Trump has nuclear codes. WHAT!? Or just so what?

On the scale from 1-10, when 1 is everything is OK, and 10 is a nuclear apocalypse, where do you think are we with Donald Trump? Do you consider the fact he gets nuclear codes as somehow risky, or not and why? And I am asking this questions also in the light of broader situation regarding nuclear weapons when suddenly at least from Russia in Europe it seems we have more discussions about nukes and how to use them.

Nikolai Sokov, Senior Fellow, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Monterey

It is next to impossible to predict what Trump’s policy on nuclear weapons will be. I would conservatively place it at 4-6. Two variables to take into account.

First, his knowledge about nuclear weapons is apparently the same as that of any guy in the street – namely, he knows that nuclear weapons make a big “boom” and are very high-profile. Meaning that professional policy will be made by other people and we still do not know all of these.

Second, US is entering the time when key decisions will need to be made about replacement of the nuclear triad (all delivery vehicles are growing old, new ones need to be developed, produced, and replaced – land–, sea-, and air-based; nuclear weapons also need replacement but this is already underway). As a rule, budgetary decisions are associated with significantly heightened rhetoric about the usefulness of nuclear weapons and about an external threat.

That is, we will likely see enhanced rhetoric about nuclear weapons that is not fully related to Trump and his policies (if he has any, that is).

With regard to Russia, I have not seen any significant change in Russian nuclear policy in about 15 years. There is much more rhetoric – they like to talk about them more, they are very demonstrative, fly aircraft and test-launch missiles, but the production and deployment programs have remained unchanged. It’s all designed to influence European politics, perhaps intentionally create an image of Russian threat in very specific countries – Baltic states and Poland. Still, as I said, policy and strategy have hardly changed. Just manipulation for political purposes.

Malcolm Craig, Lecturer in History, Liverpool John Moores University

Quantifying Trump’s ‘nuclear risk’ on a 1-10 scale is a tricky thing. If we take – for example – the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 or the Able Archer war scare in 1983 as being around 8-9, we’re nowhere near that stage at the moment.

When Trump gets access to the nuclear codes, there is no real, substantive institutional barrier to the president launching a nuclear strike. The only thing that could stop him would be a mutiny of military officers from the very top to the very bottom. During the campaign, Trump also made rather provocative statements about nuclear proliferation. He seemed to imply that it was OK if Japan or South Korea – for example – developed nuclear weapons. This broadly reverses more than 70 years of US non-proliferation policy (although that is a very broad generalisation, and there obviously cases where while the United States has not encouraged national nuclear programmes, but looked away or been open to deception). Furthermore, if he does decide to abrogate the Iran Deal (and that is a complete unknown at the moment), there could be dire consequences for the Middle East and for nuclear non-proliferation in general. But, it’s far from clear whether or not he will abrogate the Iran Deal. He could very well decide that it is in the US national security interest to support the deal.

However, like so many things with Trump, at this stage everything is desperately unclear. With Putin in the Kremlin and Trump in the White House, we’ll have two leaders who are heavily invested in ideas of national greatness, national resurgence, and personal masculinity and power. Whether they can work together on issues of joint international concern remains to be seen. Looking back to the Cold War, there were of course instances where strong-willed US and Soviet leaders worked together. Under Lyndon B. Johnson and Leonid Brezhnev, the USA and USSR (along with the UK) negotiated and implemented the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. This was a landmark in superpower cooperation to address a major global issue. It provided one of the main planks upon which detente in the late 1960s and into the 1970s was built. Will Trump and Putin be able to work together in this way? Different people and different times, obviously, but history (which is never an accurate guide) tells us that cooperation is possible, if not exactly certain in either its form or outcomes. Moreover, from his statements, Trump certainly does not view Putin in a particularly adversarial manner. This could perhaps emerge as a diplomatic advantage. Who knows?

All of this comes up against the Trump personality: thin-skinned, quick to anger, eager to circumvent traditional diplomatic protocols, and seemingly ill-informed about major domestic and international issues, it’s hard to assess which way he will jump. Trump’s national security and diplomatic team is also a source of potential tension, whether in the Middle East, Europe, or elsewhere in the world.

Richard Slade, PhD Candidate, Monash University

We already have the Doomsday Clock to represent how close humanity is to global catastrophe. We currently sit at 3 minutes to midnight. Whether Trump’s election shifts the clock hand forward is up to the Bulletin – I would say there is definitely no chance of it moving backwards during his first term as President.

Donald Trump being given access to the US nuclear codes (via the ‘nuclear football’) will be one of the most frightening moments since the end of the Cold War. As I’ve stated earlier – and now Trump himself has validated my arguments – he has called for a new nuclear arms race, which could lead to nuclear war. The real point is that no one should have recourse to the use of nuclear weapons, but someone as unpredictable and bellicose as Donald Trump is an accident waiting to happen.

In the broader context there are both positive and negatives to the election of Trump and the issue of nuclear weapons. There has been little cause for public concern about nuclear weapons in the last 20 years – governments have played down the role of nuclear weapons, so people have forgotten the threat they pose to the whole of humanity. Trump puts the issue squarely on the table because he has said he does not oppose using them. Suddenly people are once again aware of the nuclear tightrope we are walking – that there are 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world and that they pose an existential risk to each and every one of us. If their is one silver lining to come from a Trump Presidency, it might be that states and people are finally motivated to rid the world of nuclear weapons before Trump ends it for us all.


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