Last week we saw another installment of the media malpractice that has plagued the 2016 campaign. NBC’s Matt Lauer was widely criticized for his performance moderating the network’s Commander-in-Chief Forum, especially his failure to correct Donald Trump’s repetition of the lie that he opposed the invasion of Iraq. But another mistake has been getting far less attention. The nationally televised event yielded little serious debate about the many great security challenges facing the United States today, including perhaps the single most urgent threat on the planet: nuclear weapons.
Though Hillary Clinton was asked about the Iran nuclear deal, there was no discussion of nonproliferation or the perils of nuclear weapons in general. For that, to be fair, Lauer is only partially to blame. The unfortunate reality is that, at a time when experts have warned that the danger of a nuclear disaster is on the rise, neither of the major-party nominees has said much about it.
The nuclear threat was briefly in the headlines this summer when MSNBC’S Joe Scarborough rather melodramatically reported that Trump, in a private briefing, had repeatedly asked a national security expert why the United States could not use its nuclear weapons. The Trump campaign denied the report, but his comments on the record are similarly frightening. As Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione has said of Trump, “He talks about nuclear weapons very loosely, casually — as if they’re just another tool in the toolbox.”
For instance, Trump has stated on multiple occasions that “you want to be unpredictable” with nuclear weapons. If the Islamic State strikes in the United States, he has suggested we should “fight back with a nuke.” He declined to rule out deploying nuclear weapons in Europe, saying, “Europe is a big place. I’m not going to take cards off the table.” And he explicitly said he would not object to Japan acquiring a nuclear weapon because “it’s not like, gee whiz, nobody has them.”
Clinton has seized on Trump’s reckless comments as evidence that he isn’t fit to command our nuclear arsenal. “A man you can bait with a tweet,” she has taken to saying, “is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
For a candidate so fond of touting her plans, though, Clinton has offered very few details about how she would approach the nuclear threat if elected. As of late last month, the “Issues” section of Clinton’s website featured 65 briefs totaling 112,735 words. (Trump’s, by contrast, tallied around 9,000 words.) But as Columbia University journalism and sociology professor Todd Gitlin recently documented, there were only three mentions of nuclear weapons among Clinton’s many position statements: two related to the Iran deal and one referencing the New START treaty negotiated with Russia during her tenure at the State Department.
Trump’s nuclear rhetoric is clearly alarming, but so is the nuclear status quo. There are more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, with the United States and Russia keeping nearly 2,000 on hair-trigger alert. Though the treaty with Russia included significant weapons reductions, the Obama administration has also committed to “modernizing” our nuclear arsenal at a cost of $1 trillion over three decades. The National Nuclear Security Administration announced last month that it had completed development and testing of the United States’ first “smart” nuclear bomb, slated for full-scale production in 2020.
And despite rumors that President Obama would pursue “major nuclear policy changes” as part of his legacy over the final months of his term, he has reportedly decided against declaring “no first use” of nuclear weapons, long an unwritten rule, as official U.S. policy. Certifying that the United States will only use nuclear weapons as a last resort would be especially significant given the possibility that Trump could end up with unchecked power to launch a nuclear strike.
Now, eight years after Obama campaigned on his vision of “a world without nuclear weapons,” the nuclear threat is escalating. “The danger of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger,” warns William J. Perry, defense secretary under Bill Clinton. Likewise, Eric Schlosser — whose 2013 book, “Command and Control,” has been turned into an important new documentary — says that “pure luck” is the main reason there has not been a nuclear disaster already.
In an election dominated by spectacle and confrontation, many policy issues have fallen by the wayside. But as the nuclear peril intensifies, we desperately need to have a real debate about issues such as the first use of nuclear weapons, taking our nuclear arsenal off hair-trigger alert, and at last ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that President Clinton signed 20 years ago this month. Reports that North Korea conducted a nuclear test in recent days underscore the need for a new approach to this challenge.
And while there is no doubt that Trump is unfit, Clinton should put forward a serious nuclear weapons policy that doesn’t fit in a tweet. To start, she can reaffirm her support for Obama’s vision during her time as secretary of state, when she argued, “We can’t afford to continue relying on recycled Cold War thinking.” Clinton should make it clear that nonproliferation and elimination of nuclear weapons are not a utopian dream, but a security imperative, and that she meant it when she said, “We are sincere in our pursuit of a secure peaceful world without nuclear weapons.”