Trump’s MAD

I’m pretty sure they don’t teach this in diplomacy school:

Naturally, this has made the usual suspects terrified that he is about to start a nuclear war with North Korea. For once they might have a point, more so than when they squeal that he’s about to shut down the independent media or let Putin tell him what to do.

But for my part, I’m not worried. A central feature of a nuclear deterrent is a willingness of the owners to use them; if this is in doubt, or it is obvious they won’t, then it is useless. During the Cold War the willingness of the nuclear powers to resort to the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a first strike or a faced with an existential threat was never in doubt. In fact, the lines were so clear that the US and USSR could fight proxy wars with one another, safe in the knowledge a nuclear confrontation would be avoided. This meant both sides having to pretend there were no Russian pilots flying MiGs in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but it was a workable deception. The credible threat of massive retaliation was the basis of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Since the Cold War, things have got a bit murkier. MAD only works if both sides have an interest in self-preservation; if one party is a suicidal lunatic, it doesn’t work. But whereas foreign policy experts point to countries like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran as being the suicidal maniacs rendering MAD-doctrines unworkable, what nobody wants to talk about is the other side of the coin: piss-weak leadership in the West.

If London was on the receiving end of a nuclear attack during Obama’s presidency, does anyone believe he would have unequivocally supported Britain’s right to retaliate in kind and honoured his country’s Nato commitments to joining in? I have no confidence he would whatsoever, and I’d not be surprised if his first reaction was to tell Britain to suck it up and not do anything other than reflect on why it was targeted in the first place. This is idle speculation of course, but we can also look at Obama’s foreign policy record in office. Most damning of all was his infamous “red lines” remark about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The worst part about it wasn’t that he failed to act when Syria did use them, it was that the threat was so damned vague. A whole bunch of chemical weapons? As Streetwise Professor said:

“A whole bunch of chemical weapons”?  ”A whole bunch”?  Really?  WTF constitutes “a whole bunch”?  Is he saying to Assad that he can move around and use a few chemical weapons, as long as he doesn’t cross the “whole bunch” line?  Wherever that is.

If you’re going to make threats, you need to be sure your enemy knows exactly what actions will cause you to trigger your retaliation. Speaking in such vague terms as Obama did only served to muddy the waters between what is acceptable and what is not.

The other thing Obama and Kerry used to do, which I found infuriating, was to react to major foreign policy events by telling their enemies what they weren’t going to do. Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea and attacked eastern Ukraine, Obama fell over himself to rule out military force in response. Now this was in itself very sensible – America doesn’t want to go to war over Ukraine – but why tell Russia that? The US is not obliged to share its military strategies with Russia, so why tell Putin he has a free hand? What made this so dangerous was it severely increased the risk of a miscalculation, whereby Putin – unsure of where the line was – might have accidentally stepped over it forcing the US to respond in a way neither side wanted. For example, by attacking Estonia. Or, now you come to mention it, shooting down a passenger jet operated by Malaysia Airlines. Obama also ruled out military intervention in Syria as well, giving Assad the confidence to go for broke. In my opinion, this behaviour from Obama was one of his major failings, and made the world very much less safe for everybody.

I suspect the Kims looked at Obama and saw a man whose response to their waving a nuclear bomb about was weak, and understandably supposed he might be equally spineless if the bomb actually got used. This embolden Kim Jong Un, who until recently had been unsure of what he can get away with so kept pushing the boundaries. Trump is now telling him, albeit using a very inappropriate medium, that he and his nation will be annihilated if he launches a nuclear attack – confirming something which has probably been US doctrine since rumours first surfaced that North Korea had nuclear technology. Unless Trump is bluffing and is ignoring the imploring advice of his military planners (which I doubt) his words will have the effect of making a miscalculation on the part of Kim Jong Un less likely. His detractors won’t see it this way, but after Obama’s flip-flopping and prevaricating, Trump is injecting some much-needed clarity into the situation. Everyone knows the Russians and the Chinese would not tolerate a nuclear attack on their interests and allies; Trump is merely restating that the same is true for the US. Personally, I think this makes the world a touch safer than it was.


26 thoughts on “Trump’s MAD

  1. If London was on the receiving end of a nuclear attack during Obama’s presidency, does anyone believe he would have unequivocally supported Britain’s right to retaliate in kind

    I would have been surprised if he had done so after an attack on Dallas, let alone London. Maybe if a blue state city was nuked he might have given a stern speech.

  2. Had this discussion with a senior bank officer at a major Spanish bank today.

    Look at Trump! Arghh Nuclear armageddon!!! Argh!!!

    I just reminded him of Clinton, the deal that got totally pissed on and the fact that the fatty now has the bomb and the possibility of throwing it a long way and that SOMEBODY has to make it clear to him that it is not a toy and if you push the button, it will be the last thing you do.

