For this article we are absolute novices when it comes to nuclear weapon policy, so we are pleased to partner with the non-profit Global Zero, which is an international non-partisan group of 300 world leaders dedicated to achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons, and their social media project No Red Button which you can follow on Facebook and Twitter.
In this article we will review the nuclear policies of Republican candidate Donald Trump as well as provide a primer about nuclear weapons and the military theories behind their existence and use.
Donald Trump has shown a dangerous ignorance of nuclear weapons dynamics. As a presidential candidate he has had ample time to educate himself on what he himself has repeatedly deemed “the biggest risk for this world and this country.” Yet he continues to showcase his lack of understanding for such a nuanced and complex issue, responding to questions with meandering non-answers and contradicting himself, sometimes within the same interview.
On the critical question of whether the United States should ever be the first to use nuclear weapons during his first debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump appeared somewhere between contradictory and confused, first saying he would not… then later in the same answer that he would advocate for a first strike policy.
It is this lack of basic knowledge to even speak intelligently about a very serious and deadly topic have political leaders, military veterans, and international leaders on edge of the idea of a President Donald Trump.
- Nuclear weapons = bad.
- Trump wants more nuclear weapons.
- He even wants more countries to posses them.
- Trump says he wouldn’t take use of nuclear weapons off the table.
- Even using them on our allies in Europe.
- If this was a movie Trump would be less “President of the United States” and more “Bond villain.”
About the Plan
There isn’t an actual official policy from Trump or his campaign, which makes this very hard, but we do have responses he has given in interviews and statements he has made at his rallies.
Running for President of the United States, one would hope they spent at least a little bit of time thinking about a very serious subject like nuclear weapons.
Trump would use nuclear weapons in the fight against ISIS.
“Somebody hits us within ISIS — you wouldn`t fight back with a nuke?”
Donald Trump, March 30, 2016
GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump continuously refuses to rule out using nuclear weapons in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group, saying he will not be a “happy trigger” but that he wants to have an element of unpredictability.
“If I get elected president, I don’t want ISIS to know what I’m going to be doing,” he said.
However ISIS is not a state or country, but a terrorist group that resides in or infiltrates other sovereign countries. So Trump’s stance would be to “bomb the shit out of them” with a nuclear warhead inside the lands of a sovereign nation that would have no connection to the terror group, and most likely has no means to defend itself from a nuclear attack.
Current US nuclear policy, unofficially called “first use,” is a pledge that we will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear opponents, which has been US policy for about a half-century. Just because that is policy doesn’t necessarily mean it is a great idea or anything, but what it does mean is that before you throw that policy under the bus, a policy which undergirds many of our defense alliances, you need to have some really good reason for doing so. “Not taking any cards off the table” is not such a reason. (See: “Just War Theory” in the appendices.)
It is okay for other countries, like Japan and South Korea, to develop their own nuclear weapons.
In a New York Times interview from March, Donald Trump first mentions his foreign policy plan to allow Japan to have nuclear weapons.
“Well I think maybe it’s not so bad to have Japan — if Japan had that nuclear threat, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us.”
Then Trump suggested to CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a town hall later that month that it was time to reconsider the United States’ decades-old policy of not allowing Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons.
“Can I be honest with you? It’s going to happen anyway. It’s going to happen anyway. It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely.”
And Trump also said in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace where Trump clearly states Japan should have nukes.
Trump: “It’s not like, gee whiz, nobody has them. So, North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. I mean, they have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea.”
Wallace: “With nukes?”
Trump: “Including with nukes, yes, including with nukes.”
The United State’s nuclear non-proliferation policy, which tries to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of new countries, such as Iran, has helped to keep nuclear weapons from being used for over 65 years.
Allowing new countries to obtain nuclear weapons would range from very very bad to the destabilization of an entire region of the globe in some cases.
But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and say we accept Trump’s policy and allow South Korea or Japan to have nuclear weapons.
You have to understand that Asia is a place where most nations deeply distrust their neighbors, and where old-style nationalism still reigns supreme. So a nuclear South Korea or Japan will increase the probability of other advanced countries of South East Asia, such as Taiwan or China, to start wondering why they should be left behind. This will inevitably lead to an arms race in Asia, which would be exactly what western powers have worked so hard trying to avoid since World War II ended.
It would undue generations of work in an instant and plunge a part of the globe into chaos and uncertainty.
