The Finger on the Nuclear Button
Credit Illustration by Joan Wong; Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times
Scientists who study the risk of nuclear war recently moved the hands of the symbolic Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes before midnight - meaning they believe that the world is closer to nuclear catastrophe than it has been since 1953 after the United States and Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which created the clock in 1947, says that President Trump is the main reason for this worrisome development.
Mr. Trump came to office with little knowledge of the vast nuclear arsenal and the missiles, bombers and submarines it contains. He has spoken, alarmingly, about deploying this weaponry against terrorists and about expanding America's nuclear capabilities. He has said he values unpredictability, meaning presumably that he wants to keep other nations on edge about whether he will use nuclear weapons.
"Let it be an arms race," he told a television interviewer in December. During a debate three months earlier he contradicted himself, saying that "I would certainly not do first strike," then adding, "I can't take anything off the table." What's worrisome about all this is that it is the opposite of what Republican and Democratic presidents have long sought, which is to ensure that these weapons are not used precipitously if at all.
It is the fear of such precipitous action that has led Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Ted Lieu of California, both Democrats, to propose legislation to prohibit any president from launching a first-strike nuclear weapon without a declaration of war from Congress.
The bill would not undercut Mr. Trump's ability to respond on his own authority to a nuclear attack, an authority all presidents have had and should have. It has support from leading arms control advocates, including former Defense Secretary William Perry. And while it won't go anywhere in this Republican-led Congress, it sends a clear message to Mr. Trump that he should not be the first since World War II to use nuclear weapons. Mr. Trump could more usefully deploy his energies engaging with Russia to further reduce both countries' nuclear arsenals, maintaining the Iran nuclear deal and finding new ways to curb North Korea's nuclear program.
Continue reading the main story A Pentagon advisory board recently proposed that the United States consider building more lower-yield nuclear weapons to provide an option for "limited use" in a regional conflict. The only legitimate role for nuclear weapons is deterrence. The absurd notion of a "limited" nuclear war, which could make it easier for a president to use lower-yield weapons, needs to be rejected. The country has enough advanced conventional weapons to defend against most threats.
Mr. Trump commands about 4,000 weapons that he alone is empowered to launch. Any decision responding to an attack would have to be made quickly. That kind of life-or-death choice would test any leader, even those well-schooled in arcane nuclear doctrine, the intricacies of power politics and the importance of not letting tensions get to the point where a nuclear exchange becomes likely. But none of Mr. Trump's closest advisers are known to be nuclear experts, the president has yet to put together a nuclear strategy and, as the Bulletin's Science and Security Board warned last month, Mr. Trump "has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice."
With Mr. Trump, sound decision-making may be an even greater challenge, given his disruptive, impulsive style. There is also the fact that he has assumed office at a particularly unstable time, with the Middle East in turmoil and Russia and China acting more aggressively. This is a time for restraint and careful deliberation, and for leaders who clearly understand that nuclear weapons are too dangerous to be brandished as a cudgel.