Campaigning for the Button: Nuclear Weapons in the 2016 Debate

Donald Trump makes a point during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec.
Donald Trump makes a point during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

It is the gravest responsibility given to the U.S. president: the power to end the world with 5,000 thermonuclear weapons.

It's also the first responsibility. On the morning of inauguration, the president-elect is given a briefing on how to launch a nuclear strike. In the afternoon, after taking the oath of office, the president is given a small card with authentication codes. He or she is now formally in charge of the United States nuclear arsenal. From that moment forward, a military aide with an ominous briefcase will follow the president everywhere.

The president has the power to destroy the world. And the 2016 candidates -- Democratic and Republican -- have barely been asked about how they approach that terrible responsibility.

Donald Trump gave perhaps the most words to the issue. That's not a compliment.

In the CNN debate last Tuesday, the moderator asked Donald Trump "What's your priority among our nuclear triad?"

Here is what Trump said:

"But we have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ball game...The power is so massive...The biggest problem we have is nuclear -- nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That's in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now...

"I think -- I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me."

Senator Marco Rubio followed, contrasting with his opponent's word scramble by explaining what the U.S. nuclear triad is, why "it gives us the ability at deterrence" and emphasizing that he would buy new versions of each U.S. nuclear weapons platform -- submarines, bombers and silo-based missiles.

The commentariat lit up Trump as being uninformed and crowned Rubio the winner of the round. I'm not sure anyone deserved points.

Sen. Rubio was clearly better prepared for the question but sounded like he answered a pop quiz from defense industry lobbyists. His answer revealed little of what he thinks about nuclear weapons -- except that he pledged to continue standing Obama administration policy to rebuild the entire nuclear arsenal.

Donald Trump is easy to lampoon. But his answer, at least the intelligible parts, indicated a sense of caution about nuclear weapons. They aren't simply abstract ideas or defense acquisition goals. There's something different about them and the scale of devastation they are designed to inflict.

This illustrates something of a problem for the 2016 debate.

Mainstream candidates talk about nuclear weapons as a constellation of weapons programs substituting for strategy without acknowledging the dangers associated with keeping hundreds of thermonuclear bombs ready to fly on a moment's notice. Trump might not understand the arsenal, but something about it gives him pause.

Whether or not you believe the United States needs more or fewer nuclear weapons, it certainly deserves a president able to articulate their role in national defense and acknowledge the existential danger this strategy invites.

"The ability at deterrence," as Sen. Rubio described it, is very sanitary language. Practically speaking, it means the U.S. and Russia have enough nuclear bombs to destroy the other and kill hundreds of millions of people. The mere idea of nuclear war scares both countries enough to do everything to avoid it. But we both rehearse it weekly and spend billions to get better at it. As the Donald said, "the devastation is very important."

Democratic candidates have taken fewer opportunities to debate nuclear weapons policy.

Secretary Clinton's debate points tend to focus on preventing nuclear terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons, what she rightly describes as the number one threat we face. Though she has a long public record supporting reductions to the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy, that record hasn't found its way into the 2016 debate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders in a debate last month said, "We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars maintaining 5,000 nuclear weapons. I think we need major reform in the military, making it more cost effective, but also focusing on the real crisis that faces us. The Cold War is over." This week he signed a letter with seven other senators, asking President Obama to cancel a new nuclear weapon project and instead "focus on capabilities that keep our economy and defense strong while reducing the role of nuclear weapons."

At the very least, in upcoming debates the Democratic candidates should contrast their nuclear policy positions with the Republican candidates' recent performances.

If I were moderator, I might start with a few back-to-basics questions about the U.S. arsenal:

  • The prospect of using the nuclear arsenal is the worst nightmare of the modern presidency. How will you approach that grim responsibility?
  • Does the United States need to maintain a Cold War nuclear posture today? Are there risks?
  • How would you respond to Russian aggression in the world while containing the risk of nuclear accident or escalation?
  • Should nuclear weapons projects get budget priority over other security programs?
  • Are nuclear weapons moral?

This still might not be enough to figure out how the next president will make nuclear weapons policy decisions. But it's a start.

Nuclear weapons are more dangerous than ISIS will ever be. They deserve a more serious debate.