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Could Trump Actually Start a Nuclear War?

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Could Trump Actually Start a Nuclear War?

Examining the worst case and most likely scenarios when it comes to war under President Trump.

Could Trump Actually Start a Nuclear War?
Credit: Gage Skidmore

With Donald Trump ascending to the presidency in 2017, which will also make him the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces, will the chances of the United States getting involved in another war increase? Will President Trump be more likely to use nuclear weapons than his predecessors? Like many other questions surrounding the president-elect and his future administration, this is difficult to answer. Here are some preliminary thoughts.

The President’s War Powers

The U.S. president’s powers to wage war are quite extensive. Most importantly, he can take military actions without specific congressional authorization, although the so-called War Powers Resolution from 1973 mandates that the president has to withdraw combat troops from foreign territory within 60 to 90 days unless Congress authorizes their continuous deployment. However, no president — including Barack Obama back in 2011, when he did not seek congressional authorization 60 days into the Libyan intervention — has accepted the constitutionality of the 60-90 day limit.

According to executive branch interpretation, most conflicts that the United States has been involved in did not pass the threshold definition of war for constitutional purposes. Indeed, the United States has not declared war since 1942 and ever since U.S. President Harry Truman’s decision to dispatch U.S. troops into Korea in 1950, the president has made the initial decision to commence military hostilities abroad. In the late 20th/early 21st century, executive branch power was generously interpreted as giving the president the ability to wage war without congressional authorization even when the United States is not facing an actual or imminent threat to its national security.

Like it or not, President Donald Trump will have a large say over the question of war and peace in the next four years.

Nevertheless, while Trump would be able to get the United States into a war, Congress can cut off funds if it believes that the president has misled them or that the military engagement is not in the interest of the United States. Fighting modern war is expensive and has so far always required special funding legislation. If Congress opposes military action, it could just refuse to pass a law funding the president’s military adventure rather than actively passing legislation to reduce the size of the military or cut the defense budget. Consequently, Trump’s war powers in the long run will depend on how well he will be able to work together with the Republican majority in both the House and Senate.

The Worst-Case Scenario

The question of war and peace under a Trump presidency becomes imminently more pressing when discussing the use of nuclear weapons. In the summer, an American talk show host claimed that Donald Trump repeatedly asked a foreign policy expert why, given that the United States possesses nuclear weapons, it cannot use them. (Trump denied the veracity of the story.) President Barack Obama repeatedly stated he would not trust Trump with the nuclear launch codes for U.S. intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles given the latter’s temperament. Rather than being guided by deliberate and rational thought when making a decision that could annihilate the lives of millions, emotions could take the better of the president-elect and cloud his judgement, resulting in a nuclear holocaust.

While China (and potentially North Korea) could hit the United States with nuclear weapons (keeping in mind that Beijing maintains a so-called minimum nuclear deterrent, however, with a no-first-use policy), it is a nuclear conflict with Russia that poses the greatest danger to the United States given current U.S. nuclear war strategies. For example, the United States maintains a so-called Launch Under Attack capability, which demands that the U.S. military detect the launch of Russian ICBMs and launch retaliatory nuclear strikes before Russian missiles take out U.S. land-based missile silos on the continental United States. (As recently as 2013, the president ordered the U.S. Department of Defense to retain this capability under its Nuclear Employment Strategy.)

Under such a scenario, laid out in great detail by Jeffrey Lewis and Dave Schmerler in August 2016, President Trump would have less than eight minutes from the first call to the White House until the last moment he can act and decide to launch the 400 land-based nuclear-armed ICBMs before Russian missiles have started to detonate on American soil and destroy U.S. missile silos. Under such a scenario, the president’s options are limited and there is practically no time for deliberations (e.g., trying to find out whether it is a false alarm). “The system is designed for speed and decisiveness. It is not designed to debate the decision,” retired General Michael Hayden said in an interview this August. In a Launch Under Attack scenario, it is unclear whether any president would have much time for deliberations (three to four minutes at most) before making a decision that could kill millions.

However, given the size and diversity of the U.S. nuclear arsenal it will be virtually impossible for Russia to succeed in dealing a knockout blow  to the United States and destroying the majority of missile silos, bombers, and ballistic missile submarines. In addition, there is also no U.S. policy in place that would require the president to promptly launch nuclear weapons in retaliation even after the confirmation of a Russian nuclear attack. As a consequence, no immediate decision on the launch of nuclear retaliatory strikes is required to preserve a counterstrike capability. Trump could choose to, but would not need to, order a launch on warning. President Trump, if still alive after the very-hypothetical Russian nuclear attack, would thus need to deliberate carefully with his national security team over whether to launch retaliatory strikes or not. It is difficult to assess how he would react under such circumstances and whether he would rely on experienced national security staff to formulate a proportionate response or not.

