Trump’s meltdowns show why nuclear “deterrence” doesn’t work
Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump has seriously undermined deterrence strategy, because he is so patently unreasonable and irrational. Deterrence is based on rationality even in the midst of crisis.
Published in The Hill Times on January 7, 2021
By ERIKA SIMPSON
This week’s looting of the bastion of American democracy during the sacred transfer of power from the Trump administration to the incoming administration of Joseph Biden did not spell the end of democracy in America. Millions of Americans watched slack-jawed as a few thousand armed and masked insurgents broke windows and invaded Congressional offices, including the office of the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which they vandalized and left threatening notes. The army deployed the Washington D.C. National Guard to the Capitol and the F.B.I. mobilized agents.
However, Congress resumed election certification after the pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.
President-elect Joe Biden first appealed to Americans in a stirring and lengthy speech, that was followed later by outgoing President Trump’s unsubstantiated assertion that the election had been stolen due to voter fraud, and that he loved the protesters. Within a few hours, Twitter locked President Trump’s account, demanding that he delete tweets that appeared to incite violence, and threatened a permanent suspension. Facebook and YouTube took down the video of his message to supporters. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Trump would be banned from his social media platforms indefinitely.
Stunned Americans saw first-hand evidence that the president was unhinged, irresponsible, and should be impeached. With only 13 days to go before leaving office, even the Republican strategist Scott Jennings, hitherto supportive of Trump, asked on a cross-Canada radio show whether Trump could be trusted not to incite further insurrection during his remaining days in office. It was obvious that the president’s failure to condemn his supporters’ was a dereliction of his duty to protect the U.S. Constitution.
Still, Trump’s finger is on the nuclear trigger while thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles are pointed at hundreds of Russian cities. However, it is doubtful that the man at the apex of power will order a nuclear strike on Russia over the next two nerve-wracking weeks.
We might expect nuclear threats from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un if he thought his power would be usurped—and we have heard his threats to demolish the U.S. with fire and fury before.
But the United States’ Nuclear Command and Control System (NCCS) claims it has a sufficient collection of processes and procedures that would allow for “senior-level decisions on nuclear weapons deployment.” Presumably, the NCCS would somehow prevent a lunatic president from launching nukes, like some kind of crazy Dr. Strangelove portrayed in the 1964 movie: “How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.”
Nevertheless, Trump has seriously undermined deterrence strategy, because he is so patently unreasonable and irrational. Deterrence is based on rationality even in the midst of crisis.
Deterrence cannot survive as a credible strategy if we perceive its executors are irrational and incapable of weighing options in order to decide to take the course that the situation dictates. As Rand Corporation analyst Michael J. Mazarr points out in “Understanding Deterrence”: “It is the perceptions of the potential aggressor that matter, not the actual prospects for victory or the objectively measured consequences of an attack. Perceptions are the dominant variable in deterrence success or failure.”
Trump’s mind is removed from logic and the context of his decision-making is narcissistic and self-focused, weighing only how he can keep the mantle of power.
The travesty of democracy at the heart of Washington politics can only illuminate further the dangers of relying upon nuclear deterrence as a credible strategy. When the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) comes into play as international law on Jan. 22 at the UN, where a majority of countries have signed and ratified it, the non-nuclear countries that resoundingly support the treaty must ask themselves whether the fate of the globe should ever be entrusted to one man.
New studies of the scientific effects of limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan demonstrate merely the exchange of 100 tactical nuclear weapons spells global catastrophe, nuclear winter, and the complete collapse of the world’s economy. In comparison, the pandemic would be a romp in the park.
Yet the leaders of the nuclear- and non-nuclear states in NATO continue to espouse nuclear deterrence and reliance on nuclear weapons as essential. The NATO allies “reject any attempt to delegitimise nuclear deterrence.” NATO has again panned the UN’s treaty to ban nuclear weapons, and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned last month the deal could undermine global disarmament efforts.
Yet UN Secretary General António Guterres said in October that any use of nuclear weapons would have “catastrophic humanitarian consequences.” And he hailed the new treaty as “a meaningful commitment towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons, which remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations.”
Guterres calls the treaty “a tribute to the survivors of nuclear explosions and tests, many of whom advocated for this treaty.” With support from the few remaining Hibakusha, who survived the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as all the world’s non-nuclear nations, the new treaty will be an early test for Biden. It is now time with the onset of the new ban treaty to reject reliance on the U.S. president in his singular role as one of the few people in the world who can order nuclear war and thus the obliteration of life on Earth as we know it.
Erika Simpson is an associate professor of international politics at Western University, president of the Canadian Peace Research Association, author of NATO and the Bomb, peer reviewer for the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health College, and board member of the Canadian Pugwash Group. This is her viewpoint and not that of any of these organizations.