We should be making more nuclear weapons
In the same MSNBC interview where he made comments on punishing women for having abortions, Donald Trump said if the US wasn’t willing to use its nuclear weapons then, “why are we making them?”
To help answer that very complex question we compiled a set of appendices at the end of this article, but in short:
- Making more civilization-ending weapons would raise global tensions.
- We already have enough to destroy all life on Earth 100 times over.
- One nuclear weapon costs $20 million dollars to build, manufacturing the missile used as a delivery system costs between $50 million to $140 million dollars, and $1.8 million dollars per year would be needed to store and maintain the single weapon.
Donald Trump has already promised to cut everyone’s taxes, including a record reduction for his own tax bracket, so it is not clear on how he could even pay for new weapons without borrowing and adding to the national debt.
Open to using nuclear weapons on allies
During an MSNBC town hall interview in March, Trump was asked by host Chris Matthews if he might use nuclear weapons.
Trump: “I’d be the last one to use the nuclear weapons, because that’s sort of like the end of the ballgame.”
Matthews: “So, can you take it off the table now? Can you tell the Middle East we are not using the nuclear weapon on anybody?”
Trump: “I would never say that. I would never take any of my cards off the table.”
Matthews: “How about Europe? We won’t use it in Europe.”
Trump: “I’m not going to take it off the table for anybody.”
Matthews: “You might use it in Europe?”
Trump: “No. I don’t think so, but — I am not taking cards off the table. I’m not going to use nukes, but I’m not taking cards off the table.”
In the same breath, Trump said he would not use nuclear weapons, but he went on to say he wouldn’t take it off the table for “anybody,” include Europe.
Trump then repeated his stance in another interview on The O’Reilly Factor when Eric Bolling asked the same question the very next day.
One could not underestimate just how C-R-A-Z-Y of a position from a potential President of the United States this is. Foreign leaders listening to statements like these and who are convinced that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States are in a full-boil panic!
There is a guy out there who is extremely close to the most powerful position in the world, who seems quite unhinged, and not against using a civilization-ending weapon on your population. How would you feel?
Let’s put it this way: If you were watching a movie, would you image the character discussing detonating a nuclear warhead over a European country, an American ally, be the good guy or the bad guy?
We took a look at the awesome power of nuclear weapons and how terrifying they can be if used. We also reviewed international ethics, laws, and norms which cover use of nuclear weapons. And finally we discussed how presidents wield the ultimate power over America’s nuclear weapons and can order a strike within minutes without any oversight.
Knowing these points and understanding Donald Trump’s policies regarding the use of nuclear weapons as if they are simply another tool in the toolbox and his policy of allowing more countries to become nuclear powers, it should not be difficult to find his cavalier attitude to be absolutely dangerous and downright scary.
Appendix A: About Nuclear Bombs
A single nuclear bomb has the ability to wipe an entire city off the face of the Earth in seconds, then inflict damage and pain within the surrounding area over an extended period ranging from hours to years.
In 1945 the Los Alamos scientists who were creating the first nuclear weapons concluded it would only take the detonation of about 10 to 100 bombs to put the human race in complete and total peril, and the United States and Russia alone have about 7,000 nuclear bombs each.
Nuclear bombs are the most serious looming threat in just about any major conflict.
If pop culture is more your thing to help you understand complex issues, here is a short list of movies where the good guys have to stop the bad guys from detonating a nuclear bomb… which the good guys consider to be a very very bad thing.
Appendix B: Presidents Have Total Control of America’s Nuclear Arms
Did you ever wonder why so many people are questioning Donald Trump’s horrible temperament and why is that even important? That almost exclusively has to do with the issue of a nuclear weapons.
Bruce G. Blair, a nuclear security expert at Princeton and co-founder of Global Zero, explained in an article in Politico:
“In the atomic age, when decisions must be made very quickly, the presidency has evolved into something akin to a nuclear monarchy. With a single phone call, the commander in chief has virtually unlimited power to rain down nuclear weapons on any adversarial regime and country at any time.
You might imagine this awesome executive power would be hamstrung with checks and balances, but by law, custom and congressional deference there may be no responsibility where the president has more absolute control.
There is no advice and consent by the Senate.
There is no second-guessing by the Supreme Court.
Even ordering the use of torture—which Trump infamously once said he would do, insisting the military “won’t refuse. They’re not gonna refuse me”—imposes more legal constraints on a president than ordering a nuclear attack.