The Most Likely Scenario

Judging from Donald Trump’s past leadership style, his apparently volatile ego, and his time-and-again proven disposition toward intimidating perceived weaker opponents (in terms of military power, practically every country and non-state actor in the world), the most likely war scenario in a Trump presidency is a disproportionate large military response to a minor incident such as the alleged attack on the U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer USS Mason in October of this year. It is possible that a President Trump would, for example, order massive retaliatory airstrikes in response to such an incident or dispatch Special Operations Forces (SOF) to conduct raids against military installations of those deemed responsible.

In short, we could experience a revival of a Trumpian version of Teddy Roosevelt’s so-called Gunboat Diplomacy. Perhaps we even should expect a 21st century replay of the Pedicaris Affair of 1904, where Roosevelt sent seven U.S. Navy warships and several hundred Marines to Morocco (with unclear instructions) after the kidnapping of an American citizen there. (We may also hear a Trumpian variant of the Roosevelt administration’s succinct demand: “Pedicaris alive or Rasuli [the bandit who kidnapped the American] dead.”)

Trump also repeatedly said during his campaign that he will emphasize counterterrorism operations and seek the cooperation not only of allies but also countries such as Russia on the subject. Nevertheless, given his reported admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin (and other strongmen), it is unclear how Trump will react when challenged by Russia along NATO’s Eastern Flank in Europe — especially since Trump appears to think that the Russian military is as powerful as the United States Armed Forces. The possibility that Gunboat Diplomacy (i.e. bullying) might not work could, in fact, cause him to back off.

It is also likely, however, that Trump would be careful in deploying a large number of troops overseas for a prolonged amount of time given his neo-isolationist tendencies and his repeated calls for allies to share a larger burden when it comes to military expenditures and more proactively providing for their own national security. At the same time, it is also unclear whether Trump would be capable of working with Congress to appropriately fund larger scale military operations abroad for a prolonged time. In a scenario such as described above, predicated upon the president’s erratic temper and an unwillingness to listen to his (hopefully) more experienced national security staff at the White House, moderate Republicans and Democrats would quickly move to slash funds or fail to pass necessary legislation and cut any impulsively ordered Trump military expedition short.

Given the platform President Trump ran upon, it is improbable that he would want to involve the U.S. military in nation-building and democracy promotion abroad as seen over the last decade. Consequently, we are unlikely to experience large-scale military operations akin to the large U.S. military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States will no longer be the policeman of the world, although given Trump’s pledge to expand the U.S. Armed Forces, the United States will remain militarily present in the world, perhaps in a more standoffish manner built around the concept of offshore balancing (See: “Time to Go Huge? What Will Trump’s Defense Policy in Asia Be?”).

Trump and the Unpredictable 

One of the dangers of Donald Trump as the new commander-in-chief is his staunch belief in the soundness of his judgment. Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration for U.S. generals Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton, impulsive and unorthodox generals endowed with a great belief in their own invincibility. Trump appears to hold similar convictions about his leadership. This could be exploited by U.S. adversaries to lure the United States into unnecessary conflict. MacArthur was famously outmaneuvered by Mao Zedong in 1950 when the communist leader compelled him to fight off a massive Chinese counteroffensive deep inside North Korea, necessitating a U.S. general withdrawal and resulting in the successful Chinese recovery of all of North Korea.

It remains to be seen whether U.S. adversaries will try to play on Trump’s volatile temperament and what some perceive to be delusions of grandeur.  There will certainly be some testing by the Russians in Europe and Syria and the Chinese in Asia as to how far they can push a new President Trump. For example, will the Chinese step up so called gray-zone coercion — i.e. the use of China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia vessels to press Chinese claims in the South China Sea? Or will they reduce their activities due to Trump’s largely unpredictable behavior, existing U.S. rules of engagement and international treaties notwithstanding?

As I noted yesterday, there are too many known unknowns about Trump’s defense policies to try to make an accurate depiction of his likely moves in the years ahead and how he would react in the event of war. Too many of his statements contradict one another. President Trump would do well, however, to remember that should he decide to get involved in military conflicts, he should have a clear plan about how to eventually get out of them. Bullying — as Richard Nixon learned in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s — will not suffice to end conflict and give the United States peace with honor.