Caligula Goes Covid: Nuclear Perils of Trump’s Last Days
Prof. Louis René Beres
“The air tonight is as heavy as the sum of human sorrows.”-Albert Camus, Caligula
It is no longer just hyperbole. Still armed with nuclear weapons, a conspicuously deranged American president may be willing to do anything to cling to power. And if that willingness should appear futile, Donald J. Trump could conceivably prefer apocalypse to “surrender.”
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” In these presumptively final days of the Trump presidency, an impaired or irrational nuclear command decision remains possible. Though nothing can be determined about the true mathematical probability of any such once unimaginable scenario, there are increasingly compelling reasons for concern. One of these reasons is Mr. Trump’s bizarre eleventh-hour shakeup at the Department of Defense.
Americans have let these urgent matters drift too long. Nonetheless, despite evident lateness of the hour, a summarizing query must finally be raised: Should this visibly impaired president still be allowed to decide when and where to launch American nuclear weapons? This is not a silly or trivial question.
In the early days of the Nuclear Age, when strategic weapon-survivability was still uncertain, granting presidential authority for immediate firing command was necessary to ensure credible nuclear deterrence. Today, however, when there no longer exists any reasonable basis to doubt America’s durable second-strike nuclear capability (sometimes also called an “assured destruction” or undiminished retaliatory capability), there remains no good argument for continuing to grant the president (any president) such potentially problematic decisional authority.
More general questions should now also be raised.
In our expansively imperiled democracy, ought any American president be permitted to hold such precarious life or death power over the entire country?
Inter alia, could such an allowance still be consistent with a Constitutional “separation of powers?”
Can anyone reasonably believe that such existential power could ever have been favored by America’s Founding Fathers?
The correct answers are apparent, obvious and starkly uncomplicated.
We can readily extrapolate from Articles I and II of the Constitution that the Founders had profound concern about Presidential power long before the advent of nuclear weapons. This concern predates even any imagination of apocalyptic warfare possibilities. So what next?
As a legal and strategic scholar, I have been personally concerned about such fearful issues for exactly fifty years, though in a generic rather than president-specific sense. On 14 March 1976, in response to my then-detailed query concerning American nuclear weapons launch authority, I received a letter back from General (USA/ret.) Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The focus of this letter concerned assorted nuclear risks of US presidential irrationality. Most noteworthy, in this handwritten letter (attached hereto), was the riveting and timeless warning in General Taylor’s closing paragraph.
Ideally, Taylor had wisely cautioned, presidential irrationality is a grave problem that should be dealt with very early on; that is, during the election process.
“….the best protection,” I was then informed about a prospectively irrational American president, “is not to elect one…” Of course, at this late juncture, we are already confronted with a strategic fait accompli, that is, the realistic prospect of a tangibly impaired American president.
So what do we do now?
To begin, we must inquire, with a more narrow but still fact-centered focus: “What is current US governing policy on nuclear weapons launch authority?” This query is not only vital per se, especially perhaps after Trump was given anti-viral therapeutics that can produce clinically manic personality effects, but also because of this president’s strangely willing subordination to his Russian counterpart.
Why does Donald J. Trump always take such great pains to exonerate Vladimir Putin from the slightest hint of interference or wrongdoing?
In principle, at least, there are extant and codified safeguards against presidential impairment. To be sure, pertinent protocols are already in place. Among other things, structural protections are expressly built into any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, including very substantial and reinforcing redundancies. But virtually all of these safeguards are designed to become operative only at the lower or sub-presidential nuclear command levels.
In essence, therefore, these safeguards do not apply to the Commander-in-Chief; to the elected President of the United States. Donald J. Trump, the current US president, is plainly instructing his senior cabinet secretaries to prepare for a second term. This is not a silly aberration. It is (as Caligula would likely have said in ancient Rome) a “portentous omen.”
What relevant protocols do actually obtain? Arguably, there exist no permissible legal grounds to disobey a presidential order to use nuclear weapons. Certain senior figures in the designated military chain of command could sometime choose to invoke applicable “Nuremberg Obligations” (international law-based obligations to disobey), but any such last-minute effort to thwart a presidential nuclear command directive would almost certainly yield to more recognizable commands of US domestic and military law.
There is more. Given the vast levels of legal illiteracy in the United States, it is unlikely that a clear-thinking participant anywhere in this country’s nuclear chain of command would ever place sufficient personal confidence in the “soft” norms of international law. This is the case even though such norms are already “incorporated” unambiguously and convincingly into the laws of the United States.
Immediately, appropriate scenarios ought to be suitably postulated and critically examined. Should an outgoing President Donald J. Trump, operating within a dissembling chaos of his own making, issue an impaired, intemperate, irrational or seemingly irrational nuclear command, the only way for the (Acting) Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Adviser and several possible others to effectively obstruct this potentially catastrophic order would be “illegal.” Under the best of imaginable circumstances, such informal safeguards might sometime manage to work for a limited time, but for now, all time is plainly “limited time.”
Accepting the unrealistic assumption of a “best case scenario” would represent a foolhardy final approach to US nuclear security. This is most markedly the case at this perilous time of worldwide microbial assault, a time when the “pandemic variable” could quickly become paralyzing and determinative in its own right. What then?
