Aaron David Miller, alliances, Carol Lee, Chris Matthews MSNBC, Cold War, Department of Energy, deterrence, Donald Trump, Ernest Moniz, Europe, extended deterrence, foreign policy, Gwen Ifill, John Kasich, John Spellar, Judy Woodruff, national security, NATO, NewsHour, North Atlantic treaty Organization, nuclear weapons, Obama, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, PBS, Soviet Union, Tina Nguyen, Vanity Fair, Wall Street Journal, Washington Week
Wow! Imagine if America ever got a president totally ignorant of the nation’s nuclear weapons strategy? He (or she) could blow us all up!
These fears have been all over the news in the wake of Donald Trump’s statement last week that he wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons to deal with a crisis in Europe. But here’s what the nation’s politicians and media classes overwhelmingly haven’t reported: It looks like America has a president like that right now, and has had one since 2009, in the form of Barack Obama. For resorting to nuclear weapons in response to threats to Europe’s security isn’t some reckless position being spouted by an unconventional presidential candidate. It’s been a central element of U.S. national security strategy – including toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that continues to bind Europe’s fate to America’s – since the Cold War began, and remains so today.
Opposing or questioning this foreign policy approach (as I do) is completely legitimate. But it’s completely ignorant to dispute that, soon after the end of World War II, Washington quickly decided against trying to match Soviet conventional forces on the Continent man-for-man and tank-for-tank, and that American leaders ever since have viewed nuclear weapons and the threat to use them as their great military equalizer. Moreover, the nuclear arms have always included – and still include – tactical weapons intended to be used on European battlefields.
Of course, the United States has ardently hoped that these devices would never have to be used. The idea behind the policy was that the prospect alone would keep the Red Army on the east side of the Iron Curtain. That is, they principally have been a deterrent. But their deterrent effect depended entirely on the threat’s credibility.
Yesterday, however, President Obama strongly indicated that this decades-old policy is news to him – and that he rejects it. Asked by a reporter to describe the message sent by Trump’s Europe and other alliance-related nuclear strategy statements, the president responded, “They tell us that the person who made the statements doesn’t know much about foreign policy or nuclear policy or the Korean peninsula or the world generally. It came up on the sidelines.”
It’s possible that Mr. Obama didn’t intend this description to apply to Trump’s Europe position specifically. But there’s no doubt that his Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz, did. Moniz, whose agency is “responsible for ensuring the integrity and safety of the nation’s nuclear weapons,” called the Republican front-runner’s remarks “extremely troubling, obviously,” and the kind of election talk that is “just bluntly irresponsible and is detrimental to our internal allies security posture.”
Comparable ignorance was expressed by one of Trump’s Republican presidential rivals, John Kasich. The Ohio Governor calls himself “the candidate in this race with the deepest and most far-reaching foreign policy and national security experience.” Yet he condemned Trump for “actually [talking] about the use of nuclear weapons, both in the Middle East and in Europe.” Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator for Democratic and Republican administrations, acquitted himself so better, labeling Trump’s words “reckless.”
Nor have many Europeans covered themselves with glory. According to John Spellar, a former British defense minister during the Tony Blair years, Trump’s views on nuclear weapons use in Europe are “ignorant and irresponsible” and show that “Clearly he has no understanding of defence and security.”
Journalists – especially political journalists – generally aren’t expected to know as much about policy as policymakers (or even as policy reporters). But given their role in transmitting policy-related news to the public, including in election years, their own apparent cluelessness is eminently worth noting. Deserving this label are all the media mainstays who clearly found Trump’s Europe views even the slightest bit newsworthy in the first place, let alone surprising and/or outrageous – like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (who used to work for a Speaker of the House and elicited the original Trump remarks in an interview), and The Wall Street Journal‘s Carol Lee (who sought President Obama’s reaction).
At least none of the scribes turned in a performance as pathetic as Vanity Fair‘s Tina Nguyen – who told her readers that Trump’s remarks were not only “horrifying” but should “automatically disqualify him for the presidency.” But then again…Vanity Fair.
In fairness, some reporters did make the link between Trump’s statements and longstanding American policy. Judy Woodruff of The NewsHour observed that “In fact, U.S. presidents by tradition do not rule out the use of nuclear weapons.” But not even this incontrovertible fact was enough to prevent one of her PBS colleagues – Washington Week anchor Gwen Ifill – from casting aspersions on Trump. As Ifill acknowledged (in a partially inaccurate way), “most presidents would not take things off the table.” But she felt compelled to add, “but this seemed a little extreme.”
It’s true that this American presidents have never openly and explicitly proclaimed that their Europe and other alliance policies deliberately put New York and Washington and Los Angeles at risk to protect London and Paris and Tokyo. But it’s also true that this strategy is as widely known in foreign policy circles – including in undergraduate classrooms – as the separation of powers is known in political science circles. The flap over Trump’s nuclear remarks shows that America’s politics, policy, and media are indeed full of too much know-nothing-ism. But it also makes painfully clear that lots of it’s coming from the very establishment that keeps bewailing it – including from the Oval Office.