Trump, national security and nuclear war

A sorely needed assessment. Where should American nuclear policy go from here?

Prof. Louis René Beres, | updated: 23:01

Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene Beres
israelnewsphoto: R. B.

"I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds." - Bhagavad Gita, cited by American nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945


Quite literally, at any moment in 2019, US President Donald Trump could be faced with unprecedented challenges to American security. The most plainly serious threats will concern some forms or other of nuclear strategy and nuclear war.[1] “Will he be ready?” – we must immediately inquire – “for any such conspicuously daunting challenges?”

Significantly, there can be no more important inquiry.

More precisely, as the relevant interrogatory must proceed, will this president be up to meeting such starkly complex challenges?[2]

Mr. Trump's analytic and state-of-mind abilities continue to be deeply concerning. This informed apprehension is all the more noteworthy whenever these abilities might become: (1) intersecting and reinforcing;[3] (2) are considered together with the president's persistently willing subservience to the Russian president in the midst of "Cold War II;[4]  and (3) assessed within the appropriate statutory and Constitutional parameters of formal US nuclear command authority.

In fairness, any prospective personal shortcomings are not necessarily unique or distinctive to President Donald Trump. Rather, at a more expressly generic level, they represent certain continuously complex qualities and issues, ones about which I have been lecturing and publishing for almost half a century. If I might now be permitted to share some closely related insights, this might help us to better understand just how irremediably perilous the Trump presidency could very rapidly become.

In essence, the cumulative national security risks we face as a nation are potentially immediate and conceivably existential. Most obvious, in this regard, is the stubbornly complex problem of North Korea. Here, inter alia, the US president's routinely indiscriminate confusion of belligerent rhetoric with actual power could lead the United States further and further away from capably sustaining its required national security.

To be sure, incessant presidential bravado need not be very convincing. Even as quixotic an adversary as Kim Jung Un can normally tell the difference between his American adversary's real military capacity, and bombast.

Going forward, the principal risks to US security are distinctly tangible and multi-sided. These risks would become especially high during any foreseeable circumstances of competitive risk-taking with Kim Jung Un; that is, in those identifiably deliberative moments when each side is energetically (and perhaps desperately) seeking "escalation dominance."  

Already, back in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche had it right. Warned the seminal philosopher in his magisterial Zarathustra:  "One must never seek the Higher Man in the marketplace." (Today, of course, we would want to make this into a more properly gender-neutral "Higher Person").

More urgently than on any other specific security hazard, President Trump must make himself much better informed about all potentially pertinent nuclear conflict scenarios in our anarchic[5]  or "Hobbesian" world system.[6] 

Correspondingly, both the Congress and the citizenry must keep a much closer and more honest (non-partisan) watch on Mr. Trump's problematic unwillingness to take nuclear war with sufficient seriousness.[7] 

Among other things, he will need to be reminded that no scientifically accurate estimates of nuclear war likelihood are logically possible.[8] This is because, in science, true probabilities must always be based upon a determinable frequency of pertinent past events, and because there has never been a nuclear war event.


The American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 "don't count" as nuclear war examples. These events were singular episodes of nuclear attack upon enemy civilian populations in an otherwise purely conventional war. It follows that in any still-upcoming nuclear crisis situations, a casually dismissive presidential stance on expected outcomes could produce fully unexpected or even intolerable results.


I have been studying nuclear warfare issues for a long time. After four years at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear history and thought, I first began to think about adding a modest personal contribution to the growing literatures of first-generation nuclear thinkers. Accordingly,  by the mid- 1970s, I was busily preparing an original manuscript on U.S. nuclear strategy and on certain corollary risks of nuclear war.[9]  

At that time, moreover, I was interested in very specific questions of presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons.

Among other things, I soon learned that reliable safeguards had been carefully built into all American nuclear command/control decisions, but also that these reassuring safeguards could never apply at the presidential level. To a young strategic scholar, this ironic disjunction didn't make any obvious intellectual sense, especially in a world where national leadership irrationality was assuredly not without precedent.[10]  For needed clarifications, I reached out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a distinguished former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In rapid response to my query, General Taylor sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the General's informed letter concluded presciently: "As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one."

