“I too have a nuclear button”: How Donald Trump’s views on nukes have gone backwards over time
Since I first published this piece back in August 2017, President Trump has continued to up the rhetorical war with Kim Jong Un, even if the actual weapon-based war has yet to materialise. Most recently, he tweeted that his nuclear button is “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong Un’s, while goading the North Korean leader on his country’s sanctions.
It’s fair to say this obnoxious foreign policy by social media is a new development, though back in October 2017, the president sought to place his hawkish position alongside recent leaders who’ve had to deal with the North Korean question:
Overlooking the fact that “Rocket Man” (Trump’s slightly weak name for Kim Jong Un) has only been in power since 2012, this does at least give us some historical context to the president’s predecessors. But Trump’s views on nuclear war haven’t always been quite so black and white, as the article below will explain…
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According to the Doomsday Clock – the timepiece that measures how close we are to nuclear armageddon – the time is two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. That’s not a good place to be, but the truth might be even worse if you happen to be in a different timezone. Off the top of my head, let’s just say it looks considerably bleaker for anyone sitting in Pyongyang or New York right now.
Why? Because Donald Trump has opened his diplomatically insensitive mouth again, this time to goad North Korea over its persistent threats to the USA. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told journalists at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey. “They will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen.”
The statement didn’t work: within an hour, North Korea had again threatened the USA – this time, the American territory of Guam in Micronesia. “If the red line he drew today was ‘North Korea cannot threaten the US any more,’ that line was crossed within an hour of him making that statement,” said John Delury, associate professor of Chinese studies at Seoul-based Yonsei University, to CNBC.
For years, the US has held a restrained note when dealing with the secretive state over fears of kicking off World War 3. In 1994, the US did consider military action against North Korea, but projections of up to one million deaths made them think again. Twenty-three years later, the world is a very different place, and with North Korea’s nuclear programme suitably advanced, one million deaths seems optimistic – a phrase it’s never pleasant to write. North Korea now has nuclear weapons capable – it claims – of hitting the US mainland. Any strike against the country, even if it achieved its military aims of dealing with the Kim Jong dynasty, would almost certainly result in strikes against the West too – and that’s not even considering the land-based military’s ability to exact revenge on South Korea. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction would have failed catastrophically.
We can’t say we weren’t warned.
The video above, shared by Hillary Clinton before the US decided to bet it all on red, shows some of Trump’s more worrying thoughts on nuclear war. Sure, it’s a campaign advert paid for by Hillary for America, but the beauty of running against Donald Trump was that you didn’t really need to twist his words. His words are clear: he doesn’t believe that nuclear weapon stocks should be reduced, as has been the global trend over the past few decades.
The weakness, of course, is that ultimately it didn’t matter. Trump was elected. So what do we know about his attitude to the end of the world?
The most worrying anecdote, as alluded to in the video above, was his briefing with an unnamed foreign policy expert. According to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, Trump couldn’t see the downside of a nuclear strike. “Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump,” said Scarborough. “And three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point if we had them, why can’t we use them.”
It’s important to note that Trump denied the anecdote had any truth to it at the time, but then he also denied saying global warming was invented by the Chinese, when the evidence is still right there on Twitter’s servers and has been retweeted over 100,000 times.
But Trump’s views on nuclear weapons are – or at least were – a little more nuanced than his recent outbursts on the subject would suggest. In 1987, he met reporter Ron Rosenbaum – who at the time was working for Manhattan Inc. Rosenbaum had agreed to meet Trump – then a humble business tycoon – because he reportedly had some thoughts on how to scale back the threat of nuclear war. Rosenbaum was sceptical of this, but agreed to meet Trump anyway. As he wrote this year, recounting the event:
“When I sat down to lunch with him to ask him about his nuclear ideas, I was trying to strike a balance between two conflicting internal reactions: snark at Trump’s demeanour – there was his extended, odd riff about Muammar Qaddafi’s pilot, for example, a key source according to Trump. There was an implication that we needed to bomb the French to stop them from supplying the Libyans. And yet on the other hand, it was an undeniably serious subject that deserved more attention.”
Trump claimed to be in high-level discussions with the White House of the time, when it was run by another celebrity-turned-statesman: Ronald Reagan. You can read the whole piece over at Slate, but Trump’s overall tactical plan seemed to involve opening up negotiation channels with Russia, so that together the two could apply pressure upon nations such as Pakistan and Libya (it was 1987), forcing them into giving up their respective nuclear ambitions. Here’s the relevant paragraph (just one: even if Trump’s worldview has shifted, his verbosity hasn’t):
“Most of those [pre-nuclear] countries are in one form or another dominated by the US and the Soviet Union,” Trump says. “Between those two nations you have the power to dominate any of those countries. So we should use our power of economic retaliation and they use their powers of retaliation and between the two of us we will prevent the problem from happening. It would have been better having done something five years ago,” he says. “But I believe even a country such as Pakistan would have to do something now. Five years from now they’ll laugh.”
He was talking about sanctions. And to be entirely fair to Trump, this is something he’s been reasonably consistent about.
“Maybe we should offer them something. I’m saying you start off as nicely as possible. You apply as much pressure as necessary until you achieve the goal. You start off telling them, ‘Let’s get rid of it.’ If that doesn’t work you then start cutting off aid. And more aid and then more. You do whatever is necessary so these people will have riots in the street, so they can’t get water. So they can’t get Band-Aids, so they can’t get food. Because that’s the only thing that’s going to do it – the people, the riots.”
Trump’s view on the importance of sanctions still seem to be in place. He’s extremely proud of the UN’s unanimous decision to increase sanctions to North Korea. What is less clear is whether his underlying motivations have changed: does he believe the US should use the weapons, or does he just want the world to think he’d use them. It could be the mirror image of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “speak softly – carry a big stick” mantra.
“I don’t know how seriously they take him there [in US government]”, Rosenbaum finished his piece in 1987 by saying. In a strange way, that remains the problem 30 years later. Do you take Trump at his word, or view this as yet another quote that seemed to make sense at the time, only to be quickly disowned and denounced as yet more fake news?
As ever, there’s an evergreen Donald Trump tweet to play this article out:
Four years later, World War 3 hasn’t started. Yet.