BY LOUIS RENÉ BERES, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
An inappropriate or irrational nuclear command decision by President Donald Trump is plainly conceivable. Nothing accurate can ever be said about the true probability of such a scenario, but it is not an unfounded worry.
Might this American president become subject to various forms of psychological debility? On 14 March 1976, in response to my specific query, I received a letter from General (USA/ret.) Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, concerning nuclear risks of U.S. presidential decisional irrationality. Most noteworthy, in this handwritten response, is the straightforward warning contained in the closing paragraph. Ideally, cautioned Taylor, presidential irrationality is a problem that should be dealt with during an election, and not later on: “As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one.”
There are assorted structural protections built into any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, including substantial redundancy. Nonetheless, virtually all of these reassuring and mutually reinforcing safeguards could become operative only at the lower or sub-presidential nuclear command levels.
This means there likely exist no permissible legal grounds to disobey any presidential order to use nuclear weapons. In principle, certain very senior individuals in the designated military chain of command could sometime choose to invoke applicable “Nuremberg Obligations,” but any such last-minute invocation would almost surely need to yield to considerations of U.S. domestic law.
Should an American president operating within a bewildering chaos of his own making issue an irrational or seemingly irrational nuclear command, the only way for the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Adviser, and several possible others to effectively obstruct this order would be illegal “on its face.” Under the very best of circumstances, such informal safeguards might somehow manage to work for a time, but accepting the unrealistic assumption of “best case scenario” is hardly a rational or sensible path to nuclear security.
It follows that we Americans ought to ask for more predictable and promising institutional impediments to any debilitated president.
The United States is already navigating in uncharted waters.
While President Kennedy did engage in personal nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union back in October 1962, he had calculated his own odds of a consequent nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.” This seemingly precise calculation, corroborated both by JFK biographer Theodore Sorensen, and by my own later private conversations with former JCS Chair Admiral Arleigh Burke (my colleague and roommate at the Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference of 1977) suggests that President Kennedy was either irrational in imposing his Cuban “quarantine” or that he was wittingly acting out certain untested principles of “pretended irrationality.”
JFK operated with serious and manifestly capable strategic advisors.
The most urgent threat of a mistaken or irrational presidential order to use nuclear weapons flows not from any “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack – whether Russian, North Korean, or American – but from an uncontrollable escalatory process. Back in 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “blinked” early on in the “game,” thereby preventing mutual and irrecoverable nuclear harms. Now, however, any escalatory initiatives undertaken by President Trump could express very unstable decision-making processes.
Donald Trump should understand the unprecedented risks of being locked into an escalatory dynamic. Although this president might be well advised to seek escalation dominance in selected crisis negotiations with determined adversaries, he would also need to avoid catastrophic miscalculations.
Whether we like it or not, and at one time or another, nuclear strategy is a bewildering game that President Donald Trump will have to play. To best ensure that this easily-distracted president’s strategic moves will be rational, thoughtful, and cumulatively cost-effective, it will first be necessary to enhance the formal decisional authority of his most senior military and defense subordinates.
At a minimum, the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and one or two others in appropriate nuclear command positions should immediately prepare to assume more broadly collaborative and secure judgments in extremis atomicum.
The only time for clarifying such indispensable preparations is now.
Louis René Beres, Ph.D. Princeton, is emeritus professor of international law at Purdue University. He is the author of 12 books and several hundred articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. His newest book is “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018)