Nobody has ever accused US President Donald Trump of delicacy, though to be fair, extraneous factors perhaps determined the timing of his threat to unleash a nuclear war. The trigger was a media report suggesting that the North Korean regime which even close allies often find indefensible, had acquired the capability to arm a long-range missile with a miniature nuclear warhead.
The world was just then between the sombre anniversary observances of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vowing to never again allow mass destruction on anything like that scale. Trump’s grossly provocative words, to unleash “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen before”, were an uncanny reprise of the language President Harry Truman used in 1945 right before the devastation of Nagasaki.
As a term of art, “fire and fury” maybe rhetorically more powerful than Truman’s “rain of ruin”, but there is a notable difference in contexts, in that the US no longer has a nuclear monopoly. Though almost certainly immune to any threat from North Korea’s rudimentary nuclear arsenal, any US misadventure could expose allies in East Asia to retribution.
At Trump’s inauguration as President, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an institution that goes back 70 years to the men who worked on the first generation of nuclear weaponry and shrank away from its horrors, moved the needle on its iconic “doomsday clock” to within two-and-a-half minutes of midnight. It was in its estimate, the closest in 60 years that the world was to a nuclear conflagration. In its customary editorial the Bulletin explained that the doomsday clock setting reflected some of the “dangerous and frivolous” rhetoric employed by Trump on the campaign trail.
While campaigning for the top job, Trump is reported to have once asked an advisor why precisely nuclear weapons had not been used since 1945. In public, candidate Trump spoke of proliferation as a serious concern, but once suggested almost in offhand fashion, that the nuclear arming of Japan and South Korea would be an effective counter to the North Korean threat. At other times he has bragged about creating such superiority in conventional arms that nuclear weapons would be redundant. Since taking office, he has vowed to upgrade US nuclear capacity after years of alleged neglect under his predecessor.
Whether Trump’s verbal salvos reflect a frivolity of attitude or just plain vacuity is unclear. Frivolity could be restrained by responsible adult supervision, but ideologies of winnable nuclear wars could rush into fill the vacant spaces in his awareness. Doctrines of victory which cross into the realms of absurdity, have been nurtured by the US strategic establishment through the years, gaining particular traction during years of Republican political dominance.
The authors of these doctrines were once characterised by the British writer Martin Amis as “megadeath intellectuals”, who could talk about nuclear war with “subhuman frivolity”. A noteworthy name within the megadeath ranks was Keith Payne, most famous as co-author of a 1980 essay in the journal Foreign Policy, titled ‘Victory is Possible’.
It was a time when the US arsenal was well ahead of potential rivals, but poised on the knife-edge logic of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). Payne advocated a bold effort to break free of this trap of self-deterrence, shifting from MAD to the goal of “assured survival”. The purpose of the nuclear arsenal, he said, was to “support US foreign policy objectives”, an end that could only be served if the US were to “possess the ability to wage nuclear war rationally”. This strategy was to be built on a “plausible theory of how to win a war or at least insure an acceptable end to war”. The US should plan for the “actual conduct of nuclear war” and deploy its nuclear forces with the explicit objective of winning at a cost “that would not prohibit US recovery”.
The phantasms of the “strategic defence initiative” of the 1980s and the “national missile defence” of the early 2000s were conceived in this flight of frivolity. But the megadeath gang suffered an eclipse during the Obama presidency, when a comprehensive review of nuclear doctrine recommended a dilution of the aggressive intent.
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a periodic exercise mandated by law, concluded that US conventional military superiority was vast enough to allow a drastic curtailment of conditions warranting nuclear use. Effectively, the 2010 NPR ruled out the use of such weapons against threats that fell below the nuclear threshold. And much to the horror of the megadeath intellectuals, in public appearances after the NPR was completed, top administration officials began to talk about the possibility of embracing a “no first use” doctrine.
Trump’s advent in White House has given new energy to kindred souls steeped in the frivolity of megadeath imaginations. There is talk also of scrapping Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which could plunge an already volatile region into greater chaos. The tightening of sanctions against Iran despite its record of compliance has already drawn an angry response, and a vow to vastly boost conventional armaments programmes.
Saner elements within the US administration have offered resistance and some public reassurance. But the overall drift towards shedding restraint and reversing the counsels of moderation evolved during the Obama years, threaten to usher in renewed global acrimony and an arms race on many fronts.