The bizarre possibility exists that under President Trump, the United States may at last get some leverage out of its nuclear arsenal. Oy vay!
When President Richard Nixon’s former chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, was waiting to begin serving a prison term for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, he wrote a memoir. In it, Haldeman described how during the 1968 presidential campaign, at the height of the Vietnam War, Nixon shared his plan to get the North Vietnamese to bend to his will. “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob[…] We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he is angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button’—and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris begging for peace.” It didn’t work.
“It” has never worked; that is, no country’s leadership (including but not limited to the United States) has been able to manipulate the heads of other countries by the threat of nuclear annihilation. Nukes didn’t help the U.S. in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, nor did they prevent 9/11. They didn’t inhibit Argentina from invading the Falklands/Malvinas, even though the UK had nuclear weapons and the Buenos Aires junta did not. They didn’t enable France to hold onto Algeria, nor did they contribute in any positive way to the USSR’s tribulations in Afghanistan, or assist Russia in its bloody conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine or Syria. They were useless to NATO in Bosnia, Serbia, Libya, and Kosovo, and they haven’t helped the U.S. in Somalia or in confronting ISIS.
There are many reasons for this, not least that the use of nuclear weapons lacks credibility. As many strategists have lamented, it is impossible to fashion a credible threat out of an action that is literally unbelievable. The reason nuclear threats are incredible is itself multi-faceted, partly a result of the horrific and grotesquely out-sized degree of “collateral damage” they entail, exceeding any reasonable ethical construct consistent with the notion of a “just war.” In addition, when directed toward another nuclear armed nation, such a threat is typically discounted because a “first strike” would almost certainly generate a catastrophic “second strike” in retaliation (this, for better or worse—mostly worse—is at the heart of nuclear deterrence). By the same token, a police officer could not credibly stop or arrest a bank robber by threatening to detonate a backpack nuclear explosive—that would obliterate the robber, the police officer, the bank, and the community.
Ironically, Donald Trump could end up endowing U.S. nuclear weapons with precisely the credibility it had previously lacked. Even Richard Nixon, with his seriously flawed personality, didn’t frighten Ho Chi Minh as a credible madman. But from everything one can tell about Mr. Trump, he could very well fill the bill. I am not in a position to diagnose him technically, and according to the so-called Goldwater Rule, members in good standing of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association are prohibited from doing so. However, I'm not affiliated with either, and I strongly suspect that Trump is in fact mentally ill; suffering from both paranoia and narcissistic personality disorder, quite possibly with a dose of bipolar and and no small degree of sociopathy. He is, in any event, undoubtedly impulsive, vindictive, egocentric, and ill-informed, particularly on nuclear issues. Hence, he may supply precisely the twisted credibility that has been lacking thus far since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The pursuit of credibility has long bedeviled strategic doctrine. It constituted the backdrop for a breakthrough book titled Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, written in 1957 by a then little-known academic named Henry Kissinger, and was the backbone of two lectures titled “The Political Uses of Madness” given by another young scholar, one Daniel Ellsberg, at Harvard in 1959.
Worry about nuclear credibility has been the demon responsible for some of the most dangerous escalations in nuclear weaponry, such as neutron bombs, designed to kill people but to leave infrastructure intact, thereby seeming more usable in such crowded venues as Germany, once described by a senior military officer as composed of towns “only two kilotons apart.” Tactical of battlefield nuclear weapons generally owe their development and deployment to worry that strategic nukes, intended to obliterate an adversary’s homeland, inherently lack credibility, because their use would presumably bring about an unacceptable retaliation.
Concern about credibility has also given rise to computer-based systems of “launch on warning,” which, by taking the decision to incinerate the world out of the hands of (presumably sane and thus inhibited) human beings, are designed to make their use more credible, at the risk of being more subject to computer error or other hardware malfunction. With President Trump, the United States will be spared the need to shore up the credibility of its nuclear arsenal, even if he doesn’t follow through on his recently tweeted threat to “strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.”
Among the many paradoxes of nuclear weapons is this: there is no way to get around the credibility skeleton that lurks in the closet of deterrence—and which renders them unusable under any rational calculus—other than by making them more usable, or by putting them in the hands of someone who is demonstrably irrational. And the more usable they are, which includes the more unstable the hands that control them, then by definition the more likely they are to be used.
A U.S. Strategic Command report in 1995 was titled “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence.” It argued that, “The fact that some elements [of the nuclear command authority] may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’ can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.” Got that? Out of control, irrational and vindictive, especially if his self-defined vital interests are attacked? Sound like anyone you know?
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un wouldn’t likely be alarmed if President Trump sent a middle-of-the-night tweet storm his way; he might feel otherwise, however, about the possibility of a fleet of nuclear armed missiles, so alarmed in fact that he might make the “rational” decision to preempt such an attack.
So, am I happy and relieved that Donald Trump has his "finger on the nuclear button," thereby enhancing the credibility of our much-beleaguered deterrent? Not on your life.
David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington; his most recent books include the 4th edition of Peace and Conflict Studies (2017, Sage Publications) and Out of Eden: surprising consequences of polygamy (2016, Oxford University Press). Among his current book projects is a critique of nuclear deterrence, to be written with Judith Eve Lipton.