Americans Have a Choice Between Two Insane Options. They are forced to choose between an insane foreign policy and an insane nuclear weapons policy. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend (I’ll call him “Johnny”.) who is the president of a prominent geopolitical think-tank that focuses on international security issues. The issue of nuclear proliferation came up because of Donald Trump’s comments about the possibility of encouraging Japan and other U.S. allies to protect themselves with their own nuclear weapons. In Trump’s opinion, the U.S. should not be subsidizing the national security budgets of other states. What follows below is a summary of my comments to Johnny.
Examples of U.S. Defense Treaties. Whether the U.S. should or should not protect other countries is a complex issue. Let’s start with a basic observation: There is a difference between “protection” from bona fide threats and “power projection” to support an agenda of economic imperialism. “Protection” means the U.S. Government has legally-binding treaty obligations to protect an allied country if/when that country is attacked by another hostile power. Examples of such arrangements are NATO, ANZUS, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, IATRA, the Taiwan Relations Act, among others. (The U.S. Government’s informal pledge to support Israel has emerged as a de facto treaty, but it has no legally-binding effect.)
Thomas Jefferson’s Warning Against Entangling Alliances. The U.S. has entered into defense treaties to protect approximately 25% of Earth’s entire human population. This is a significant deviation from Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America as conveyed in his first inaugural address: “. . . peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” So far, the U.S. Government’s sprawling defense treaty entanglements have not sucked Americans into any large-scale military conflicts since the end of World War II, but that may not be true in the future. (Of course, the U.S. Government has manufactured many of its own conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Guatemala, Panama, Grenada, etc., without the prodding of any entangling alliances.)
Should the U.S. be Responsible for Protecting 25% of Earth’s Population? In the world of investing, our mantra is “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” The same should be said with respect to defense treaties. Jefferson understood this, and if France, Germany, Austria-Hungry, and Russia had understood this prior to World War I, that war and World War II would probably not have resulted in the greatest catastrophes in human history. In reality, defense treaties are a lazy mechanism of enforcing peace and stability. Every situation and conflict should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. What may be in a country’s national interest at one point in time may not be in its interest at another time. This reality can be confirmed by observing how the U.S. Government has cherry-picked which treaties it wants to comply with and its mixed human rights record, which violates many other treaties.
The Unevenly Distributed Economic Benefits of Defense Treaties. One unspoken benefit that the U.S. receives from being the world’s police officer is that it can negotiate with foreign governments to open up their markets to U.S. corporations and provide favorable trade conditions in exchange for military protection. In previous generations when the U.S. had a robust manufacturing sector and diverse exports this was a significant benefit, which resulted in substantial trade surpluses and wealth for a broad swath of the American population. However, given decades of massive trade deficits and a hollowed-out export sector, the benefits of U.S. economic imperialism have accrued almost exclusively to the largest U.S. weapons, aerospace, telecom, and pharmaceutical corporations that have used their size and legalized monopolies to dominate international markets with very little benefit to mainstream American citizens. Most importantly, the success of these large corporations has been subsidized by taxpayer-funded defense treaties and associated global U.S. military operations.
Putting the Risk of Nuclear Proliferation into Context. About 1.7 to 2 million people have already died because of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1990s, including war deaths and starvation from inhumane economic sanctions. (See WikiLeaks cables on this topic if you want proof.) And there have been many millions more deaths since 1945. Over 80% of those deaths were innocent women and children. It would require an extremely low-probability nuclear disaster scenario to match the human devastation already wrought upon the world by the existing U.S. political establishment, with no end in sight. I say “low-probability” because a Hiroshima-scale-or-greater death toll would require many low-yield detonations simultaneously or one high-yield detonation in a population-dense metro, which is highly improbable given the technical difficulty of building (or obtaining) and deploying high-yield devices. Thus, the next nuclear bomb disaster (either accidental or deliberate) will almost certainly result in a death toll within the same order of magnitude of 9/11, i.e., several dozen to 30,000 deaths.
The Probability of a Global Nuclear Disaster is Extremely Low. We all know that even one lost human life is too many, and Trump’s current nuclear proliferation policy could potentially lead to a significant loss of life, but such an event would be a localized, low-yield detonation, unlikely to come anywhere close to the loss of life that we’re already witnessing from existing U.S. foreign policies. And there is no realistic scenario in which non-state terrorists or warring nation-states would have the means and the will to simultaneously detonate at least 150 mid- to high-yield nukes, which is what would be necessary to disrupt Earth’s atmosphere and global agriculture. (This was another concern voiced by my friend, Johnny.)
