Trump and the Myth of Nuclear Flexibility

Politics Features Nuclear Weapons
Trump and the Myth of Nuclear Flexibility

“SCHEER: Don’t you reach a point with these strategic weapons where we can wipe each other out so many times and no one wants to use them or be willing to use them, that it really doesn’t matter whether you’re 10 percent or 2 percent lower or higher?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Yes, if you believe there is no such thing as a winner in a nuclear exchange, that argument makes a little sense. I don’t believe that.”

—With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War. Robert Scheer. 1982.

On Feb. 23, President Trump announced that he wanted to build the nuclear arsenal of the United States “back up” and that more broadly, he rejected the alleged “one-sided” nature of the New START treaty between the United States and Russia. Insofar that the Trump administration’s foreign policy currently exists, the move towards nuclear belligerence is in line with the belief in Republican policy making circles that the last eight years have seen an American retreat that must be reversed. It’s not an accident that Trump places emphasis on expansion and a desire to not—in his words—fall behind. Although it has been said from those ranging from Barack Obama to writers at The Weekly Standard that Trump’s candidacy and subsequent presidency have been a disrespectful break from Ronald Reagan—it is here that Trump represents the greatest continuity with the Gipper.

Massive retaliation, a 24/7 readiness to bomb the Soviet Union in the advent of war, was the enthusiastic and public policy with which the United States maintained its burgeoning nuclear arsenal in the early days of the Cold War. The enthusiasm and reverence afforded publicly by lawmakers towards nuclear weapons waned in the latter years of the Eisenhower administration and public lawmaker support of nuclear weapons—and nuclear war—came to a more definite end with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

With this shift in the public perception of nuclear weapons came a growing number of testing bans and non-proliferation treaties too. These measures were laudable, even if they failed to dispel within administrations the belief that nuclear weapons were a legitimate weapon of war. After the Cuban missile crisis, there was a trend towards so-called flexible nuclear responses. Nixon sought to develop a nuclear response that would be tactical in nature as opposed to one of mutually assured destruction alone—a move he wanted Vietnam to believe he would carry out. And it was Jimmy Carter that signed Presidential Directive 59 (PD-59), expanding options for waging a nuclear war. The Carter administration’s pursuit of a plan—even one meant, “if deterrence fails initially”—for a winnable nuclear war set the stage for the open hawkishness of the Reagan administration.

But it was the Reagan administration that swept aside all pretensions of a defensive posture and talk of détente. Accusing Carter of weakness and inactivity (an irony considering the extent to which the drafters of PD-59 and the Reagan team agreed about overestimations of Soviet nuclear planning) the Reagan administration was beset with advocates for a renewed look at the feasibility of nuclear weapons on a wide scale against the Soviet Union. Arguing from the incorrect and bellicose Team B report on Soviet military capabilities, there was the persistent belief that the Soviet Union had already mapped out a winning nuclear war scenario. Not since the early days of the Cold War had an administration been staffed with figures who were so, at least initially, forthright about their belief that nuclear war could be won. Previous administrations pursued flexibility but it was the Reagan administration whose members bragged to The Los Angeles Times that they could win a nuclear war if they wanted to.

Nuclear war did not come, the TV movie “The Day After” was credited with softening Reagan’s personal stance towards nuclear weapons, and the Soviet Union—in reality, far from having been on the cusp of giving Reagan’s morning in America a radioactive glow—collapsed in the next decade without a single nuclear bomb falling. Despite winning the Cold War, the pursuit of “flexible” nuclear options remains a goal for the US. The Obama administration started what will be a one trillion-dollar “modernization” of the nuclear arsenal over a 30-year period. First strike, which is preemptive nuclear war, remains official policy—even after some debate in the last decade. While treaties such as New START were signed with the goal of limiting active nuclear weapons, the underlying logic of Cold War nuclear policy has remained more-or-less unchanged. The structures of the Cold War remained even after the conflict had ended.

Like Reagan before him decrying the SALT II treaty Trump has dismissed New START as being one-sided and too conciliatory towards the Russians. Like Reagan’s campaign trail admonishment of Carter letting the nuclear forces fall into disarray, Trump wants to expand the nuclear arsenal to rebuild defenses that were not in disrepair in the first place. Reagan had a geopolitical rival in the Soviet Union. Who does Trump believe nuclear weapons need to be built up against?

Sean Spicer, in attempting to clarify these remarks offered few specifics. Instead, Spicer stated the president’s goal was simply to, “maintain America’s dominance around the world.” This, of course, has been the broad goal of the US nuclear program since the Cold War’s inception—but what Trump entails in specifics are unclear. Nor is it clear where Trump’s desire to expand the nuclear force falls in with his belief that an arms race could act as an effective deterrent on North Korea. And although the nature of the relationship between officials in the Trump administration and the Russian government is unclear—it should not be assumed that tensions between both governments couldn’t escalate to a renewed arms race. Trump administration sabre rattling towards Iran has already become a point of serious disagreement for the two governments, for example.

The only party that benefits from expanding the nuclear arsenal would be private enterprise—defense contractors who currently develop and maintain it. If Trump’s general call for military expansion betrays any true constituency of the administration, it’s capital itself. Here there is an easy continuity between the business of “modernizing” the nuclear arsenal and expanding it. Building the weapons that could end the world is a lucrative business.

Whatever Trump’s short-term goals, strategic or business, the disregard for arms treaties and frankness towards expanding the nuclear arsenal threatens the lives of millions and dramatically increases the risks of international incidents escalating unnecessarily. A new arms race would strain an international order already strained by the Great Recession and unending war in the Middle East. Trump’s nuclear policy is enabled by the complete failure of any administration to move away from trying to create “flexible” nuclear policies during and after the Cold War. For all the talk of developing a non-nuclear landscape after the Cold War, American administrations have done little in terms of the kind of radical moves that would be needed to achieve this. If Trump creates an expanded nuclear arsenal, he can thank his predecessors for leaving the physical and ideological structures required for large scale rearmament intact.

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