"I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds." (Bhagavad Gita, cited by American nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945)
Quite literally, and at virtually any moment, US President Donald Trump could be faced with unprecedented challenges to American national security. In this connection, the most plainly serious threats will concern some forms or other of nuclear strategy and nuclear war. “Will he be ready?” – we must immediately inquire – “for any such conspicuously daunting challenges?”
Significantly, there can be no more important inquiry, not only for Americans, but also for certain American allies in Israel and elsewhere.
More precisely, as the relevant interrogatory must proceed, can anyone reasonably expect that this president will be up to meeting such starkly complex challenges, both intellectually and emotionally?
In candor, which must always be expected on such critically existential questions, Mr. Trump's analytic and state-of-mind debilities continue to be deeply concerning. This patently informed apprehension is all the more noteworthy whenever these debilities become: (1) intersecting and reinforcing; (2) are considered together with the president's persistently willing subservience to the Russian president in the midst of “Cold War II”; and (3) assessed within the appropriate statutory and Constitutional parameters of formal US nuclear command authority.
In fairness, these prospective personal shortcomings are not necessarily unique or distinctive to President Donald Trump. Rather, at a more expressly generic level, they represent certain continuously complex qualities and issues, ones about which I have been lecturing and publishing for almost half a century. If I might now be permitted to share some closely related insights, this might help us to better understand just how perilous the Trump presidency could very rapidly become.
In essence, the cumulative national security risks the US faces as a nation are potentially immediate and conceivably existential. Most obvious, in this regard, is the stubbornly complex problem of North Korea. Here, inter alia, the US president's routinely indiscriminate confusion of belligerent rhetoric with actual power could lead the United States further and further away from capably sustaining its required national security.
To be sure, incessant presidential bravado need not be very convincing. Even as quixotic an adversary as Kim Jung-un can normally tell the difference between his American adversary's real military capacity, and narrowly shallow bombast.
Going forward, the principal risks to US security are distinctly tangible and multi-sided. These risks would become especially high during any foreseeable circumstances of competitive risk-taking with Kim Jung-un; that is, in those identifiably deliberative moments when each side is energetically (and perhaps desperately) seeking "escalation dominance."
Already, back in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche had it right. Warned the seminal philosopher in his magisterial Zarathustra: "One must never seek the Higher Man in the marketplace." (Today, of course, we would want to make this into a more properly gender-neutral "Higher Person").
More urgently than on any other specific security hazard, US President Trump must make himself much better informed about all potentially pertinent nuclear conflict scenarios in our anarchic or "Hobbesian" world system. Correspondingly, both the Congress and the citizenry must keep a much closer and more honest (non-partisan) watch on Mr. Trump's problematic unwillingness to take nuclear war with sufficient seriousness. Among other things, he will need to be reminded that no scientifically accurate estimates of nuclear war likelihood are logically possible. This is because, in science, true probabilities must always be based upon a determinable frequency of pertinent past events, and because there has never been a nuclear war event.
The American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 "don't count" as nuclear war examples. These events were singular episodes of nuclear attack upon enemy civilian populations in an otherwise purely conventional war. It follows that in any still-upcoming nuclear crisis situations, a casually dismissive presidential stance on expected outcomes could produce fully unexpected or even intolerable results.
I have been studying nuclear warfare issues for a long time. After four years at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear history and thought, I first began to think about adding a modest personal contribution to the growing literatures of first-generation nuclear thinkers. Accordingly, by the mid-1970s, I was busily preparing an original manuscript on US nuclear strategy and on certain corollary risks of nuclear war.
At that time, moreover, I was interested in very specific questions of presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons.
Among other things, I soon learned that reliable safeguards had been carefully built into all American nuclear command/control decisions, but also that these reassuring safeguards could never apply at the presidential level. To a young strategic scholar, this ironic disjunction didn't make any obvious intellectual sense, especially in a world where national leadership irrationality was assuredly not without precedent. For needed clarifications, I reached out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a distinguished former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In rapid response to my query, Gen. Taylor sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the General's informed letter concluded presciently: "As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one."
Until now, I had never really given any extended thought to this truthful but distressing response. Instead, I had assumed that somehow "the system" would somehow always operate precisely according to plan. Today, as the discordant presidency of Donald Trump coincides with a North Korean nuclear standoff and continued Iranian nuclearization, General Taylor's 1976 warning takes on even greater meaning. Now, however reluctantly, Americans must realistically assume that if President Trump were ever to exhibit profound emotional instability, irrationality, or delusionary behavior, he could nonetheless order the use of American nuclear weapons, and do so without any calculable expectations of any official "disobedience."
At this point, a distressingly core question should come immediately to mind. What should be done by the National Command Authority (Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor, and presumptively several others) if it should ever decide to oppose a determinably inappropriate presidential order to launch American nuclear weapons? Could the National Command Authority reliably "save the day" by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or should there already be in place aptly credible and effective statutory measures to (1) meaningfully assess the ordering president's reason and judgment; and (2) promptly countermand any wrongful order?
In law, Article 1 of the US Constitution, Congressional war-declaring expectations of the Constitution notwithstanding, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president, or by an otherwise incapacitated one, must be obeyed. To do otherwise, in such dire circumstances, would be prima facie illegal; that is, impermissible on its face. Additionally, President Trump could sometime order the first use of American nuclear weapons even if the US were not under specifically nuclear attack.
Here, too, a further strategic and legal distinction must be made between first use and first strike. There exists an elementary but vitally important difference, significantly one that candidate Donald Trump had failed to understand during his 2016 campaign debates. This core difference has to do with distinguishing essential self-defense from aggression. Aggression, of course, is a codified crime under international law. It is, therefore, reciprocally prohibited by pertinent US law.
Where should American nuclear policy go from here? To begin, a coherent and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared for the following very basic question: If faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the National Command Authority: (1) be willing to disobey? and (2) be capable of enforcing such seemingly well-founded expressions of authoritative disobedience?
In any such unprecedented nuclear crisis circumstances, all relevant decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes. Needless to say, such tight chronological constraints could quickly become overriding.
The only time for Americans to prepare for such vital national security questions is now. This is the case whether or not President Donald Trump should incrementally prove himself to be a more-or-less stable and capable crisis decision-maker. Though we might all draw a huge sigh of relief if the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis were to subside, there will inevitably arise other similar or even more portentous atomic emergencies. To respond purposefully, as needed, this country will then require more than a purely stream-of-consciousness or seat-of-the-pants prescription from the White House.
There is one last but still important point. Whether it is in reference to a proposed military intervention or to another considered military action, the American president is bound not only by US law, but also by international law. The latter, which is discoverable, inter alia, in various customary norms as well as in bilateral and multilateral treaties, is always an integral part of American law. Such "incorporation" is most prominently expressed at Article 6 of the US Constitution (the "Supremacy Clause"), and also at various major US Supreme Court decisions.
Looking ahead, Donald Trump's policies for dealing with adversarial nuclear threats must always remain consistent with American military requirements and with certain corollary jurisprudential obligations. Striking the necessary and optimal balance between both coinciding imperatives will inevitably confront this president with stark intellectual and ethical challenges of the very highest order. For now, at least, it does not appear likely that he will be able to satisfactorily meet such multi-sided and overlapping challenges.
So, what happens then?
Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to IsraelDefense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, as well as matters of Israeli security.