You should never argue with a crazy ma-ma-ma-ma-man,
You oughtta know by now…
– Billy Joel, Movin’ Out
“ ‘And so it was in those days,’ said Brother Reader:
“that the princes of Earth had hardened their hearts against the Law of the Lord, and of their pride there was no end. And each of them thought within himself that it was better for all to be destroyed than for the will of other princes to prevail over his. For the mighty of the Earth did contend among themselves for supreme power over all; by stealth, treachery and deceit they did seek to rule...”
– Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, “Fiat Lux”
Donald Trump created a bit of a stir over the last few days with some tweets expressing his desire to expand and modernize the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal. As his aides tried to downplay his words, he countered by offering additional words of “explanation” which increased the alarm of his hearers. Among the things he said are the following:
He intends to “greatly” expand the number of warheads and delivery systems.
He does not care whether this action provokes a renewed arms race between the United States and other nations. In his words, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” And as his soon-to-be White House spokesman said, “I think it’s putting every nation on notice that the United States is going to reassert its position in the globe.”
While the Donald’s words contain plenty of cause for alarm, I have to say that I don’t necessarily view his words in the same way as some of the alarmed voices see them. For many of these voices are the voices of regretful players on the losing end of empire who have pointed to the stabilizing role the United States has played for several decades as the center of empire. Their lament that this stabilizing role is about to come to an end seem to me to be a veiled plea for that empire to continue, a veiled justification of that empire. But while it is quite true that the United States has played a pivotal role in nuclear non-proliferation, and while the work that has been done in that role has been unquestionably good, it is also true that the United States has made a lot of people suffer by reason of its imperialism. Most of those sufferers have been citizens of the “developing world,” a world kept in a continual state of brokenness in order that five percent of the world’s population might consume over 40 percent of the world’s resources. It won’t hurt my ego at all if someone else assumes the role of global leadership for a while – provided, of course, that the next leader is sane, rational and moral.
Trump is not sane, rational or moral. I agree with the alarmists that the Donald’s words are cause for great alarm – for the following reasons.
First, his intention to “greatly strengthen and expand [the U.S.] nuclear capability” would almost certainly be a direct repudiation of the second pillar of the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (or NPT) which was ratified in 1970, and to which the United States was one of the signatories. (It seems that Russia may already have repudiated the second pillar.) There is no doubt that the NPT has made the world safer by greatly reducing the risk of nuclear war. Yet even now, there are non-nuclear nations which have long-standing frustrations with the five major nuclear powers (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France) because of the refusal of the major powers to adhere to the same standard of behavior to which they hold the non-nuclear nations. A decision by the United States to abandon disarmament in favor of increasing the total count of weapons would provide these other nations with ample justification for turning their own backs on the NPT.
Second, the tone of Mr. Trump’s nuke language, combined with many of his previous statements, shows his need to approach his interactions with other nations as the dominator with the biggest stick, rather than as a humble, genuine peacemaker seeking the greatest good for all. This is not likely to go over very well in the world at large, many of whose nations may soon come to feel themselves to be under existential threat because of the actions and attitudes of our incoming Narcissist-In-Chief. And when people feel that their very lives are threatened, they will be prepared to fight back. Maybe that’s why the Donald, who campaigned on an ostensibly isolationist platform, is nonetheless seeking to drastically expand U.S. military spending, and to eliminate budget caps on future military spending. The U.S. military budget is already bigger than the next fifteen largest national military budgets combined. If Trump really is a peacenik, why do we need more troops and hardware?
Third, the creation of a global political climate in which nations felt that they were not significant or were vulnerable to domination unless they each had nuclear weapons would produce the same results on an international level that the massive promotion of gun ownership has had in the United States. (See this also.) The U.S. is not safer as a result of massively increased gun ownership and concealed or open carry laws. Instead, we have found that certain kinds of hotheads gravitate toward gun ownership, and that the fact that these people have guns has greatly increased the chances that the guns will be used – and not for good purpose! How do you feel about having a world of nuclear-armed nations whose leaders say things like, “Why do we make [nukes] if we’re not going to use them?”, or, “You want to be unpredictable [in your potential use of nuclear weapons]”? (Quotes paraphrased from source cited in paragraph.)
Fourth, Mr. Trump has promised to build a “serious missile defense system” to protect the United States from nuclear threats. Perhaps he is hoping that the U.S. could hide itself behind such a system. However, intercepting nuclear missiles is much harder than it has been made to seem by proponents of missile defense systems. There are three stages in the flight of a ballistic nuclear missile where the missile could be intercepted by a defense system: boost, ballistic and reentry. But trying to intercept a missile during the reentry phase is, in many respects, waiting until it’s too late. And U.S. attempts to build systems that could intercept a missile during the boost and ballistic phases have uniformly failed. (See this, this, and this.) Is Trump promising to build a system that would actually and reliably work against a modern ICBM? Fuhgeddaboudit.
To me, Trump’s recent military statements can be taken in two ways. First, I think he will treat the United States – with all of its various peoples – as nothing more than a narcissistic extension of himself. Now that he has, by means of a rigged election, graduated to the biggest of the big leagues, he will try to display the biggest persona of them all. At present he receives a great deal of narcissistic supply from his association with Vladimir Putin, who has distinguished himself as another Big Man on a Big Stage. But I suspect that there is also in Trump a feeling of rivalry and envy in his association with Putin and with Russia – an envy with Freudian overtones. A buildup of the U.S. military may be one way by which Trump seeks to resolve that envy and prove to himself that he is the bigger man. Indeed, there are already signs of instability in the relationship between these two narcissists, as indicated in Trump’s response to the thoughts expressed toward him in a recent letter from Putin: “In response to Mr. Putin’s letter, Mr. Trump said that a failure by either side to ‘live up to these thoughts’ would require the United States to ‘travel an alternative path.’” I remember reading how last year, Mr. Putin publicly lectured the West concerning American intervention in the Mideast, pointedly asking, “Do you realize what you’ve done?” However, Mr. Putin’s solution to American imperialism has been to support the political ambitions of a man who is morally unfit to be the President of the United States. Therefore Putin’s “cure” will almost certainly be worse than the disease for which it was intended. A day may soon arrive in which other heads of state pointedly ask Putin, “Do you realize what you’ve done?”
(I used to have a great deal of respect for Putin and his version of Russia, but unfortunately, his mask has slipped. Even though many of his criticisms of the West have validity, I no longer view him as the doctor to be writing prescriptions for anything.)
The second way to look at Trump is to see that deliberately sowing consternation (and confusion) is part of his overall style. He seems to take great pride in being unpredictable. Indeed, he seems to see this unpredictability as a strength. Others don’t necessarily agree. (See this, this and this.) I also have a few thoughts on Mr. Trump and unpredictability, which I will disclose in a future post. In that post, we’ll be climbing back out onto the skinny branches again.
Aggressiveness, insecurity, unpredictability, and nukes – oh, my!