Hillary Clinton and Nuclear Weapons: More Dangerous Than Trump?

A 15-kiloton test fired from a 280-millimeter cannon on May 25, 1953 at the Nevada Proving Grounds. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

No ally's fate is important enough for the United States to risk a nuclear war.

With his customary keen insight, the Financial Times commentator Edward Luce recently observed that GOP nominee Donald Trump’s Achilles heel is a lack of character. Because of this, Trump’s opponents argue, he cannot be trusted with oversight of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D. Ga.) asserted that of the two presidential candidates, only Hillary Clinton has “experience, judgment and skills” to have a finger on the figurative “nuclear button.”

At the third presidential debate, Clinton herself argued that Trump is unfit to be commander-in-chief. Specifically alluding to Trump’s proposal that Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear arsenals, she charged that he is “very cavalier, even casual about the use of nuclear weapons.” Clinton may have scored a debating point here, but her foreign policy record demonstrates that  - even if for different reasons - her views on nuclear weapons are at least as reckless as Trump’s. To understand why, we need to go back to the Cold War, when the United States used its nuclear arsenal to protect Western Europe from a potential Soviet attack.

After World War II, nuclear strategists distinguished between two different types of deterrence: direct deterrence and extended deterrence. Direct deterrence is the use of U.S. nuclear weapons to dissuade an adversary from launching a premeditated strike on U.S. territory.  Effective direct deterrence is easy, not hard. It requires only that the United States retains what is called a secure second strike retaliatory force - an arsenal capable of inflicting unacceptable damage even if an adversary attacks the United States first. Direct deterrence works because other states understand the consequences of attacking American soil: they would be subjected to devastating U.S. retaliation. That is a risk that adversaries will not run. After all, states and the regimes that govern them want to survive, not to kill themselves. In this sense, the much lampooned Cold War strategic doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) remains robust.

America’s vulnerability to nuclear war has always come from another quarter: bringing overseas U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia under the shelter of the so-called nuclear umbrella. This strategy is called extended deterrence. Extended deterrence was foundation of U.S. and NATO strategy during the Cold W because the alliance chose to rely on American nuclear weapons for security rather than building conventional forces capable of defeating a non-nuclear Soviet attack.

Transatlantic security relations during the Cold War drove home a point that was seldom debated openly back then, and seems to be forgotten today: although direct deterrence is easy, extended deterrence is hard. Very hard. Why? Because, as Patrick Morgan, an expert on nuclear strategy at the University of California, Irvine, explains: “One of the perpetual problems of deterrence on behalf of third parties is that the costs a state is willing to bear are usually much less than if its own territory is at stake, and it is very difficult to pretend otherwise.” For extended deterrence to work it must be credible. This means that the United States must convince potential adversaries, and reassure allies, that it if push comes to shove, it will do what it says will do: use nuclear weapons to protect its allies. The problem, however, is that nuclear deterrence is inherently incredible because rational states do not commit suicide to protect others. America’s adversaries know that, and so do its allies.

Transatlantic security relations during the Cold War were always fraught because of the built-in tensions created by the NATO’s extended deterrence strategy. Indeed, the alliance’s cohesion was frequently stretched to the breaking point because of the conflicting strategic interests of the United States and Western Europe. Of course, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic strived to avoid war with the Soviet Union. But as the “wizards of Armageddon” - the priesthood of nuclear strategists in think tanks and the defense ministries - played out possible conflict scenarios, U.S. and West European strategists each developed their respective versions of the “perfect war.” For the Americans, it was a conventional and/or tactical nuclear war fought in Europe (principally in Germany). For the Europeans, it was a war where the superpowers’ ICBMs flew high above an untouched continent on their way to the Soviet and American homelands. 

During the Cold War, to reassure the West Europeans, and deter the Soviets, the United States was forced to adopt a very dangerous strategic posture on the Continent. Washington tried a number of expedients to convince the West Europeans that the United States would commit suicide on their behalf: trying to attain a first strike advantage (counter-force or damage limitation capability in nuke-speak), using tactical nuclear weapons, and then intermediate range nuclear weapons (INFs) to link the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal to the continent’s defense. In essence, the United States - to use Thomas C. Schelling’s image - “threw the steering wheel out of the car” in a deliberate attempt to tie its hands so that a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe would have escalated virtually automatically to a strategic nuclear exchange between the superpowers.  In other words, U.S. strategy was designed to lock in Washington to doing reflexively what it would not do rationally.