On Nuclear Dangers, Hillary Should Beat Trump Hands Down

Today's foreign policy speech by Hillary Clinton was designed to demonstrate that Donald Trump has neither the knowledge nor the temperament to serve as commander-in-chief. She succeeded. And as Clinton indicated at numerous points during her remarks, nowhere is this more obvious than on the question of who should have the power to decide whether to use nuclear weapons.

Trump's statements on all things nuclear would be comical if there weren't so much at stake. It's frightening to contemplate what he might actually do if he were in charge of the nuclear launch codes. This is no small matter. As Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund has noted, today's U.S. nuclear arsenal has 22,000 times the explosive power of the bomb that killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima. And a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility has demonstrated that even a "limited" nuclear war in South Asia could so disrupt the climate that it would put 2 billion people at risk of starvation in a "nuclear famine."

Trump's take on nuclear weapons first surfaced in a CNN debate, back when the stage was crowded with presidential wannabes and the one who shouted loudest often got the most air time. Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt asked Trump "what's your priority among the nuclear triad?" The nuclear triad is the combination of nuclear-armed bombers, land-based missiles, and sea-based nuclear missiles that constitute the U.S. nuclear deterrent. The redundancy involved in having three different ways to put a nuclear weapon on an enemy target is supposed to make it harder for an adversary to destroy U.S. nuclear capabilities with a disarming first strike. Maintaining the triad is costly and unnecessary, yet current plans call for spending $1 trillion to modernize it over the next thirty years. So Hewitt's question was both crucial and appropriate.

Trump's answer to the question made it abundantly clear that he had no idea what the nuclear triad was. This may be acceptable for an individual voter who may not follow the vagaries of nuclear strategy, but it is unacceptable in someone who wants to preside over the most powerful military in the world. Trump didn't even attempt to answer at first, choosing instead to make a general point that the person in charge of our nuclear weapons should be "responsible." When Hewitt repeated the question, all Trump came up with was the insight that nuclear weapons are very, very powerful, saying that "the devastation is very important to me." Indeed.

As Clinton also noted today, Donald Trump has engaged in loose talk about using nuclear weapons, asserting that he wouldn't rule out using them against ISIS. He either doesn't know or doesn't care that doing so could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians alongside any members of ISIS killed by the use of such devastating weapons.

Then Trump waded into the topic of nuclear proliferation - the spread of nuclear weapons to nations or groups that don't currently possess them. He told Anderson Cooper he was against it, and then proceeded to say it might not be a bad idea if Japan or South Korea had them. Did he misunderstand the term, or was he simply suggesting a selective view of nonproliferation that would most likely spur a new, multi-sided nuclear arms race? Trump's not saying.

Then there is Trump's lambasting of the Iran nuclear deal. He's going to rip up this painstakingly negotiated multilateral arrangement and magically come up with a "better deal." Never mind that the current deal is working, having already resulted in Iran getting rid of 98% of its enriched uranium and dismantling a plant capable of making plutonium, another possible fuel for a nuclear weapon. Trump's plan to trash the Iran deal while threatening Tehran is in fact the best way to ensure that Tehran actually does develop a nuclear weapon.

Trump's statements and misstatements on the nuclear issue are troubling enough, but his general temperament may be even more of a problem. The same man who said he would be more "presidential" once he got closer to the nomination has been on a rampage, insulting everyone from members of the press to the judge overseeing the suit against Trump University. As Clinton noted in today's speech, Trump is "thin-skinned," to put it mildly, and he knows how to hold a grudge. Not the best qualities for the person who will hold the future of humanity in his hands if elected president.

Some will argue that Trump doesn't really mean the things he says, that he's a showman throwing provocative statements out there to get media attention. This flawed argument ignores the fact that a president's words matter. Loose nuclear threats can spark unpredictable reactions, including nuclear buildups on the part of states that feel threatened by them. There are no "do-overs" when it comes to nuclear diplomacy.

Donald Trump's character flaws are certainly fair game, especially when it comes to their implications for nuclear weapons policy. But fear alone - whether of foreign enemies or of Donald Trump - is not enough to get people to care about taking effective action to control and reduce nuclear weapons. Hillary Clinton also needs a strong, positive agenda for reducing nuclear dangers, an area she has largely neglected to address in her campaign to date.

Hillary Clinton has made strong statements about the need to take steps to keep nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials out of the hands of terrorists. Now she needs to put forward a detailed proposal for investing in the kinds of programs that will help achieve that objective, an area where the Obama administration has lagged in recent years.

Clinton is also a supporter of the Iran nuclear deal, although she has expressed reluctance to build upon it to pursue a further warming of relations with Tehran which could open the door to negotiations about curbing its ballistic missile programs or stopping its support for bad regional actors like the Assad regime in Syria. This is a short-sighted approach. A "get tough on Iran" stance, taken too far, could even jeopardize the nuclear deal itself.

Candidate Clinton has had little to say about the Pentagon's $1 trillion plan to buy new nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines, although what she has said offers a glimmer of hope. On a rope line in Iowa she answered a question about the buildup by saying "that doesn't make sense to me" and promising to look into it. The time to look into it is now, and a pledge to scale back the nuclear modernization plan would be a welcome step in the right direction. She could start by promising to cancel the new nuclear-armed cruise missile, a weapon that former Secretary of Defense William Perry has noted is particularly dangerous and destabilizing.

Another area of nuclear policy that is in urgent need of attention is the policy of keeping land-based missiles on hair-trigger alert. Organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists have underscored the danger of an accidental nuclear war inherent in such a policy. Clinton should pledge to address this ill-advised policy if elected.

There are many other actions that could be proposed to reduce the nuclear danger and move down the path towards eliminating these world-threatening weapons altogether. Taking steps to reduce excess nuclear weapons, and joining in international efforts to highlight the humanitarian catastrophe that would be caused by even a limited use of nuclear weapons are among them. Taking clear positions in favor of these kinds of concrete nuclear policy changes would not only be good politics, but, far more importantly, it would be good policy. It would also make the world a far safer place, which should be the number one goal of any occupant of the Oval Office.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.