If he gave the command, his executing commanders would have no legal or procedural grounds to defy it no matter how inappropriate it might seem. As long as the president can establish his or her true identity by his or her personal presence in the Pentagon’s nuclear war room or its alternates (places like Site R at Fort Richie near Camp David), or by phone or other means of communications linking him or her to these war rooms using a special identification card (colloquially known as “the biscuit” containing “the nuclear codes”) in his or her possession (or, alternatively, kept inside the “nuclear briefcase” carried by his or her military aide who shadows the president everywhere he or she works, travels and plays), a presidential nuclear decision is lawful (putting international humanitarian law aside).
It must be obeyed as long as it is constitutional—i.e., the president as commander in chief believes he or she is acting to protect and defend the nation against an actual or imminent attack.
There are no restraints that can prevent a willful president from unleashing this hell.”
Appendix C: Why We Haven’t Used Nuclear Weapons in Recent Conflicts
(Reportedly, this was an actual question Donald Trump kept asking military advisors.)
This is a overly-complex issue with different, sometimes competing points of view. But most straight-forward answers are:
- Mutually Assured Destruction
- Just War Theory
Mutually Assured Destruction
The most simple answer is a national security policy known as mutually assured destruction (MAD) in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker, the defender.
Think of mutually assured destruction as a Mexican standoff that you would see in a movie, except instead of everyone holding guns they all have nuclear warhead tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles that could possibly end all living life on this planet.
Everyone has their weapon, they are all taking turns pointing it at each other, but nobody wants to take that first shot. Because if they do, they know they may hit their target, but then everyone else will start shooting, all but ensuring their own death.
This fear of a “second strike” put very simply, is why use of nuclear weapons by any nation is a last resort, emphasis on “last.”
Just War Theory
The other competing argument for why we haven’t used nuclear weapons in recent conflicts is because of international laws and ethics.
To some people it may really sound strange to talk about laws and ethics when it comes to war, given the loss of life and destruction it causes, but there exists a set of laws to ensure war is morally justifiable through a series of criteria, all of which must be met for a war to be considered “just.”
This is known to theologians, ethicists, policy makers, and military leaders as the “Just War Theory” (jus bellum iustum.) While not all nations concern themselves with such justifications (e.g. Nazi Germany) and it indeed has its criticisms, many of the rules developed by the just war tradition have been codified into contemporary international laws, such as the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Charter, which most counties have either signed or ratified.
According to most of the accepted versions of just war theory, in order for a war to be just there are three separate groups of criteria that need to be met:
- The right to go to war (jus ad bellum)
- The right conduct in war (jus in bello)
- The post-war settlement and reconstruction (jus post bellum)
The first right concerns the morality of going to war, which Donald Trump and his surrogates do not seem to be so concerned with the laws surrounding this right. For example, at a campaign rally in Pensacola, Florida Trump said, “Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.” This would not fall under the criteria for a just war. Iran, however, would met the internationally recognized definition of a just war if they would choose to declare war on the United States should we shoot their boats out of the water without proper provocation.
The second right deals with with moral conduct during a war to limit suffering by protecting and assisting its victims as far as possible. Again Trump and his campaign have no love for the laws surrounding a moral conduct, with advisor Rudy Giuliani even saying, “It’s a war. Until the war is over, anything’s legal.” Trump has called for the reintroduction of the failed torture tactics including “waterboarding” used during the George W. Bush presidency.
And finally the third is the morality around nation building post-war, which is irrelevant to this discussion, but if you are interested to know more Princeton University has a good resource.
In short, the use of a nuclear weapon would violate the second right, which deals with what is permissible during a war, and since a nuclear blast is indiscriminate, meaning both military and civilians would be targeted, it would not be appropriate. Also it would raise the ethical questions of a proportional response. According to Just War Theory the quantity of force employed must always be morally proportionate to the threat, and there is no greater use of force than a nuclear weapon.
Appendix D: Resources
- Join the elimination of nuclear weapons at Global Zero.
Mutually Assured Destruction
- First Strike, American Interests episode (1983)
Just War Theory:
- Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer (1977)
- The Ethics of War by Barrie Paskins and Michael Dockrill (1979)
- Ethics, Killing, and War by Richard Norman (1995)
- War and International Justice by Brian Orend (2001)
- Michael Walzer on War and Justice by Brian Orend (2001)
- BBC ethics and warfare
- Nuclear Deterrence and Just War Theory