Already, the US is navigating erratically in “uncharted waters.” While President John F. Kennedy did engage in personal nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union back in October 1962, he had calculated his own odds of a consequent nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.” This curiously precise calculation, corroborated both by JFK biographer Theodore Sorensen and by my own private conversations with former JCS Chair Admiral Arleigh Burke (my professional colleague and week-long roommate at the Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference of 1977) suggests that President Kennedy had been (a) technically irrational in imposing his Cuban “quarantine;” or (b) wittingly acting out certain untested principles of “pretended irrationality.” And this was not during a bewildering time of “plague.”
What has been learned?
More precisely, what are this country’s present-day analytic “coordinates?”
Currently, the most urgent threats of a mistaken, irrational or deranged US presidential order to use nuclear weapons flow not from any “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack – whether Russian, North Korean or American – but from some potentially uncontrollable process of escalation. Back in 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “blinked” early on in the “game,” thereby preventing any mutual and irrecoverable nuclear harms. Now, however, certain escalatory initiatives undertaken by US President Donald J. Trump could express uniquely unstable decision-making processes.
Moreover, all of this could unravel in the blink of an eye, and at a moment of genuinely cascading presidential incoherence.
What shall be done? Above all, at least to the residual extent possible, Trump’s key advisors on such matters (those yet to be fired) should be brought to understand the true problem. Prima facie, no one can adequately decipher the risks of being locked into an escalatory dynamic from which there could be no choice, save outright capitulation or nuclear war. These would be unprecedented risks.
None of these circumstances would resemble the civilian “crisis-settings” Trump previously encountered in his commercial deal-making life. Although this law-defiling president might sometime be well advised to seek “escalation dominance” in legitimate crisis situations, he would need to avoid placing the United States in such volatile circumstances in the first place.
Therein lies the rub.
Is this president morally and intellectually prepared for making such imperative but complicated judgments?
At a minimum, the Acting Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and one or two others in appropriate nuclear command positions should prepare immediately to assure broadly collaborative judgments in extremis atomicum. Although it is reasonable to assume that some such preparations are already well underway, there is also good reason to expect that this outgoing president’snewest Defense Department appointments would act only in visceral obedience to Trump commands (even if the daunting matters at hand should appear prospectively existential) and that Trump’smultiple insecurities and personal derangements would obfuscate any needed decisional challenges.
Language matters. In all such complex and multi-layered strategic matters, terminological distinctions will need to be made explicit. Whether applied to an adversarial decision-maker (national or sub-national) or to Donald J. Trump alone, “irrational” has a specific meaning. It does not mean “crazy” or “mad.”
There is more. Looking ahead, fateful expressions of US presidential irrationality could take various and subtle forms. When made manifest, these traits could remain indecipherable or latent for a very long time, and include the following: a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate correctly or efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular strategic decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any still-operative structure of collective decision-making.
From the singularly critical standpoint of US nuclear weapons launch authority, legitimate reasons to worry about the rapidly dissembling Trump presidency need not hinge on any accurate expectations of “craziness” or “madness.” Rather, looking over the above list of problematic decisional traits, there is good cause not just for amorphous or undefined worry (that sort of worry would not represent rational or purposeful reaction), but for (1) readily visible non-partisan objectivity; and (2) carefully developed analytic prudence. On this last valued criterion of presidential decision-making, Donald J. Trump would need to bear carefully in mind certain core conceptual distinctions between deliberate and inadvertent (unintentional) nuclear war. Also significant would be the differences between inadvertent nuclear war by accident and inadvertent nuclear war by miscalculation.
Whatever the particular nuclear-war scenarios for which any US president must make himself prepared, a verifiably common feature would be complexity. Back in March 1976, US General Maxwell Taylor advised me by letter (attached here) that the “best protection” against an irrational American president is “not to elect one.” Regarding the gravely incoherent presidency of Donald J. Trump, this optimal level of national protection is no longer available. All that we can do now is take vital 11th hour steps to best ensure a capable and stable US nuclear decisional posture.
Realistically, in view of this president’s strangely refractory position on staying in power, it may already be too late.
The needed stance would be one wherein a predictably nefarious and bewildered Donald J. Trump could still be held appropriately in check. Although any past juxtaposition of “derangement” with an American president would have seemed gratuitously disrespectful, and perhaps even outrageous, these are strikingly different times. Today, it is the willful disregard for a now plausible juxtaposition that would defy US citizen responsibility and defile the Republic.
This is no longer mere hyperbole.
At this grievous point in America’s Trump-created declension, anything seems possible.
History deserves pride of place. Soon, any such disregard for plausible national harms could prove unconscionable. In the chaotic 1st century CE, long before political democracy could ever seem sustainable and long before nuclear weapons, Roman Emperor Caligula revealed the overwhelmingly lethal costs of barbarous governance. Today, a democratically defeated American president, clinging wrongfully to political power and expressing this egregious dereliction during a period of “plague,” could produce even less bearable costs. At that nation-destroying point, the “air would be as heavy as the sum of human sorrows.”
History may not repeat itself, observed Mark Twain, “but it often rhymes.” Donald J. Trump may not be quite as decadent or depraved as Caligula, but he may not be that far removed either. Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient Romans. “I believe because it is absurd.”
Donald J. Trump is not Caligula, but he is a sinister stain upon the integrity and survival of the United States.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy