Now that Barack Obama has officially passed the torch to Donald Trump as Commander in Chief, many are terrified that a man so seemingly unpredictable as Trump has control over thousands of nuclear missiles. Scientists have moved the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight, citing the ascent of Trump along with a troubling rise in nationalism across the globe. From the Chicago Tribune (“Would an impulsive Trump hit the nuclear button?”) to Politico (“Trump’s nuclear wake-up call”), numerous publications have run articles discussing what the foreign policy (or lack thereof) of this new administration can mean for the United States’ nuclear strategy.
The notions of fear and uncertainty that a lot of people are feeling stem from Trump’s apparent lack of knowledge on foreign affairs as well as his scattered comments pertaining to nuclear proliferation. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Trump if he’d be ready to let Japan and South Korea become nuclear powers, Trump responded, “I am prepared to, if they’re not going to take care of us properly, we cannot afford to be the military and police for the world.” In a conversation regarding Russia and nuclear weapons with Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe Programme, Trump said, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Fears in response to these types of comments are not unwarranted. The nature of these statements threatens to completely upend previously established United States nuclear policy. However, the implications of these comments are not necessarily problematic for the U.S.
It is true that foreign leaders around the world can interpret Trump’s comments as provocative and confrontational. This in turn could create a security dilemma for their nations, which could lead to an arms race and even preemptive strikes on the United States or our allies.
However, it is more probable that nation states around the world will be even less likely to initiate any conflict with the United States or threaten any of our vital interests. In May of last year, our Congress decided to put taxpayer dollars toward funding a thirty year, $1 trillion dollar bill intended to upgrade our nuclear weapons systems. This means that our nukes will be completely modernized and refurbished so that they are more precise with a shorter launch sequence than ever before. These advancements, coupled with Trump’s perceived rashness, indicate to the world that we may be more likely to use nuclear weapons. Since this logically makes our threats more credible, other nations are more likely to tread lightly rather than take any chances in provoking our new Commander in Chief.
On one hand, I don’t think Trump has a clear understanding of the balance of powers in the international arena. But I do think he understands the psychology of leaving everything on the table. Nixon and Eisenhower employed similar ‘madman’ strategies by convincing our enemies that they were crazy and reckless, thus making them fear an unpredictable response.
Nonetheless, things get a bit more complicated when we interact with non-state actors, such as ISIS. These groups do not have the same incentive structure as legitimate states, so it’s less likely they will act predictably rational in response to Trump’s policies. But this also means Trump could be less inclined to use nuclear weapons against them. Since nukes are basically only useful as deterrents rather than offensive weapons, and ISIS does not impose its influence from precise locations, it wouldn’t make sense to obliterate large areas with no clear benefit.
In light of his most recent immigration reforms, it’s clear Donald Trump lacks a sound moral compass. In the aftermath of his advisor’s ‘alternative facts’ comment, as well as the actions taken against journalists during the Anti-Trump protests, it’s also clear that there are many concerning domestic developments in our country. But I don’t think these events are indicators that our President is marching us closer to large-scale warfare with other nations. A lack of morality does not invariably imply a lack of intellect.
Truthfully, I don’t think Trump knows what he’s talking about a lot of the time. But I also don’t think it was a coincidence that on the weekend that Trump agreed to pay $25 million to end a lawsuit against Trump University, all that anyone was discussing were some stupid tweets about Mike Pence being insulted at a Hamilton performance. I may be giving too much credit to the man who says he ‘consults himself’ on foreign policy, but it’s also possible that Trump may have a purpose behind his apparent impulsiveness, and that the end isn’t as close as many believe it to be. FDT.