Sixty years ago, Bert the cartoon turtle was a familiar figure to students in classrooms across the country. Bert reminded students about the importance of “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear strike. His omnipresence was but one symbol of America’s nuclear obsession. From the mass construction of personal bomb shelters to dissemination of dog tags to schoolchildren for ease of post-mortem identification, nuclear preparedness was an ever-present aspect of American life. The Soviet Union was our clear enemy, and brinksmanship was the name of the game.
During the Cold War, the Nixon administration engaged in a form of brinkmanship that became known as the nuclear madman strategy. Nixon wagered that if other nations believed he was an irrational decision-maker they would be less willing to engage in nuclear escalation. This strategy was a perilous one that was abandoned by presidents who came after Nixon. Yet today, the madman approach seems to have made a frightening comeback with the rise of Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination. conflict with the United States seriously diminishes the willing-
New Nukes, New Fears
Our fear of nuclear weapons seems to have reemerged in new ways. According to a 2014 Pew poll, Americans rank North Korean nuclear arms development as the second most imperative threat facing the country, preceded only by the threat of ISIS. Those fears aren’t unwarranted. North Korean nuclear weapons pose a real threat to the United States and global stability. But how can the development of a small nuclear arsenal with questionable delivery capacity pose a threat to the behemoth nuclear capacity of the United States? The answer is by causing uncertainty.
Newly proliferating states cause widespread instability as nations scramble to rebalance the international order. Nuclear blackmail can cause miscalculation and subsequent escalation by threatened states. States are much less willing to go toe-to-toe with nations that could potentially accept a disproportionate amount of risk in escalating hostilities. In the case of North Korea, the almost insane stated willingness to escalate nuclear conflict with the United States seriously diminshes the willingness of U.S. policymakers to respond. Most of these threats are likely sabre rattling, but threats like the ones made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un earlier this year make it hard to see North Korea as simply all bark and no bite. In a public statement, Kim went so far as to warn against a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the U.S. mainland and commit to continued high-level nuclear development and testing despite intense international scrutiny.
The current situation could become much worse if North Korea developed a launch capacity able to reach the United States.
In this world, any escalation against North Korea by the United States, even one involving only conventional weapons, would risk catastrophic loss of American lives. Our willingness to place American lives at risk might be dramatically overwhelmed by North Korea’s willingness to accept an even greater risk, effectively disarming the United States against a North Korean nuclear threat. Such a scenario would prevent intervening actors like the United States from stepping in during regional conflicts instigated by North Korea for fear of nuclear escalation. Not only would this allow for sustained North Korean adventurism in the Northeast Asia, but also a dismantling of U.S. credibility in a wide range of security commitments across the globe as nations under our security umbrella began to question our commitments.
All of this could happen without North Korea launching a single nuclear weapon. Nuclear weapons shape modern global security not because of their use, but because of the threat that they might be used. Effective deterrence requires the enemy to believe a nuclear state would actually risk using their nukes.
However, nuclear escalation is suicidal, or at the very least incredibly self-destructive, and so a direct nuclear threat is virtually always an empty one. Nuclear threats become credible when states take actions that increase the probability of accidental nuclear escalation, creating legitimacy through cost.
The ultimate purpose of deterrence is the absence of conflict, but meaningful deterrence requires an increasing possibility of war. Nixon’s answer to this contradiction was the madman theory: make your enemy believe you are irrational, unpredictable, and willing to accept absurd risk and they won’t provoke you. Nixon believed this strategy didn’t require any actual commitment to increased risk; he could stage controlled escalations and the USSR would be unwilling to respond for fear of what could come next. A prime example of this strategy was operation Giant Lance.
Giant Lance was a secret operation that placed the majority of U.S. nuclear assets on high alert and ordered a squadron of bombers armed with nuclear weapons to fly patterns near the USSR. Nixon gave the command for the order not because he wanted to prepare for a conflict, but to make Russia believe he was willing to start nuclear war over the resolution of the Vietnam War.
Nixon thought Giant Lance was an effective move that risked very little; he was wrong on both fronts. Such a large-scale ordeal resulted in very little known reaction from the Soviet Union. To this day, there is no evidence that the Kremlin reacted in any conciliatory way because of the “madness” Giant Lance signaled. More importantly, the operation did increase the real risk of nuclear escalation. Lower commanders, lacking knowledge of Nixon’s intentions, waved peacetime nuclear weapons safety requirements to get the bombers used in Giant Lance in the air as quickly as possible. These bombers then flew into sensitive territories near the USSR to which they were not commanded, in flight patterns that were potentially dangerous. Despite Nixon’s best intentions, Giant Lance inched the world closer to nuclear disaster without observably budging negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Donald Trump has resonated with many Americans who are fearful of the future and angered by the country’s current trajectory. On the issue of nuclear weapons, Trump has decided to resolve American’s fears in a dangerously familiar manner. Most of what we know about a Trump presidency’s foreign policy regarding nuclear weapons comes from comments he made during a New York Times interview conducted in late March.
A cornerstone of Trump’s foreign policy is secrecy and unpredictability. On multiple occasions, when asked about a specific issue of foreign policy Trump has simply refused to respond, citing the importance of keeping our enemy uninformed. He made this stance abundantly clear in the Times interview:
I don’t want them to know what I’m thinking. The problem we have is that, maybe because it’s a democracy and maybe because we have to be so open—maybe because you have to say what you have to say in order to get elected—who knows? But I wouldn’t want to say.
This insistence on secrecy is similar to that of Nixon-era operations like Giant Lance, which were entirely covert, keeping even high-ranking military officials in the dark.
Despite his commitment to non-disclosure, Trump has made certain views on nuclear use clear. He expressed a willingness to use nuclear weapons against North Korea and refused to rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons against ISIS. This implicit threat of nuclear escalation resembles the words of Kim Jung-Un more than it does of any recent president. Trump even went as far as positing a world with Japanese and South Korean nuclear arms as a potentially beneficial one. At a time when the United States is actively pursuing the eradication of nuclear weapons globally, these comments place Trump far outside of mainstream U.S. foreign policy.
Trump tempered his statements with the caveat that nuclear weapons should be a last resort. Ironically, he did so whilst praising General Douglas MacArthur’s approach to the Pacific during World War II: leveraging the first use of nuclear weapons as a primary mechanism of fighting China or North Korea. When confronted about this contradiction Trump praised the strategy as a victorious one that didn’t actually lead to nuclear confrontation. He then added, “You don’t know if he wanted to use them [nuclear weapons], but he certainly said that, at least.” Trump’s praise makes it clear he believes in the nuclear madman strategy.
After decades of taboos against threatening nuclear escalation, Donald Trump is clearly willing to once again reintegrate the nuclear madman approach into American foreign policy.
Recently, President Obama openly condemned the madman strategy in an interview with the Atlantic, stating, “There are ways to deter, but it requires you to be very clear ahead of time about what is worth going to war for and what is not.”
History has proven the madman theory to be a risky failure. Donald Trump and anyone else who wishes to sabre rattle with nuclear weapons should be wary of the costs. There is no credible threat of nuclear war without real risk of destruction. North Korea might not be the behemoth nuclear power the Soviet Union once was, but it is still a dangerous enemy with which to engage in a game of nuclear Russian roulette. Threats like North Korea warrant a nuclear strategy that can succeed. We would be mad to repeat a strategy that can’t.
Image Source: National Nuclear Security Administration