People who are worried by the prospect of President Donald Trump are often reminded of the checks and balances in the American system. The US president is not a dictator. He is constrained by the constitution, the courts and the Congress.
But there is one area where checks and balances do not apply: nuclear weapons. Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president, explained the situation clearly in 2008, when he told an interviewer: “The president of the United States for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorised to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world’s never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody. He doesn’t have to call the Congress. He doesn’t have to check with the courts.”
The president’s powers are even more extensive than those described by Mr Cheney. The US is not committed to a doctrine of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons. So Mr Trump could order a nuclear strike against an adversary, even if the US itself had not been attacked.
The idea that Mr Trump is too erratic to have his finger on the (mythical) nuclear button was brought up repeatedly during the presidential election campaign. Hillary Clinton pointed out that only four minutes would elapse between the president giving the order for a nuclear attack and the US launching its missiles. Since president-elect Trump will be the commander-in-chief, no one further down the chain-of-command would have the legal authority to countermand his order. During the campaign, a group of US military officers who once controlled access to the launch of nuclear weapons published an open letter arguing that Mr Trump is unfit to bear the “staggering” pressures involved in having ultimate authority over the use of the world’s deadliest weapons. One poll suggested that even 22 per cent of Mr Trump’s own supporters thought that he might launch a nuclear war.
In the absence of effective checks and balances on the use of nuclear weapons by Mr Trump, three issues are crucial: the president-elect’s temperament, his advisers and the kind of situations that are likely to confront him.
Mr Trump’s personality is not reassuring. As the officers’ open letter put it, he is “easily baited and quick to lash out”. In a confrontation, his instinct is to escalate, not to seek a compromise. In the wake of the death of Fidel Castro, it is worth recalling the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Faced with the threat of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, President John F Kennedy resisted the advice of his hawkish military advisers to escalate the conflict and invade Cuba. Would a President Trump have the same instincts?
In a foreign policy crisis, the president’s most important counsellor is his national security adviser, whose office is in the White House. The man that Mr Trump has appointed to head the National Security Council, General Michael Flynn, does not have a reputation as a calm leader. Leaked emails from Colin Powell suggest that Gen Flynn was sacked as the head of the Defence Intelligence Agency in 2014 because he was “abusive with staff, didn’t listen, worked against policy”. Mr Powell, who served as President George W Bush’s secretary of state, dismissed Gen Flynn as “right-wing, nutty”. Another very senior figure in the Bush administration privately agrees, describing Gen Flynn as “crazy” and predicting that he will not last more than a year. Those who want a sense of Gen Flynn’s temperament might care to watch the video of his speech to the Republican National Convention in which he joined in chants of “lock her up” aimed at Mrs Clinton.
One of the most urgent problems that will confront Mr Trump is the North Korean nuclear programme. It is one of the three main subjects the president-elect discussed with President Obama at their first meeting. North Korea is thought to be about two years away from developing a nuclear-tipped missile, capable of hitting the west coast of the US. It is often said that no American president could tolerate that situation. But President Barack Obama has, to date, rejected military options for dealing with North Korea because of the risks that an American attack would spark devastating retaliation against South Korea, or even the use of North Korea’s remaining nuclear weapons. Will president-elect Trump be as restrained?
Another potential crisis is brewing in eastern Europe. Russia has been increasingly open in rehearsing for the use of battlefield nuclear weapons in a conflict with Nato. As one Russian analyst puts it: “President Putin has put the nuclear gun on the table.” Might President Trump be tempted to respond in kind?
In the coming weeks, president-elect Trump will be introduced to America’s nuclear secrets contained in the “football” (in reality, a briefcase). These including the “presidential decision handbook” which contains the menu of targets that President Trump could choose to attack, along with estimated death tolls, which run into millions and, in some cases, more than 100m. This is said to be a sobering experience for all new presidents. Let us hope it has the same effect on President Trump.