Dangerous Nuclear Decisions
By Louis René Beres | Opinion Contributor
July 4, 2017, at 7:00 a.m.
Our national independence suggests more than an annual pretext for bluster, bravado and fireworks. It also expresses a complex legal and philosophical concept warranting continuous reassessment. In this connection, despite President Donald Trump’s vast efforts at public deflection via ad hominem attacks, it is high time for Americans to confront the most overriding danger of presidential debility.
This singular peril is the conspicuously growing threat of a president who is emotionally and intellectually incapable of rendering well-reasoned nuclear command decisions.
As I know personally from almost 50 years of scholarship on such matters, there are various structural protections built into any presidential order to use nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, virtually all of these mostly redundant safeguards would become operational only at lower command levels; plainly, they do not apply at the highest level of national decisional authority.
In essence, there exist no permissible or codified legal grounds to disobey a presidential order to use nuclear weapons. To be sure, in principle at least, individuals in the military chain of command could sometimes invoke pertinent Nuremberg obligations to resist crimes of state, but any such last-minute invocation would almost certainly yield to substantially more obvious manifestations of U.S. domestic law, both statutory and constitutional.
If an American president were ever to 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 advisor and several possible others to meaningfully obstruct this order would be illegal on its face. Conceivably, such informal safeguards might somehow manage to work, but we really still ought to inquire about implementing more suitably predictable and promising institutional impediments.
This inquiry should be immediate.
History may deserve pride of place. In candor, we Americans are navigating here in generally uncharted waters. While President John F. Kennedy did engage in personal nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union back in October 1962, he had then calculated his own odds of a resultant nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.”
This troubling calculation, corroborated both by top JFK aide Theodore Sorensen and by my own private conversations with former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke, suggests that Kennedy was either genuinely irrational in imposing his Cuban “quarantine,” or instead that he was acting out completely untested (in a nuclear crisis context) principles of “pretended irrationality.”
There is more. For JFK, following his U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, the term “quarantine” was chosen because “blockade” was presumptively more belligerent, more of an incontestable casus belli, more patently legitimizing as a cause of possible war.
Today, Trump, without any hint of nuance or a scintilla of serious thought, has several-times heaped seat-of-the-pants praise upon pretending irrationality. This unreflective argument was advanced not because the president is in any way personally acquainted with U.S. nuclear strategy, but rather as a “common sense” metaphor drawn viscerally from commercial real estate negotiations. To successfully “play” such a dialectical strategy – to even pry into it interpretively – would call for a far greater depth of historical understanding and analytic subtlety than he could ever be expected to display.
In more expressly scientific terms, this means that Trump, in addition to any evident personal debilities he might bring to the delicate game, would have no credible way to determine the probable outcome of his planned or considered actions. None at all.
The reason for this uncertainty is straightforward and utterly non-political. It exists because all scientific judgments of probability must be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. By definition, unless we count JFK’s willingness to escalate in 1962, there simply are no pertinent past events.
Going forward, the most serious threat of a misconceived or irrational U.S. 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 incoherent escalatory process that has run amok. Fortunately, in 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “blinked” early on in the game, and thereby avoided mutual and possibly irrecoverable nuclear harms. Looking ahead, however, especially to any expanding crises with North Korea, escalatory initiatives undertaken by Trump would plausibly express fully ad hoc decision-making.
Such initiatives might not meet with any reassuringly Khrushchev-type concession. Such initiatives could end with bitterly unforeseen and unacceptable costs.
In principle, at least, it is vital that Trump understand the very great risks of being locked into an escalatory dynamic from which there could be no release other than capitulation or nuclear war. Although the American president might be entirely well advised to seek “escalation dominance” in any upcoming crisis negotiations with the Russians or North Koreans, also required would be a corollary caution to avoid catastrophic miscalculations. Ominously, in this connection, the more numerous the participating national players, the more complicated and perilous any such negotiations would become.
Like it or not, at one time or another, nuclear strategy is a bewildering game that Trump will almost certainly have to play. To best ensure that this disinterested president’s calculated moves will be rational, purposeful and tactically 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 pertinent nuclear command positions should prepare for undertaking more fully collaborative judgments in extremis atomicum.