What’s New about Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button?

April 4, 2016

Donald Trump never really leaves the news these days, but his comments on nuclear weapons in separate interviews with the New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC have generated a wave of sensationalist headlines.

But how radical are his nuclear arguments? Trump’s comments have had the virtue of pushing the media and public — at least for the moment — to pay more attention to U.S. nuclear policy debates. Given their destructive power, Trump is right when he suggests that nuclear weapons are perhaps the “biggest problem the world has.” Unfortunately, it is a problem to which few pay much attention.

Trump made two key points. First, he would not rule out nuclear first-use, though he intended it as “an absolute last step.” This sounds alarming, yet is very much in line with U.S. policy. As Michael Gerson notes, “A persistent theme in U.S. nuclear weapons policy is that the United States has always retained the option to use nuclear weapons first in conflict.” The 2010 U.S. nuclear posture review makes clear that against

states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations – there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners. The United States is therefore not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons.

In other words, U.S. policy is that nuclear weapons remain on the table as a last resort in a number of contingencies even if the adversary has not used nuclear weapons first.

Or consider U.S. thinking during a confrontation with a state possessing some WMD capabilities. In 1990, then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney commissioned a study investigating the utility of nuclear strikes against Iraq’s Republican Guard Forces. The George H.W. Bush administration wisely never pursued this option and avoided overt nuclear threats. Nevertheless, as I show in a recent Security Studies article, Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants took the possibility of American nuclear use seriously. The fear of a nuclear strike contributed to Hussein’s decision not to deploy his own chemical weapons during that conflict.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal is also becoming more surgical (to the extent possible with nuclear weapons). Some worry this betrays a desire to make nuclear weapons more usable. Ongoing and planned U.S. investments in nuclear capabilities are dramatically increasing the accuracy of U.S. nuclear weapons. Greater accuracy allows the target to be destroyed with less destructive force, reducing collateral damage. As Gen. (retired) James Cartwright noted, “what going smaller does is to make the weapon more thinkable.”

What about nuclear use in Europe? NATO’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review was subject to intense debate. Still, the alliance ultimately reiterated that “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” Nuclear use remains thinkable in a narrow set of “extremely remote” circumstances, but thinkable nonetheless.

Ruling out nuclear use might also paradoxically encourage proliferation. In order for an ally to feel comfortable under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, it must believe the United States would be willing to use that umbrella. Without that certainty, a concerned ally facing a threatening nuclear adversary might seek its own nuclear deterrent. As historians have shown, at least part of the reason the United States constantly sought to improve its nuclear arsenal was to demonstrate to allies that American commitments were credible.

This leads to Trump’s second major assertion. Namely, that as president he might allow, or even encourage, U.S. allies such as South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia to gain nuclear weapons. Critics are correct that this would go against long-standing U.S. policy and likely invite additional proliferation. The good news for those concerned is that Trump’s policies would face intense resistance within the national security enterprise. Historians and political scientists agree that arguments in favor of proliferation in the past have had virtually no chance of becoming policy.

Yet just because something has long been policy does not mean it should be exempt from examination. The scholarly debate on the merits and risks of nuclear proliferation is far from settled.

One should not be so quick to dismiss the logic behind managed proliferation. If nuclear armed states are unlikely to go to war with one another, then it follows that nuclear proliferation may reduce the chances of war. Taking this insight to its logical conclusion, Kenneth Waltz famously argued that “more may be better.” And indeed, there has only been one war between two nuclear armed states: the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. There are good reasons to believe that nuclear weapons kept that war from escalating further. Even leaders such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, who had little compunction about murdering their own people, have understood the basic deterrence logic.

The basic argument that nuclear weapons minimize the dangers of war sidesteps all sorts of other dangers, of course. Those include the possibility that as friends get nuclear weapons adversaries will as well, the inherent danger of nuclear accidents, and the fearsome scenario involving a failing state losing control of its nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. From the U.S. perspective, there is also a keen awareness that nuclear proliferation would deter the United States from exploiting its overwhelming conventional superiority. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin put it in 1992:

A world without nuclear weapons would not be disadvantageous to the United States. In fact, a world without nuclear weapons would actually be better. Nuclear weapons are still the big equalizer, but now the United States is not the equalizer but the equalizee.

Still, the desire to help allies get nuclear weapons is not unknown in American history. As Brendan Green shows, Eisenhower’s fear that the economic costs of permanently underwriting European security would be too much for the United States led Eisenhower to support a “long-term solution [that] was an independent European [nuclear] deterrent.” Francis Gavin has documented how Richard Nixon was willing to acquiesce to, and in some cases support, allies’ nuclear programs.

There are many reasons to be skeptical, even alarmed, at the prospect of a Trump presidency. But MSNBC host Chris Matthews’ suggestion to Trump that he simply say “I don’t want to talk about nuclear weapons. Presidents don’t talk about use of nuclear weapons” is misguided. If Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons are alarming, then perhaps the time has come to talk about nuclear weapons a bit more.


Paul Avey is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech. He has previously been a postdoctoral fellow at the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at SMU, a Stanton Fellow at MIT, and a pre-doctoral fellow with the Managing the Atom Project and International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. His most recent article is “Who’s Afraid of the Bomb? The Role of Nuclear Non-Use Norms in Confrontations between Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Opponents,” in Security Studies, 2015.