How Should Trump Change Obama’s Stance on Nuclear Weapons?

April 2, 2017

6 min read

Louis Rene Beres

Throughout his presidency, US President Barack Obama expressed an unwavering preference for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” This seemingly high-minded expectation was never quite plausible. Less obvious, perhaps, it was also never really desirable.

Consider the incontestable dialectic. If, after all, nuclear disarmament had ever been taken seriously as actual strategic policy, it could have inexorably led the United States and certain of its allies to incur substantial military harms. Israel, to be sure, would have been the single most negatively affected American ally.

Now it is time to look ahead, purposefully. Accordingly, it is most important to inquire about the operational nuclear policy sentiments of Mr. Obama’s successor. Does President Donald Trump share in any way his wishful predecessor’s expressly favored correlation of nuclear weapons with the instrumentation of absolute evil?

In Obama’s unhidden view, nuclear weapons were taken to be inherently undesirable. In this starkly polarized standpoint, there was simply no room for conceptual fine-tuning or nuance.

To date, Mr. Trump has displayed no recognizable advocacy of general nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, when more than 100 countries launched the first UN talks aimed at achieving a legally binding ban on nuclear weapons in late March 2017, the White House openly led an international boycott of the entire process. Moreover, the United States was joined in this codified opposition to proposed nuclear talks by most of the world’s declared and undeclared nuclear powers, including Britain, France, and Russia.

Nuclear Club members India, Pakistan, and China did not actually vote “no,” but did abstain from the formal decision. Even Japan, the only country ever to have actually suffered atomic attacks, voted against holding the talks, citing mindfully to their fundamentally unrealistic hopes.

In this important matter, Israel explicitly joined its American ally to vote “no.”

In principle, at least, informed opposition to any organized UN position against nuclear weapons need not be based exclusively on considerations of practicality. History could also instruct Donald Trump that atomic arms are not per se cruel or destabilizing. To wit, in many volatile and otherwise still-perilous circumstances, he would need to understand that nuclear weapons could prove to be distinctly stabilizing or even peace-enhancing. Such a consequential conclusion was already convincing during the Cold War, when the two superpowers – or two “scorpions in a bottle,” employing the telling metaphor of American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer – successfully avoided any uncontrolled escalations to World War III.

Arguably, without the suitably reassuring “balance of terror” made possible by mutually-held atomic arms, such an unimaginable conflagration could have been rendered more likely.

Plus Ca change. The US and Russia are already embroiled in some form of “Cold War II.” But are the same nuclear deterrence lessons of “Cold War I” apt to apply?

Soon, however reluctantly, President Trump will need to ask and meaningfully answer this very elementary question.

In any event, none of this proposed cumulative reasoning should suggest to President Trump that further nuclear proliferation could in any way represent a positive net development, or even a potentially tolerable one. At the same time, there are some persistently beleaguered nation-states that could not survive amid the steadily-expanding global chaos without displaying certain amply persuasive expressions of distinctly nuclear deterrence.

Israel is assuredly the most obvious case in point.

Should the Jewish State ever have to face its myriad enemies without some form or other of nuclear deterrence, whether more fully disclosed, or as still “deliberately ambiguous,” its long-planned annihilation by various relentless foes could be accelerated. Such an unprecedented deterioration could arise even if all of these enemy states (or various state-sub-state “hybrid” adversaries) were to remain non-nuclear themselves. Here it remains critical to bear in mind that “mass counts” in geo-strategic calculation (per the earlier classic observation by Carl von Clausewitz’ On War), and that Israel is literally half the size of America’s Lake Michigan.

Israel’s small size is hardly an auspicious example of mass and national survival.

What should Jerusalem and Washington do about compensating such an utterly core strategic deficit? The correct answer to this query cannot possibly include any proposal for Israel’s denuclearization. Since first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s original search for a “great equalizer,” the irremediable answer has been to maintain a more-or-less decipherable nuclear weapons capacity.

For the most part, Israel’s security dilemma is unique, or sui generis. More than any other state on earth, Israel requires nuclear weapons and a corollary doctrine merely in order to stay “alive.” Also, Mr. Trump must be made aware, war and genocide need never be considered as mutually exclusive. Historically, war has sometimes become the carefully selected and necessary “medium” within which a planned genocide was then most intentionally “cultured.”

The Holocaust is the most conspicuous case in point.

Unsurprisingly, President Barack Obama had personally favored the idea of a “Nuclear Weapon Free Zone” in the Middle East. Nonetheless, should Israel ever be forced to enter into any process of prompt or even gradual denuclearization, nothing of any decisive military consequence would then stand in the way of prospectively genocidal enemy (Arab and/or Iranian) attacks. In other words, without its generally presumed nuclear weapons, Israel’s indispensable capacity to deter major aggressions could quickly and effectively disappear.

