A nuclear war is frighteningly easy to start
Previously, I've written about the threat Donald Trump poses to American democracy. Yet, for all the frightening signs we've seen on that front, I doubt it could happen overnight. In spite of his open admiration for Putin's authoritarianism, I doubt he could get America to full Putinism in four to eight years. Probably the worst-case scenario is turning America into what scholars have called a hybrid regime, like Singapore or Russia in the 90s. Many of the other nightmare scenarios Trump could cause—such as provoking a military coup—would probably similarly require a gradual weakening of America's institutions first. But there is one threat that would not take years to play out, that could happen with frightening speed. That threat is nuclear war.
Forgive me if I start by stating to obvious: it is not the official policy of the US government to metamorphose into a brutal dictatorship under the right circumstances. Nor does are military openly formulate contingency plans to overthrow the government just in case they ever decide it's necessary. But we do make plans for nuclear war. Sane people see those plans as existing only for deterrence, but the plans exist all the same. And if we aren't perfectly capable of launching the missiles if we really wanted to, we'd run the risk that one day a Russian or Chinese spy would discover that fact, and our deterrent would be useless.
As a result, not only is nuclear war possible, but there are people whose job it is to make sure it isn't so unlikely as to give hostile nation-states ideas. The details sound mad the first time you hear them, so much so that when I was writing this article, I lost track of the number of other articles I'd end up reading on the subject, hoping one of them could provide a counterpoint that the situation is not so mad as it sounds. Yet every article only confirmed what I already knew. The best short summary I managed to find comes from an article by Rep. Ted Lieu:
When I served on active duty in the United States Air Force, one of my duties was to teach the Law of War. Under both international and domestic law, the United States is authorized to have nuclear weapons. To initiate a launch of weapons of mass destruction, it requires the approval of the National Command Authority (NCA). That’s an impressive sounding name, but the NCA consists of only two people: The President and his political appointee, the Secretary of Defense.
Congress can reject a President’s use of force, but only two months later. Under the War Powers Act of 1973, the President needs to obtain congressional authorization for the use of military force after 60 days of a military conflict. Published reports state an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead can strike within half an hour. By the time Congress is even authorized to act after the President has launched nuclear weapons, there may no longer be a civilized world in which to do so.
Furthermore, experts have argued that the Secretary of Defense's role is supposed to be limited to confirming the president's identity. According to the New York Times:
Bruce G. Blair, a research scholar at Princeton University who as an Air Force officer would have launched a nuclear missile if an order had come from the president, said that rule applied in the silos but not at the top of the command chain.
“There’s nothing the secretary of defense can do,” Dr. Blair, who wrote a book on nuclear command and control, said in an interview. “He has no authority to refuse or disobey that order.”
Mr. Sagan, the Stanford expert, agreed, but noted that there were other ways for the secretary of defense to slow things down. “I think we’d be in uncharted waters if a president ordered the use of nuclear weapons and the secretary of defense refused to concur,” he said. “This has never happened.” No one, he added, could predict what would ensue if the nation’s top defense official tried to declare that the president was unfit to issue such an order.
“In some scenarios,” Mr. Sagan added, “such as an unprovoked nuclear attack by a president in peacetime, a constitutional crisis would be more likely than a prompt following of rules regarding succession and command authority.”
One possible, and troubling, outcome is that the president could get his way by firing the Secretary of Defense and getting the Deputy Secretary of Defense to confirm the order. (This would be analogous to Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre", which I've previously mentioned.)
As erratic as Trump's behavior is, I don't expect him to nuke China on a whim on day one. But this brings me to the second way in which a nuclear war may be frighteningly easy to start: crises can spiral out of control quickly. There are people who claim the risk of nuclear war was never all that high even during the Cold War—don't believe them. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, one Russian submarine almost launched its nuclear missiles after the crew lost contact with their superiors. Very likely human civilization still exists today because a single member of the crew, Vasili Arkipov, talked his fellow officers out of it. We came that close.
What kinds of crises could spiral out of control during the Trump administration? Taiwan is the one that leaps most readily to mind, especially thanks to Trump's recent phone call with Taiwan's president. Yet I also think war with Russia is a real possibility. Initially, I dismissed this notion, based on Trump's obvious admiration for Putin, but then someone pointed out to me that Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy almost went to war after Austrian Nazi's assassinated Austria's Chancellor, who Mussolini had supported. It's not hard to imagine Putin thinking Trump would be okay with a Russian invasion of Estonia, only to have Trump decide it was an insult after the fact, or Trump attempting to steal Syrian oil that Putin had assumed Assad would get control of.
This is why it's so very important that level-headed, experienced people filling key cabinet posts. I'd also add that what's most frightening about Trump's—and many of his appointees'—obvious Russia sympathies is not that we must take the most aggressive possible position at every step of the game, but that we don't want to send mixed signals about things like our NATO allies. (Personally, I'd go for a bit less aggression regarding Syria, where there's a shortage of clear good guys, or compelling reasons to be involved.)