    La Clinton wore the pants in the last White House and both she and Barry came out of it very badly.

  3. I’m clutching my pearls.

    MAD only works if both sides have an interest in self-preservation

    Indeed, it only works if both sides are not MAD-enough 😀

  4. Good article Tim. The White House is now occupied by someone who is not a pansy. And someone the Chinese may take seriously. I agree that we are a little safer therefore.

  5. Patrick,
    The Chinese communists respect the use of force, and Trump so far has not demonstrated them much, either by choice or by circumstance. The most effective reaction against chinese adventurism has been so far Indian on the Dokhlam incident, that took the PLA completely unprepared, and resulted in their shameful backdown, something that in testosterone-fuelled Xi era does not go down well.

  6. Ah the good old days when you were either US NATO or Warsaw Pact, that heart flutters. I used to do a bit of property renovating in the US and was doing a reno on a property in Rochester, Western New York when we discovered a hidden concrete fallout shelter connected to the house buried beneath ground level and ready to go, I think I converted it into a self-contained granny flat. Nowadays it’s the rich versus the rest, they are the ones that got the billion dollar bunkers hidden in the New Zealand South Island to while away the time during the long nuclear winter and we mustn’t think that there is any likelihood of it occurring as much as we used to.

    Mud Island wouldn’t stand a chance, for starters its the most densely saturated nuclear weaponry block of dirt in the world, the yanks have always known that its true purpose was to soak up the first strikes. And doesn’t Captain Mannering have to ring up the US coastguard to get the combination for the padlocks in order to to open up the hood over the Trident button?

    I think Trump has been pretty good at keeping his generals at bay so far, giving them a little bit of glory, bombing empty fields in Syria and telling the Russkies beforehand, sabre rattling with Rocket Man while China grows and lifts millions out of poverty and a few other flag waving type things all the while avoiding mass casualties, this is a definite achievement of his. I would also like to think that he would be smart enough not to listen to his generals in the event of a nuclear crisis unfolding, because they will always tell him to push the button.

    As my old mate Robert McNamara warned all military commanders if they were honest would admit that they have made mistakes that would have resulted in the unnecessary death of hundreds, thousands and even hundreds of thousands and in some cases killed his own through errors of judgement or miscalculations. But this to date has never extended to entire nations. The military conventional wisdom being that a good officer will learn from his mistakes, certainly at least after two or three times anyway otherwise he will get busted down to a desk job. But with nuclear weaponry we will not have this luxury. Keep the soldier’s away from these kind of decisions is the best strategy for all the stakeholders in my books.

    We all know about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how the military advice throughout was to attack, JFK didn’t and they say that was a close as we have come, I am sure there would have been other times as well.

    What wasn’t widely recognised at the time and only came to light many years later when McNamara and some other US state guys attended a conference with their old Russian adversaries of the time. It was only then in discussions with them that they discovered that the Russkies on the ground had tactical nuclear weaponry and if the US had went in with conventional it would have been on like Donkey King and that nuclear fallout shelter in my gaff in Rochester might have got a run for its money.


  7. I read an article a few months ago about American special forces – they were deployed to 138 countries in 2017, mostly in secret.I am Canadian, and whether we like it or not, America acts like police force for world.

    President Obama tenure was disaster because he believed America was the problem and other countries should have chance to meddle in world affairs. Leading from behind, Obama crew called it, and it has destabilized many regions – allowing China to build artificial islands in South China Sea was most consequential.

    And I really don’t understand why Obama administration decided treaty with Iran was number one priority and allowed the disruption in Middle East because they were keen to sign deal with mad mullahs.

  8. I have been watching The Crown on Netflix. Excellent TV. One theme that runs right through it like a mighty river is the split between person and role. Elisabeth Windsor vs Elisabeth Regina. Sometimes those two personalities come into conflict and when they do Regina always wins out.
    Trump the person, the human being, I don’t care for much. Trump the President I like very much.The MSM seems quite incapable of understanding the difference between the two. Fuckwits.
    (and they had Obama completely wrong too – but in the reverse direction: He appears to me as a seemingly a good guy but a shit president)

  9. @Bill

    I read that article that you linked to and decided to do a self assessment on the accuracy of my predictions for Trump in his first year. Just to be completely transparent I marked it against my predictions made on Tim’s post on this topic on here of the 30th December 16.

    President Trump in 2017

    I marked myself hard and came up with a lowly 90% score on the accuracy of my predictions one year later.

    Of the three areas, this is how I fared:

    Trump will herald in an economic boom – slam dunk, full marks 33%.