Visualizing the Political Environment After a Nuclear Disaster. Let’s visualize the day after the next nuclear bomb disaster (as contemplated above): Now what? The aftermath of the next disaster would trigger so much global outrage that it would finally create the political resolve necessary for all nations to come together to eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all . . . or at least commit to a more rational nuclear security regime governed by an imperfect United Nations. Unfortunately, only in a political environment like that—after the next major tragedy—will the international community potentially have enough political power to finally force the U.S. Government to acknowledge its hypocrisy and poor Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) performance. That is the only realistic scenario in which the U.S., Russia, and China would be willing to simultaneously commit to a full and verifiable ban on all nukes and force their satellite states (Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Iran, etc.) to dismantle their nuclear programs, too.
Nothing Will be Resolved by the Existing U.S. Political Establishment. Sadly, until the next nuclear disaster occurs, the political establishment in the U.S. (which we all know is dominated by nuke-loving war-hawks and their special interest parasites) will never feel enough political pressure to abandon the U.S. Government’s existing insane nuclear policy. That means Russia and China will never abandon their nuclear programs, which means Israel and other middle-power states will continue thinking they’re entitled to have nukes, too. This game will continue to anger all the developing nations who are disgusted by the hypocrisy and unfairness of the whole system. As a result, none of these problems will ever be resolved by the existing U.S. political establishment.
Deciphering Trump’s Position on Nuclear Weapons. Trump’s position on nuclear weapons proliferation can be difficult to decipher because his speech patterns are sometimes incoherent, but that doesn’t mean we can’t discern his overall perspective on the issue. This list of “9 terrifying things Donald Trump has publicly said about nuclear weapons” provides a condensed list of Trump quotes on this subject. (Note: That source organization has a history of left bias, but the page is just a list of Trump quotes in their proper context; so there’s not a lot of editorializing.) Based on his own words, the essence of Trump’s position is clear: He believes the U.S. Government “cannot afford to be the military and the police for the world” and “all options should be on the table.”
Trump’s Nuclear Negotiating Tactics Are the Same as All U.S. Presidents. Despite all the partisan mudslinging, Trump’s observations reflect a logical and accurate reflection of reality and they represent the typical noncommittal negotiating strategy of all U.S. presidents since President Truman in 1945. Trump’s sloppy delivery is what gets him into trouble, which can be a significant liability as a commander-in-chief. This is the fundamental source of the current controversy about his nuclear weapons policy. However, Trump is the only U.S. presidential candidate in the Nuclear Age that has enough political and financial independence to chart a different course than his predecessors, which is possible if he surrounds himself with the right people.
The Worst-Case Nuclear Trump Scenario. Set aside all the over-exaggerated partisan hysteria for a moment. Based on everything we’ve discussed so far, this is the most realistic worst-case scenario: Trump inspires Japan and others to go nuclear and the world witnesses another localized nuclear bomb disaster. This scenario actually seems inevitable based on both the existing insane U.S. nuclear policy and Trump’s insane nuclear policy. However, in both cases, the next disaster will simply result in the situation I’ve described above, which sadly, is the only situation that will result in enough global outrage and political will to address the root cause of the nuclear proliferation problems that existed long before the rise of Trump.
Partisan Problems Can Only be Resolved with Nonpartisan Solutions. Everything starts and stops with the hypocrisy of the existing U.S. political establishment. To be clear, Trump’s comments about nuclear proliferation are sloppy and they create all kinds of confusion about his intentions; and I don’t agree with all the details (or lack thereof) of Trump’s policies and lifestyle choices. However, the American people have a far better chance of addressing the foreign policy problems that cause current and future nuclear proliferation with a candidate like Trump than with candidates with names like Clinton or Bush. This is not about partisan politics; it’s about understanding precisely how and why both major U.S. political parties have created the toxic nuclear and foreign policies that the entire world is suffering from today.
Electoral Reform is the Only Sustainable Solution to Nuclear Proliferation. For all the reasons above, I frequently say: The only realistic way to eliminate the scourge of nuclear proliferation and achieve peace and stability (at least for Americans) is to implement meaningful electoral reforms to eliminate the toxic dysfunction within the U.S. electoral system. Nothing else will eliminate the military-industrial-complex distortions and special interest parasites that dominate the U.S. Government’s insane nuclear weapons policies and its criminally incompetent foreign policies.