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No One Can Be Trusted with Sole Authority Over Nuclear Weapons
Joel Mathis is understandably horrified by Trump’s cavalier attitude about using nuclear weapons:
But the very worst of all his qualities is a clear itch to use nuclear weapons.
I don’t know if we’ve become so numb to Trump’s provocations, or if we don’t take his seriously threat to use nuclear weapons, but it seems like such casual disregard for millions of lives is not the kind of quality you want in a man who would have the power to end millions of lives.
Trump talked about using nuclear weapons on a few occasions when he was president. Some of this was done privately, but he wasn’t shy about making nuclear threats in public. According to a report from early this year, Trump proposed attacking North Korea with nukes and then blaming someone else for it. Much of the 2017 crisis with North Korea was driven by Trump’s public flirtation with unleashing “fire and fury” on the other country. As Van Jackson has shown in On the Brink, the U.S. and North Korea were dangerously close that year to a war that would have involved a nuclear exchange:
By September, the prevailing view in the Trump administration, which persisted throughout the crisis, was that denuclearization was worth drawing first blood over: “Everyone wants a ‘preemptive war’ now except Mattis,” said one official. The United States had not faced a risk of nuclear this palpable since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.1
It’s worth noting that Trump’s nuke talk hasn’t been limited to North Korea. He played around with the idea of nuking Afghanistan. Since leaving office, he has also said that if he were president again he would threaten to use nuclear weapons on Russia. I suspect Trump keeps coming back to nuclear threats because he thinks they make him seem “tough” and because he likes to exult in threats and displays of military power.
Mathis is right that Trump shouldn’t be trusted with this power, but it needs to be stressed that no one person should ever be trusted with it. Trump’s blithe indifference to mass killing is insane, but so is a system that gives any one person sole launch authority to annihilate hundreds of millions of people. There needs to be a radical overhaul of the authority to use nuclear weapons. So far, Congress has been derelict in addressing this issue.
There need to be greater constraints put in place so that the decision does not rest with one man. The decision to use nuclear weapons, if such a decision is ever to be made, is far too important for the president alone, and that’s true no matter who the president happens to be. David Jonas and Bryn McWhorter were right when they wrote, “No single individual, no matter how wise and temperate, should hold the sole power to potentially initiate the destruction of the world.”
All of this drives home that the U.S. and other nuclear weapons states need to be working towards disarmament and the reduction of the threat from these weapons. One of the many reasons why the U.S. should not be pursuing a policy of containment and rivalry with other nuclear-armed powers is that this creates incentives for arms racing, the expansion of existing nuclear arsenals, and the creation of new ones. It also makes the use of nuclear weapons in war more likely to happen again. Preventing a future conflict from becoming a nuclear disaster will require more than keeping unfit militarists’ fingers away from the proverbial button.
Jackson, On the Brink: p.132.