What would happen if Israel were ever to relinquish any or all of its available nuclear options? Under such misconceived circumstances, Israel would not only become more openly vulnerable to enemy first strikes, but it would also be deprived of its most essential and residual preemption options. The multi-layered dialectical reasoning here may be a bit difficult for any American president to fathom, but the main conclusion is still unhidden: Israeli counter-retaliatory deterrence could be immobilized by any reduction or removal of its nuclear weapons potential, whether still “deliberately ambiguous,” or more openly disclosed.

This existential danger would not be a problem for Jerusalem if Israeli preemptions could ever be judged 100% effective against unconventional enemy forces, but any such an expected level of efficacy is plainly inconceivable. It is also worth pointing out to President Donald Trump that no deployable system of ballistic missile defense, whether Israeli or American, could ever hope to achieve the prospectively needed level of enemy missile interceptions. In essence, even if Israel and/or the United States could ever hope for an overwhelmingly high “reliability of interception,” anything less than absolute perfection in this staggering task could prove sorely insufficient when facing an enemy nuclear missile attack.

All nuclear weapons states are not created equal. Some, like Iran, even after the July 2015 ViennaAgreement, could sooner or later present a serious threat of nuclear aggression. Others, like Israel, require nuclear weapons and doctrine for required self-defense, that is, just to stay “alive” amid so many determined foes. Without these weapons of atomic deterrence, Israel’s irremediably tiny mass could quickly condemn the Jewish State to a Dantesque oblivion, that is, to the Inferno’s fire, and then “into ice.”

Nuclear weapons are not evil unto themselves. Israel’s nuclear weapons are needed to fulfill essential deterrence options and, perhaps more residually, certain counter-retaliatory options. These nuclear weapons and corollary doctrine could prove necessary, inter alia, to make any large-scale Israeli preemptions “cost-effective,” and should therefore never be negotiated away for any illusory gains or advantages.

This urgent survival imperative remains entirely valid today.

US security, as has already been noted, is linked closely with Israel’s survival. Looking ahead, President Trump must understand that the resilient architecture of Israeli security (like that of American security itself) must be constructed upon a rock solid and coherent foundation of nuclear weapons and doctrine. If this core architecture is considered analytically in both Jerusalem and Washington, that optimally intellectual stance could best assure the avoidance of all genocidal wars in the Middle East, whether nuclear or conventional.

Donald Trump should take prudent heed. Nuclear strategy is a game that certain sane national leaders must “play,” whether enthusiastically or reluctantly. The basic struggles in world politics, he must now capably understand, are not based upon any verifiably Manichean polarities of good versus evil, but instead on the immutable obligation to defend civilized states and peoples from potentially annihilatory harms.

Summing up, President Trump should understand that any accelerating nuclear arms race with Russia would inevitably prove injurious to both countries, and on several different levels of harm. In world politics, military nuclear power is never just a matter of recognizable size and number. It is, rather, a complex matter of force targeting, perceived vulnerability, and penetration capability. On this question, there are similarly complex overlays of intersection, interrelatedness, and synergy.

In any future national struggles involving nuclear weapons, President Trump must acknowledge that all war is ultimately a struggle of mind over mind, not just of mind over matter. In any such struggle, the outcome could have exceptionally tangible consequences for Israel. For example, any use of nuclear weapons by faraway North Korea would represent a violation of the “nuclear taboo,” and compel Jerusalem to re-calculate its own strategic assets and liabilities.

When, just before assuming office in January, Trump openly threatened a new nuclear arms race with Moscow, he tweeted “we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” Borrowing a page from President Ronald Reagan’s playbook to an earlier superpower arms race, Mr. Trump failed to understand that any simultaneous and incremental impoverishment of both the United States and Russia could never be in either country’s long-term interest. Even if the US was somehow able to “outmatch” and “outlast” Russia, he ignored, it might still be at an unseemly and intolerable overall cost.

For the foreseeable future, there can be no good argument for seeking worldwide or general nuclear disarmament – that is, resurrecting former President Obama’s preference for a “world free of nuclear weapons” – but Washington and Jerusalem should simultaneously stand firm against allowing any further nuclear proliferation, most alarmingly from North Korea or Iran. As for Israel, which has yet to take its bomb “out of the basement,” and which plainly holds its presumptive nuclear forces exclusively for safety and literal survival, there should be only undiminished American support.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel Defense

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