We have a lot to fear from a Donald Trump presidency. Like whether he can be trusted with the nuclear codes. As the New York Times pointed out recently, it is not totally clear where Trump stands on using nuclear weapons. In one interview, he said they'd be a last resort. In another, he hinted that he'd consider using them in a first strike against the Islamic State and wouldn't rule out using them in Europe.
One thing is clear: Trump has very little understanding of the issue. He has both allegedly and publicly questioned why, since we have them, we cannot use them. He could not answer a simple question about how he would prioritize America's nuclear arsenal as President.
Members of his own party are concerned. Fifty Republican national security professionals argued in a letter that Trump's unwillingness or inability to separate "truth from falsehood," lack of "self-control," impetuousness, and "erratic behavior" are "dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal." Sitting Republican Senators have stayed mum about their trust in his fitness to handle U.S nuclear weapons.
A recent YouGov/HuffingtonPost poll finds that it isn't just former government officials or his opponents who are asking questions. The public doesn't trust Trump to handle nuclear weapons. That being said, the same poll finds that while Americans trust Hillary Clinton with nuclear weapons more than they do Trump, most still don't trust her with them either. This begs the question: what, if anything, would increase the public's confidence on this matter?
An LA Times story highlights that, thanks to their worries about Trump, Americans have woken up to the reality of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in way they haven't since the end of the Cold War. His candidacy has shed light on the fact that the President has sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, with almost nothing standing in his way.
Both candidates could make one simple pledge that would be a first step in easing the public's fear: a pledge of no-first-use.
More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States still explicitly reserves the right to use a nuclear weapon first on another country. Of course, it is the only country to have done so.
In the Cold War, the United States believed it needed to threaten use of nuclear weapons to counterbalance the threat of attack by a massive Soviet conventional force. That threat is long gone and there is no reasonable scenario in which Russian conventional military steps would require a U.S. nuclear response. Even during the Cold War, the logic of first-use was questionable. China has long had a policy of no-first-use even though its adversaries have had conventional military superiority.
In today's landscape, it is perfectly logical for the United States to declare a policy of no-first-use. The United States does not benefit from leaving open the possibility of first-use. If there is any value in nuclear weapons, this is it: they deter an attack by other countries with nuclear weapons. A no-first-use pledge does nothing to change this calculation.
Moreover, taking first-use off the table has several benefits. It would lower the risk of use by accident, miscalculation, or escalation. It may also challenge other nuclear weapons-possessing states to make this pledge, lowering the risk even further. It would also allow the United States to get rid of "first strike" weapons -- such as a new nuclear-armed cruise missile - saving taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. A recent op-ed by General James Cartwright and Bruce Blair argues that the policy would allow the U.S. to get rid of our land-based ballistic missiles - saving $100 billion in the process.
The masses have been reawakened to the threats that stem from nuclear weapons. Little did they know, many of our dangerous policies haven't changed much in several decades. Both Clinton and Trump should make a common-sense policy pledge of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. Not only would it lower the risk of nuclear use, it might also gain some of the public's trust.
(Image Credit: U.S. Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons)