The Trump administration’s nuclear policy review loosens constraints on the use of nuclear weapons. We should all be worried
Martin J Sherwin
Last modified on Sat 13 Jan 2018 17.53 EST
Too bad the book flying off the shelves isn’t the other one about “fire and fury”, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg’s startling volume about his life as a nuclear war planner. It is as riveting as the Michael Wolff book and several orders of magnitude more terrifying.
News that the Trump administration’s nuclear policy review loosens constraints on the use of nuclear weapons to improve US military capabilities is a case of déjà vu. It’s back to the hottest moments of the cold war and a reinforcement of the first principle of American nuclear policy – first-use – a policy of questionable value and certain immorality.
As Gen James Cartwright, former vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Princeton University nuclear scholar Bruce Blair have pointed out, there is no situation where the US would benefit by initiating a nuclear war.
“Our non-nuclear strength, including economic and diplomatic power, our alliances, our conventional and cyber weaponry and our technological advantages” are unmatched, they say, and more than sufficient to assure our security. In addition, two-thirds of the American public oppose first-use. So what is behind this Trump initiative?
It is more likely than not the president’s troubled emotional need to maximize his “threat quotient”. The new nuclear policy review, the first in eight years, appears intended to do just that.
Reports claim that it is designed to “send a clear deterrent message to Russians, the North Koreans and the Chinese”. This is one-size-fits-all nuclear thinking: “Fire and fury like the world has never seen.” It is another misguided and dangerous policy, as its critics have made clear.
As Ellsberg, once a wunderkind denizen of the nether world (the Rand Corporation and the Pentagon) shows in detail, every president since Truman has promised to rain fire and fury on the adversary. He cites 25 instances when presidents furtively thought to issue nuclear ultimatums.
Ellsberg shows how human extinction is integral to the nuclear design, and warns that the world has run out of time.
Richard Nixon learned his nuclear “madman” statecraft from the master of brinksmanship, Dwight Eisenhower. Jimmy Carter very nearly brought us to a third world war thanks to the forward-deployed Pershings of PD (presidential directive) 59. Before his Reykjavik volte-face, Ronald Reagan threatened to lob one into the Kremlin. George W Bush was gung-ho to develop nuclear bunker busters for use against Iran. Even Barack Obama couldn’t come to relinquish that first-use “option”, notwithstanding his abhorrence of nuclear weapons.
But nuclear deterrence is a fraud. It doesn’t prevent wars, it prevents nuclear wars (so far) that would not be possible if nuclear weapons were abolished. The deterrent arsenal’s real utility has been to provide our presidents with the opportunity to threaten nuclear war, and therefore it must always be promoted as plausible that the US uses nuclear weapons first.
Even Obama’s pledge in 2009 to reduce the nuclear stockpile to zero was not matched by a pledge of no first-use. Moreover, the trillion dollar “modernization” of the strategic triad begun in earnest in 2010 gave ironic meaning to Obama saying in a major 2009 speech that while he would want to abolish nuclear weapons, it would likely not happen “in my lifetime”.
Ellsberg shows how human extinction is integral to the nuclear design, and warns that the world has run out of time. A miracle got us through the 20th century alive, with the help of two Russians, heroes of humanity who didn’t push that nuclear button. Good luck in this century with the proliferation of desks with bigger buttons.
Disarming and dismantling the Doomsday Machine has become a klaxon flashing red, but one look at this nuclear policy review tells us that the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war is enjoying an encore in the Pentagon.
The red lines this president has been crossing with impunity means the world is staring into the abyss. The Big Rocket Man is also seeking to increase his threat quotient and might even be wondering if he might use it. Thanks to this latest review, he has permission to move closer to that decision.
“This is not a species to be trusted with nuclear weapons,” Ellsberg writes, presciently. Certainly, Donald Trump is not to be trusted with nuclear weapons. Neither is his doppelgänger in the Kremlin. Nor the prime ministers of India and Pakistan. Nor Little Rocket Man. Dr King’s “fierce urgency of now” never seemed more urgent than now.
Thank Trump for letting the American people in on the dirty secret of nuclear weapons, for making that choice as graphic as it has ever been. The nuclear age has come full circle. But is anyone outside the Beltway paying attention?