this command and control problem for almost half a century. After four years at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear strategic thought, I began to think about offering a personal addition to the pertinent literatures of first-generation nuclear thinkers. By the late 1970s, I was busily preparing an original manuscript on US nuclear strategy, and on the corollary risks of nuclear war, which later became a book. At the time, I was specifically interested in presidential authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.

Accordingly, I learned that expectedly reliable safeguards were built into all American nuclear command and control decisions, but also that these essential safeguards might not meaningfully apply at the single most critical or presidential level. This ironic disjunction did not seem to make any intellectual sense, especially in a world where national leadership irrationality was hardly without precedent.

I reached out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the issue. Almost immediately, General Taylor sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated March 14, 1976, the general’s informed letter concluded: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”

Today, this 1976 warning has taken on a very precise and palpable urgency. Until now, I had never given any serious thought to General Taylor’s cautionary response. Somehow, I had simply assumed that “the system” would always operate smoothly. Today, however, one must reasonably assume that if President Trump were ever to exhibit emotional instability and/or irrationality, he could (1) authoritatively order the use of American nuclear weapons, and (2) issue such an order without any calculable expectations of “disobedience.”

Arguably, despite Mr. Trump’s overtly deferential treatment of Vladimir Putin, the United States and Russia are involved in “Cold War II.” This expanding involvement could complicate future US presidential strategic decision-making processes, including even nuclear military decisions. Already on October 3, 2016, Putin ordered a halt to any then-planned agreement with the United States concerning weapons-grade plutonium disposal.

This ominous suspension took place at the same time that the two superpowers continued a shadowy but still-accelerating nuclear arms race.

So what remedies are required to best safeguard the United States? What should be done by the National Command Authority (NCA) if its members should sometime decide to oppose an obviously mistaken or contrived presidential order to use American nuclear weapons? Should the NCA respond in an impromptu or expressly ad hoc fashion? Or shouldn’t there already be in place certain capable measures to judge the sitting US president’s reason and judgment — measures of the same sort that are routinely applied at all lower levels of national nuclear command authority?

In principle, at least, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would have to be followed. This conclusion is incontestable. To do otherwise, in such circumstances, would be illegal on its face.

Any doubts we might currently have about Donald Trump as custodian of the nuclear codes could also be framed as part of a more generic problem of American presidential authority. More particularly, we could query, if faced with a presidential order to use nuclear weapons — and if not offered any tangible corroborative evidence of some actually impending existential threat — would the sitting Secretary of Defense and/or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, among several relevant others: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing such presumptively well-founded expressions of disobedience?

Such indispensable questions need to be asked, widely and promptly. Soon, moreover, still more specific and detailed questions will have to be asked. If, for whatever reason, these questions should be avoided or ignored, we could sometime discover that necessary remediation is already far past due, and that the supposed “only protection” against an irrational American president —  “not to elect one,” as General Maxwell Taylor advised me many years back — had gone foolishly unheeded.

Looking back, this could represent a genuinely unforgivable moment in American history.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books, monographs, and scholarly articles dealing with various aspects of military nuclear strategy. His twelfth book, published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield, is titled Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy.

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