Today, the Trump Administration published its Nuclear Posture Review—the document that lays out the United States’ plan for maintaining, enhancing and using its nuclear arsenal for the next decade. It has one goal: to scare you into accepting Trump’s proposals and shame you if you don’t.
The Obama-era Nuclear Posture Review set a pretty high threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Though the Obama Administration did not adopt a nuclear no-first-use policy, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review stated that the United States would only use nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances.” It added that the U.S. would never use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that comply with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review actually says the same thing—literally, the same exact phrases—but with a few key differences. Trump’s review claims that the world is more dangerous than ever—and then suggests that building more nuclear weapons systems is the safest solution.
From the start, Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review makes the world sound absolutely terrifying. It claims that Russia is developing and deploying new nuclear warheads. It also paints China as a potential nuclear threat to the U.S. It casts doubt on the nation’s existing nuclear arsenal and, by doing so, casts doubt on the safety of its residents.
These exaggerated and unverified claims make the reader feel like she’s about to suffer a fiery and radiation-laced death. Trump’s solution is to suggest that new, easily-deployable nuclear weapons will increase our safety. The Review uses language like “necessary,” “need” and “essential” to imply that we have no other choice but to develop more nuclear weapons. Thus far, none of us has been bombed by China, Russia or North Korea—but according to the Trump administration, these past decades of nuclear peace were just dumb luck.
The 2010 Review left some loopholes for the use of nuclear weapons. It didn’t exclude the use of nuclear weapons against countries that have nuclear weapons and launch a conventional attack against the U.S.without using their nukes; it also left the door open to using nuclear weapons against states that don’t have nukes but aren’t in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In either of these cases, the Administration’s threshold of “extreme circumstances” would still have had to be met to warrant a nuclear response. While the 2010 Review was vague, this vagueness actually left U.S. adversaries in doubt about what would and would not prompt a nuclear response. This uncertainty is the core of deterrence.
The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review lowers the threshold for a U.S. nuclear response. It uses the same language as the 2010 Review, but then goes on to outline the exact situations to which the U.S. would respond with a nuclear weapon—including non-nuclear attacks on the population, infrastructure and attack warning systems of the U.S. or its allies as well as attacks on the nuclear arsenal itself. This means that if China conducted a cyber-attack on a U.S. command system, Trump could launch a nuclear weapon. If Egypt disabled one of Israel’s attack assessment controls, Trump could launch a nuclear weapon.
The Review also contradicts itself in regard to the capabilities of U.S. conventional forces. When justifying the need for more nuclear weapons, it claims that a conventional response to attack could not replace a nuclear one. When referring directly to potential adversaries, it asserts that the United States will defeat non-nuclear attacks across a range of contexts. The contradiction casts doubt on the Review’s claim that more nuclear weapons are essential to U.S. security and highlights a recurring theme of “telling not showing” in the Review.
The Trump Administration is claiming that these policies, and the shockingly low threshold for nuclear action within them, will lead to a safer and more stable global threat environment. We’re not buying it. The policies set forth in this Nuclear Posture Review are extreme, and the tone of the Review inspires doubt and fear.
The Review thanks U.S. service members for their help with the nuclear deterrence “mission” more than once. It mentions that their work often goes unappreciated despite being of the “utmost importance.” It then goes further to state that they deserve unswerving support of the American people. This strategy is employed to imply that opposing the proposed policies is a criticism of U.S. service members and a rejection of a stable world. It also casts those who would reject the proposed policies as un-American. Despite this Nuclear Posture Review’s claims that the public has little appreciation for those who safeguard American security, it is those lives we must endeavor to protect. The reality is that reducing the threshold for nuclear weapons use increases the nuclear threat we face: A nuclear arms race would threaten global security, and more nuclear weapons could lead to unintended war.
This Nuclear Posture Review is playing off of a real perception that the dangers facing the United States have increased. This perception makes sense: We have a President tweeting nuclear threats at a hostile dictator who has been conducting missile tests. But the Trump Administration is counting on the idea that fear and doubt will prevent us from asking questions or challenging Trump’s policies. The reality is that we need to be asking difficult questions—and we must continue to look at any President’s policies with a critical eye.