Between Trump, Freud and a Nuclear War

February 14, 2017

4 min read

Louis Rene Beres

“Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics, and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.” (Sigmund Freud)

Continuously, US President Donald Trump is now showing palpable signs of debility. Most worrisome, in this unhidden display, is the new president’s conspicuous unfamiliarity with history, diplomacy, intelligence, American law, and international law. Slightly less obvious, perhaps, but only if one is willfully blinded to tangible evidence, is Mr. Trump’s “unsteady” emotional state. Taken together, these significant debilities are seriously concerning, especially when they are evaluated within the particular circumstances of nuclear command authority.

In principle, at least, these foreseeable decisional problems are not distinctive to President Donald Trump. Moreover, at a more expressly generic level, they represent bewilderingly complex matters. If I might be allowed to share some of these related insights, they could help us to better understand just how irremediably perilous the Trump presidency could quickly become.

In essence, all things considered, the cumulative security risks facing the United States are potentially immediate and prospectively existential.

Let me clarify further. After four years at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear strategic thought, I first began to think about adding a modest personal contribution to the pertinent literature of first-generation nuclear thinkers. Accordingly, by the late 1970s, I was preparing an original manuscript on US nuclear strategy, and on certain corresponding or corollary risks of nuclear war. At that time, I was very specifically interested in presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons.

I immediately learned, inter alia, that allegedly reliable safeguards were carefully built into all American nuclear command/control decisions, but also that these very same meticulous safeguards could not effectively apply at the presidential level. To a young scholar, this ironic disjunction did not make any intellectual sense, especially in a world where national leadership irrationality (as Sigmund Freud had pointed out even before the Nuclear Age) was not without precedent. For needed clarifications, I then reached out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a distinguished former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In rapid response to my query, General Taylor sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the General’s informed letter had 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 authoritatively truthful response. Instead, I had reassuringly assumed that, somehow, “the system” would always operate according to plan. Today, with the presidential accession of Donald Trump, General Taylor’s 1976 warning takes on substantially greater and far more urgent meaning. However reluctantly, one must now reasonably assume that if President Trump were ever to exhibit emotional instability, irrationality, or even patently “delusionary” behavior, he could nonetheless officially order the use of American nuclear weapons, and do so without any calculable expectations of official “disobedience.”

A 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, and plausibly several others) if it should ever decide to oppose an obviously “inappropriate” presidential order to fire American nuclear weapons? Could the NCA then “save the day” by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or rather, should there already be in place certain credible and effective statutory measures to (1) meaningfully assess the ordering president’s reason and judgment; and (2) promptly countermand the inappropriate order?

In law, at least, Article 1 (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, would have to be obeyed. Significantly, to do otherwise, in such dire circumstances, would be prima facie illegal; that is, impermissible on its face. Further, President Trump could also order the first use of American nuclear weapons even if the country were not under a specifically nuclear attack. Also, a strategic and legal distinction must be made between first use and “first strike.” Here, too, there exists an elementary but profound difference, one that candidate Donald Trump completely failed to understand during the campaign debates.

Where should the American polity and government go from here? To begin, a coherent and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared for the following 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 be: (1) willing to disobey, and (2) capable of suitably enforcing such (presumptively well-founded) expressions of disobedience?

In such unprecedented crisis circumstances, it must also be emphasized; all authoritative decisions would have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes.

The only time to prepare for such unquestionably vital national security questions is now. This is the case even if President Donald Trump should incrementally and ultimately prove himself to be a stable and capable nuclear decision-maker. Now, more than ever before in the history of the United States, it would be far better to err on the side of excessive caution and pay diligent heed to Sigmund Freud’s still-relevant warning. After all, should America fail in this unquestionably overriding obligation, the resultant harms and chaos could “wreak havoc” upon other parts of the world as well, including Israel.

In all such staggering considerations, Sigmund Freud’s enduring wisdom should readily trump Trump.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel Defense

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