Until now, I had never really given any extended thought to this truthful but distressing response. Instead, I had assumed that somehow "the system" would somehow always operate precisely according to plan. Today, as the presidency of Donald Trump coincides with a North Korean nuclear standoff and continued Iranian nuclearization, General Taylor's 1976 warning takes on even greater and more urgent meaning. Now, however reluctantly, Americans must realistically assume that if President Trump were ever to exhibit emotional instability or irrationality, he could nonetheless order the use of American nuclear weapons, and do so without any calculable expectations of any official "disobedience."

At this point, a distressingly core question should come immediately to mind. What should be done by the National Command Authority (Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor, and presumptively several others) if it should ever decide to oppose a determinably inappropriate presidential order to launch American nuclear weapons? Could the National Command Authority reliably "save the day" by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or should there already be in place aptly credible and effective statutory measures to (1) meaningfully assess the ordering president's judgment; and (2) promptly countermand any wrongful order?

In law, Article 1 (Congressional) war-declaring expectations of the Constitution notwithstanding, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president, or by an otherwise incapacitated one, must be obeyed. To do otherwise, in such dire circumstances, would be prima facie illegal; that is, impermissible on its face. Additionally, there could be the first use of American nuclear weapons even if this country were not under any specifically nuclear attack.

Here, too, a further strategic and legal distinction must be made between first use and first strike. There exists an elementary but vitally important difference, significantly one that candidate Donald Trump had failed to understand during his 2016 campaign debates. This core difference has to do with distinguishing essential self-defense from aggression.[11]

Aggression, of course, is a codified crime under international law.[12] It is, therefore, reciprocally prohibited by pertinent US law.

Where should American nuclear policy go from here? To begin, a coherent and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared for the following very basic question: If faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the National Command Authority: (1) be willing to disobey? and (2) be capable of enforcing such seemingly well-founded expressions of authoritative disobedience?

In any such unprecedented nuclear crisis circumstances, all relevant decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes. Needless to say, such tight chronological constraints could quickly become overriding.

The only time for Americans to prepare for such vital national security questions is now. This is the case whether or not President Donald Trump should incrementally prove himself to be a stable and capable crisis decision-maker. Though we might all draw a huge sigh of relief if the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis were to subside, there will inevitably arise other similar or even more portentous atomic emergencies.[13] 

There is one last but still important point. Whether it is in reference to a proposed military intervention or to another considered military action, the American president is bound not only by US law, but also by international law. The latter, which is discoverable, inter alia, in various customary norms as well as in bilateral and multilateral treaties, is always an integral part of American law.[14] Such "incorporation" is most prominently expressed at Article 6 of the US Constitution (the "Supremacy Clause"), and also at various major US Supreme Court decisions.[15]

Looking ahead, Donald Trump's policies for dealing with adversarial nuclear threats must always remain consistent with American military requirements and with certain corollary jurisprudential obligations. Striking the necessary and optimal balance between both coinciding imperatives will inevitably confront this president with stark intellectual and ethical challenges of the very highest order. .[16]

So, what happens then?[17]

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books, monographs, and scholarly articles dealing with various legal and military aspects of nuclear strategy. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Over the past years, he has published extensively on nuclear warfare issues in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); Yale Global Online (Yale); JURIST; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Atlantic; The Washington Times; US News & World Report; Special Warfare (Pentagon); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); The New York Times; The Hill; The Jerusalem Post; The National Interest; and Oxford University Press. His twelfth book, published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield, is titled: Surviving amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy.'s-Nuclear-Strategy (2nd ed., 2018) A widely-circulated monograph with U.S. General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey was published at Tel Aviv University in December 2016:


[1] We may consider further nuclear proliferation consequences together with the classical insights of English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. According to this important seventeenth-century thinker, one whose work was well-known to Thomas Jefferson, a "state of nature" is a condition of anarchy where "the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest..." (Leviathan, Chapter Xlll). In expressly Hobbesian terms, therefore, nuclear weapons spread would bring the international system into an ever closer and more dangerous alignment with that corrosive condition of primal anarchy suffered by individual human beings in nature.

