The ghost of Charles de Gaulle smiled wryly the other week. Justifying a decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, President Donald Trump quipped, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” One of the most quoted lines of the speech, it was a simple alliterative device, linking the two cities and seemingly throwing red meat to his base. Even though healthcare, education, and financial services have eclipsed the steel industry in Pittsburgh, its stamp on how Americans view the city is indelible. And what screams “foreign,” “effete,” and even “soft” more than Paris? Supporters of the president latched onto the phrase, some holding a rally at the White House under the banner “Pittsburgh not Paris.”
But students of American foreign policy heard a different subtext: an allusion to a famous nuclear strategy talking point.
During the Cold War, European allies questioned the credibility of American extended nuclear deterrence – the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.” The United States promised to defend its NATO allies with American nuclear weapons. Yet, as the range of Soviet bombers and missiles grew, by the early 1960s it became clear that any nuclear war could not reliably be limited to European soil. The American pledge therefore implied a fundamentally incredible commitment that U.S. presidents would be willing to put American cities at risk to defend European cities. European leaders were compelled to ask: “Would the United States really trade Pittsburgh for Paris or Boston for Bonn?”
French President Charles de Gaulle did not choose his words quite so poetically when he actually asked President John F. Kennedy such a question in 1961. The State Department’s memorandum of conversation reads, “The General himself had asked whether we would be ready to trade New York for Paris.” Nuclear strategists and scholars later linked many cities alliteratively—Paris to Pittsburgh or Bonn to Boston—to ask the same question of the credibility of American protection.
Trump’s line about climate change and the Paris Accord was therefore a likely unintentional but still important allusion to much broader and essential questions of American foreign policy. Can allies rely on the United States? How can the United States reassure its allies that it will use nuclear weapons to defend them? Indeed, U.K. Defence Minister Denis Healey believed that European allies were in fact the main audience of U.S. nuclear threats, not the Soviet Union. “It takes only five percent credibility of American retaliation to deter the Russians,” Healey wrote, “but ninety-five percent credibility to reassure the Europeans.” To deter Soviet aggression and restrain its allies from building their own nuclear arsenals, the United States had to credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons to defend Europe.
Generations of American presidents have come and gone under the united goal of making that threat credible. Tripwire forces, forward deployed arsenals, thousands of ever smaller tactical nuclear weapons, nuclear sharing arrangements, and countless communicated threats and assurances were all intended to send this simple message: You don’t need nuclear weapons. You can rely on ours.
This was a massive undertaking. It was also famously not enough for Paris. Like Britain, France built its own nuclear arsenal. But most other allies did not and, overkill aside, the American effort and goal has undoubtedly been worth it overall. These alliance commitments have been the bedrock of American nuclear nonproliferation policy and have succeeded wildly in limiting the number of nuclear powers. Today, American allies have raised the nuclear strategy question anew. Would the United States really risk Toledo for Tallinn or Seattle for Seoul in defense of its allies?
In his rejection of the Paris Accord, Trump concluded by reiterating, “It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — along with many, many other locations within our great country — before Paris, France.” The ghost of De Gaulle smirked.
Nuclear deterrence and climate change are not interdependent issues, but they are united by the existential threats each poses to humanity. A failure to uphold the commitments of the Paris agreement does not itself undermine American nuclear strategy. Thursday’s withdrawal by no means reveals that Trump would embrace the ultra-nationalists and isolationists among his advisors in nuclear crises. Yet Trump’s historical echo was notable as a rhetorical thumb in the eye of the national security establishment. Pittsburgh over Paris.
Reid Pauly is a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the Security Studies Program. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Image: Jeangagnon, CC