Donald Trump gave The Board an early Christmas present last week on his Twitter feed. Like most people, I don’t really think early morning tweets are the best format for communicating nuclear policy. The limitations of Twitter might not have mattered much if the Trump campaign had presented any official position of nuclear weapons policy. Instead we had just a few comments from Trump himself that mostly suggested he wanted the US to withdraw from some of its longest standing strategic defense commitments while at the same time complaining that Obama and Clinton had not done enough to honor these commitments.
Thus I had no context in which to interpret last week’s tweet:
Strengthen? Sure, I’m on board with that. Reliability, readiness, and training are all things The Board supports. Deterrence requires a measure of strength and readiness. More importantly, avoiding accidental nuclear war requires reliability and readiness.
However, I don’t think that’s what Trump meant. I think he sees “strengthen” as almost a synonym for “expand”. That sort of makes sense, but there are a lot of problems with any kind of expansion of US nuclear forces. The most important one is a sense of mission. What are US nuclear forces for?
My third thought about this tweet last week was that it is potentially very insulting to other nuclear armed powers. Does he not understand that other armed powers may have chosen to become nuclear armed for very good reasons? That their decisions might be well-considered and serve their interests? Does he not know that some nations may have opted to develop nuclear weapons mostly to project power regionally without much concern for what the US was doing? Some nations may have nuclear policies that are already quite sensible in their contexts even if Donald Trump doesn’t like them.
Conclusion, this Tweet insulted every other nuclear armed nation (though BFF Putin didn’t seem to mind) and since it appeared without any official strategic policy positions from the Trump campaign, we can conclude he has no idea what he is talking about.
But perhaps I am too harsh here. Shortly after the Tweet, Trump made this comment to Mika Brzezinski in an unaired segment of an MSNBC telephone interview:
Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass.
You can see the full video here. And yes, Mika Brzezinski is the daughter of steely-nerved Zbigniew, a man who was just minutes away from asking President Carter to confirm his orders for nuclear slaughter in the closest instance of US-initiated accidental nuclear war.
But back to Trump. I’m pretty sure that Trump has no sense of the mission of US nuclear forces. He seems to think arms races are policy. They are not! Sensible presidents lament them even as they have them happen under their watches. Eisenhower knew this and warned that we were on a path to a changed America. JFK backed off dangerous testing and LBJ held the line. Nixon opened things up and actually did something. He tried to stop an arms race and did so with some success. Carter built on this, with the much maligned SALT II while still keeping open options for upgrades in strength and readiness.
I think Trump’s “outmatch them at every pass” statement is a reiteration of a common myth about Reagan. If you hang around Youtube comments or browse on history forums. you will come across the idea that Reagan “won” the Cold War by outspending what the USSR believed it could manage. This is completely untrue. All of the strategically relevant nuclear deployments of the early eighties had already been put in place by Carter and Sec. Def. Harold Brown. Yes, Reagan brought back the B-1 but there was really not much difference between their policies.
Reagan didn’t “win” the Cold War by spending money on plans that mostly were in place before he became president. We did as well as we did because the same down home sincerity that led Reagan to endorse racist tropes and bad domestic policy made him trust a young and vigorous Soviet leader who wanted to make the world a better place.
As much as I disagreed with how Reagan talked about the mission of US nuclear forces, he had a coherent idea of the mission.
Does Trump even understand this? Does he really think that nukes are tokens in a game and if you have enough you win? He’s not even at the “pop academic” level of nuclear understanding where conservatives favor Hudson and liberals favor Brookings, who think of humans as robots without emotions.
So Donald Trump, what is the mission of US nuclear forces? What ends do you hope to meet? What do you seek and what do you want?
What is the mission?
What’s actually in the pipeline for new nukes.