So this pulls us into a whole new bucket of issues. What are we to make of the Clinton campaign’s claim that Trump is simply too dangerous to be given access to nuclear weapons? Could he really, singularly, make an unlivable mess of the planet in a fit of pique?
It might seem odd, in a democracy built on pluralism, that nuclear weapons actually function as the private arsenal of a single American – under what former launch control officer Bruce Blair has referred to as “a nuclear monarchy.” Only the president can launch a nuclear attack (others can step in if he dies), and the military’s nuclear officers are rigorously trained to follow a president’s precise orders. Although the nation’s defense secretary is supposed to confirm the order before it’s carried out, he or she doesn’t actually have veto power; any resistance would constitute insubordination. That’s why Richard Nixon is said to have once bragged, as his impeachment neared, that “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.”
Since the United States presently has around 900 deployed nuclear warheads on missiles subject to launch within less than a half hour (another 480 are associated with bombers that function more slowly), it’s an inescapable fact that this rigid protocol of singular command and unblinking, system-wide nuclear response raises the stakes of every presidential election. As ten former launch nuclear launch control officers said in a joint statement on Oct. 13, “the pressures…are staggering, and require enormous composure, judgment, restraint and diplomatic skill.”
They went on to complain that Trump doesn’t have these qualities.
Is this fair? Trump did say in a primary debate that “we have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear.” He might be erratic, and uninformed; after all, he called the New Start nuclear arms treaty the “Start Up” treaty, as if he was weighing a new investment. But would he really want to put dozens of gleaming Trump Towers and hotels, Trump Plazas, and Trump golf courses in 40 cities, plus the nation’s population, at risk by initiating a nuclear exchange?
Clinton strikingly accused Trump in the third debate of being “very cavalier, even casual about the use of nuclear weapons.” She also said Trump had told Asian nations engaged in a nuclear competition to “go ahead, enjoy yourselves, folks.”
Trump has called these claims a distortion. In March he said “maybe it’s not so bad…if Japan had that nuclear threat.” He also said this is “going to happen whether we like it or not,” and that other countries such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia might also get the bomb unless the world gets “rid of them entirely.” But this seemed like more of a prediction than an endorsement, particularly when viewed alongside his remark last January that nuclear proliferation – including the seizure of a warhead by a madman — is “the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.” When asked again about Japan that month, however, Trump muddied the water further: “Maybe they would be better off — including with nukes, yes, including with nukes.”
Separately, at a rally before the Wisconsin primary the following month, Trump said if war one day broke out between Japan and North Korea, Japan would “wipe them out pretty quick.” He also said “it would be a terrible thing” but then added, in a characteristically flippant way, “Good luck. Enjoy yourself, folks,” according to The Guardian’s account of his remarks. He was not, he told Clinton at the third debate, endorsing a nuclear exchange between the two.
But didn’t he also ask some foreign policy expert why – if we have nuclear weapons – can’t we use them? This remark has been cited widely. Isn’t this scary, as Clinton’s supporters say?
The quote originated in a claim by Joe Scarborough, a popular cable TV host who has distanced himself from Trump. But Scarborough hasn’t said who he heard it from, so there hasn’t been any corroboration; Trump, moreover, has denied saying it. Even if he did, he wouldn’t be the first non-expert to attempt to understand what, exactly, the massive U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons is for. Just asking the question doesn’t make him trigger-happy.
Okay, but this is still confusing. Trump has said he wants to build more nuclear warheads – only the Russians are doing that now, he says—but at the same time he warns countries in Europe and Asia that depend on our nuclear arsenal that they will have to go it alone, unless they pay us a lot more money.
Clinton has attacked Trump’s position, claiming that “he wants to tear up our alliances.” But Trump’s argument is economic, not political. It’s based on the fact that key U.S. allies – such as Japan, Germany, and South Korea — contribute only a small portion of the costs of defending their territory from attack, as a legacy of policies dating from World War II. The U.S. share of total defense spending in Europe by all NATO members, for example, exceeds 70 percent, although some of this spending is for forces that can be used elsewhere in the world. Washington’s share of NATO’s direct budget (for its operations and staff) is far less — roughly 22 percent — but still larger than anyone else's.
Here are Trump’s words at the third debate: “We’re defending other countries. We are spending a fortune doing it. They have the bargain of the century…We have to renegotiate those agreements.” He went on: “South Korea, these are very rich, powerful countries. Saudi Arabia, nothing but money. We protect Saudi Arabia. Why aren’t they paying?” Actually, they do pay billions of dollars to reimburse some U.S. costs. But senior U.S. officials, including Obama himself, have repeatedly expressed identical frustrations; in April, Obama colorfully called them “free riders,” virtually echoing Trump.
There still seem to be many other disagreements between Trump and Clinton. Do they agree about anything related to the nation’s defense?
Yes. Both have proposed policies that almost certainly would require an increase in military spending. But this is at best an uncertain prospect, since Democratic lawmakers have said they will agree only if Republicans agree to commensurate increases in non-defense spending, which most Republicans still oppose. Although the makeup of Congress will doubtless change next year, this deadlock could persist.