[2] "Everything is simple in war," warns Carl von Clausewitz in On War (Vom Kriege)"but even the simplest thing is difficult."

[3] These traits may form an intricately interconnected network. Here, assessments of any related risks should include a patient search for synergies, and also for potential cascades of failures that could sometimes represent one markedly serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties that will warrant careful assessment by US defense specialists within this particular genre could include contagion potential and persistence.

[4] In orthodox political science terms, positing the expansion of "Cold War II" means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of just such an expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, "Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments," Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, "Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons," Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, "Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics," Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[5] With anarchy, international law remains a "vigilante" system, or, in other words, "Westphalian." This latter reference is to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War, and created the now still-existing decentralized, or self-help, state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[6] The chaotic condition of Westphalian global anarchy stands in contrast to the classical jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between all states in a presumably common struggle against aggression and terrorism. Such a peremptoryexpectation (known formally in international law as a jus cogens assumption), is already mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 C.E.); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey, tr., Clarendon Press, 1925) (1690); and Emmerich De Vattel, 1 Le Droit Des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[7] For the most part, the U.S. has been modernizing its nuclear arsenal primarily by upgrading existing weapon systems, rather than by deploying altogether new types of such weapons. The ICBM force is in a final phase of a decade-long $8 billion modernization program. Beginning in 2017, the U.S. Navy began to deploy a modified version of the trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The U.S. Air Force has already begun Life Extension Programs for its air-launched cruise missile, as well as for the B-2 and B-52 bombers. In any event, prima facie, U.S. nuclear modernization efforts and plans undercut the publicly-stated U.S. goal of achieving "bold reductions" in Russian and U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe. For more on these complex and inter-penetrating "Cold War II" strategic issues, see: Hans M. Kristensen, "Nuclear Weapons Modernization a Threat to the NPT?" Arms Control Today, Arms Control Association, September 2015.

[8] For an early look at these problematic estimations, see: Anatol Rapoport, Strategy and Conscience (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), 323 pp.

[9] This book was subsequently published in 1980 by the University of Chicago Press: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics.

[10] Says Sigmund Freud: "Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind.... Usually, they have wreaked havoc."

[11] Punishment of aggression is a firm and longstanding expectation of international criminal law.  The peremptory principle of Nullum Crimen sine poena, "No crime without a punishment," has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728 - 1686 B.C.E.);  the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 B.C.E.);  the even earlier Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.E.) and the law of exact retaliation, or Lex Talionis, presented in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah

[12] Since World War II, aggression has typically been defined as a military attack, not justified by international law, when directed against the territory of another state. The question of defining aggression first acquired legal significance with theDraft Treaty of Mutual Assistance of 1923. One year later, the Geneva Protocol of 1924 provided that any state that failed to comply with the obligation to employ procedures of peaceful settlement in the Protocol or the Covenant was an aggressor. Much later, an authoritative definition of aggression was adopted without vote by the UN General Assembly on December 14, 1974.

[13] See, generally, Seneca, 1st Century AD/CE: "We are mad, not only individuals, but nations also. We restrain manslaughter and isolated murders, but what of war, and the so-called glory of killing whole peoples? .... Man, the gentlest of animals, is not ashamed to glory in blood-shedding, and to wage war when even the beasts are living in peace together." (Letters, 95).

14]  Note further the jus cogens principle that international law is ultimately deducible from natural law. In this connection, according to Blackstone, each state is always expected "to aid and enforce the law of nations, as part of the common law, by inflicting an adequate punishment upon offenses against that universal law...." See: 2 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4, "Of Public Wrongs." Lest anyone ask about the significance of Blackstone for current US national security policies, one need only point out that Commentaries are an original and core foundation of the laws of the United States.

[15] See especially The Paquette Habana, 175 US 677, 700 (1900); and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726, F. 2d, 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) per curiam.

[16] "The enemy," noted German philosopher Karl Jaspers, in a more generic sense, "is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth." See: Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time, 1971, p. 66.

[17] Ultimately, this brings to mind the closing query of Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Aeschylus: "Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatreds, and the destruction"?​

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