On Donald Trump’s nuclear policy: There’s a lot going on here

Last week, former basketball coach and history and demography non-expert Bobby Knight endorsed Donald Trump for U.S. president, saying:

“Harry Truman, with what he did in dropping and having the guts to drop the bomb in 1944 [sic], saved billions [sic] of American lives. And that’s what Harry Truman did and he became of one of the three great presidents of the United States. And here’s a man who would do the same thing because he’s going to become one of the four great presidents of the United States.”

Aside from some factual errors, this is also a really awful reason to endorse someone to be president. On a very basic level, willingness to use a nuclear weapon does not a great president make. Great presidents pursue strong American leadership and diplomacy to make us as a nation and as a global community safer, and that starts with working to eliminate nuclear weapons. President Reagan knew this, Presidents Bush Sr. and Jr. knew this, and President Obama knows this. As did most American presidents since the dawn of nuclear weapons.

We don’t know if Mr. Trump agrees that he “would do the same thing,” as Mr. Knight claims -- Mr. Trump’s statements on the use of nuclear weapons have ranged from the vague to the non-committal to the ludicrous, but his spokesperson has also said that there’s no point in the U.S. having nuclear weapons unless it’s willing to use them. The appropriate answer is actually “there’s no point in anyone having nuclear weapons, period.”

But on the other hand, Mr. Trump has repeatedly stated that he believes nuclear weapons to be the gravest threat in the world today. Global Zero agrees -- nuclear weapons pose an unacceptable risk to global security, and we're glad that the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination is saying it. After that, though, we get to Mr. Trump’s nuclear policy proposals -- how he plans to address this risk -- and it’s all downhill. Ready to be discouraged?

1. Donald Trump says he’s open to using tactical nuclear weapons against ISIS. Threatening to nuke terrorists is a foolish, even useless maneuver. By definition, terrorist organizations like ISIS DGAF -- nukes don’t deter them. In fact, they’d probably love it if the U.S. went nuclear -- it would be great for recruitment and utterly destroy U.S. credibility and our place on the international stage. Also, ISIS currently operates on territory belonging to actual sovereign nations -- like Syria. So how would Mr. Trump explain nuking Syria to Russia (who also has nukes!) or the United Nations Security Council? There’s a lot to unpack about how silly, and frankly dangerous, this idea is. He’s also said he wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons in Europe because, you know, “it’s a big place.”

2. Donald Trump has suggested he wants Japan and South Korea to have their own nukes. This would increase the number of nuclear weapons states and nuclear weapons in the world and introduce new nuclear weaponry into an already tense situation in East Asia, dramatically increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used. Currently, both Japan and South Korea are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, meaning the U.S. agrees to defend their non-nuclear weapons allies against nuclear attack. They are also signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both mechanisms have proven effective in limiting the number of nuclear weapons countries, a task the international community has been working on since the dawn of the nuclear age. If Japan or South Korea developed nuclear weapons, it would collapse the nonproliferation regime and risk setting off a domino effect of states acquiring their own nuclear weapons.

3. This, whatever it is.

 

4. Donald Trump pretty obviously didn’t know what the U.S. nuclear triad was when he started running for president. Way back during one of the first Republican presidential debates, when asked which branch of the triad he would prioritize for (expensive, unnecessary) upgrades, he dodged the question. (Here’s what the nuclear triad is. It’s fine if you don’t know. You’re probably not running for the job that requires you to be in charge of it.)

And now, we have Bobby Knight, proudly endorsing a man to be president because he would use a nuclear weapon.

For the last four decades, every single president has worked to reduce U.S. and global nuclear stockpiles. In addition, U.S. leaders -- Republican and Democrat alike -- worked in cooperation with the international community to make sure the number of nuclear weapons countries didn’t grow to 15-25 as President John F. Kennedy predicted in 1964. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric indicates he could very well reverse decades of work. He needs to first understand nuclear weapons policy and then understand that what he says carries weight not just with Americans, but with the world. His dangerous nuclear rhetoric, for better or worse, actually means something.

If Mr. Trump is serious about nuclear weapons representing the greatest threat in the world today, it’s time he develops some real policies that actually address the threat, rather than exacerbate it.

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