    Trump with Putin will be the Judeo-Christian hero in slaying ISIS and will sabre rattle in the South China Sea. Bang on the money on the Judeo Christian slaying ISIS bit and fuck me got it in on time on Jerusalem too, okay its wasn’t the South China Sea but North Korea is Asia so drop 6% – score 27%

    Trump will cause havoc in the UN, there will be political and moral scandals, Europe will remain idiotic and calls for reform in the UN and the security council, he will appear to side with Putin. Okay nearly there with the UN havoc but not quite full bottle yet, drop 3% -score 30%

    Total Trump Prediction Score – 90%

    Must do better.

  10. “If you’re going to make threats, you need to be sure your enemy knows exactly what actions will cause you to trigger your retaliation. ”

    I’m sure I recall reading somewhere that, at least in international relations, an element of ambiguity was considered optimal. There was some counter-intuitive explanation for it. Perhaps that eg it helped stop the Cold War heating up because it wasn’t clear at what stage of escalation the nukes would launch, hence no way to launch a surgical strike full of confidence that any retaliation would ultimately be limited to conventional warfare.

    Someone else may well be able to correct my memory.

  11. I’m sure I recall reading somewhere that, at least in international relations, an element of ambiguity was considered optimal.

    Yes, that is probably correct. But you need to be clear about which actions will *definitely* cause a major retaliation, and perhaps hint at those which *might*. What you don’t want to do is say what *won’t* cause a retaliation, or not follow-through on vague, mumbled threats.

  12. I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that during the Cold War a conventional military invasion of Europe by the Russians and vice versa wasn’t feasible because of the difference in the gauge of the railways thus rendering resupply of troop lines nigh on impossible. Whether that is true, I have no idea.

  13. It’s not at all clear that the Syrian government used chemical weapons as alleged. A definite maybe, I’d say.

  14. It’s not at all clear that the Syrian government used chemical weapons as alleged. A definite maybe, I’d say.

    Indeed, which is why he was made to look so foolish. He’d made a vague threat without considering the burden of proof on which he’d act on it. Somehow, people think this guy was a great statesman.

  15. I’m always astonished how people think Obumble was either a good man or a good president. In my book he was neither.

    True, he could read a teleprompter but without it he was hopeless. His gaffe for example when he declared “my muslim faith” and was rapidly corrected by a journo-hack in the TV studio to remind him he should have said “my Christian faith” was just one example of a man whose agenda conflicted with the American people. His actions were devious. For example, he added a line in Arabic at the end of his ‘major speech’ in Cairo and the press release of his speech, in English, made no mention of Obumble’s closing line, “I am one of you.” He can follow what religion he wants but his desire, if true he was muslim, to pretend he was otherwise smacks of a man unable to tell the truth.

    This man who rapidly sealed his (possibly insignificant) university records openly lied during the Obamacare farce when — despite being told by his advisors that no, the public couldn’t keep their doctor under the scheme — went ahead and said it anyway. Then when the police did their job, as you would want them to, with some black ‘academic’ acting suspiciously he was quick to label the police “stupid.” Never once did he stand by the men and women who keep law and order in the States and instead gushed over the people who rioted and set fire to their fellow black people’s businesses.

    I always found it telling how little applause he drew from the serving US military when Obumble appeared grinning and waving. They knew whose side he was on.

    But my greatest distaste for ‘Bathhouse Barry’ as allegedly he was known in Chicago was his ability to draw a line over some international incident and when someone stepped over it, he would swiftly draw a new one.

    I won’t live to see it, but I confidently expect Obumble to easily be regarded as the worst president in US history. Just give it time.

    Of course, Trump may not be as great as hoped for, but given the disaster that went on for eight years before his arrival, then Donald for all his faults is a breath of fresh air.

    In other news, I feel better getting that off my chest.

  16. Obama Teleprompter failures showed the real capabilities of the man. Hesitant, unsure and lacking structure. He was clearly a manufactured president. Some cracking YouTube videos out there. No speeches without notes for him. Even Corbin is better! Can’t say the same about Trump being manufactured.

  17. A weapon system is only a deterrent if the other side understands it’s capabilities and sees your willingness to use it. This also includes the delivery platform. The people crying about Trump possibly going nuclear are helpful. If they believe it maybe others will to. That fool of an US Air Force general who said he wouldn’t do it is a hundred fold more of a threat to peace than Trump ever could be.

  18. I knew that we were in for a weird old time with Obama’s script writers after watching and listening live on TV the young senators invigorating speech to a quarter of a million odd sycophantic, nannified and unified Berliners, sprouting off about things as if they had already happened whilst dishing out buckets loads of the good snake oil. Contrasting that Berlin speech of his to the one of JFK’s in the sixties told me everything that I needed to know about this presidential candidate.

    “As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.

    Tonight, I speak before you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen — a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.

    This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands. Let us resolve that all nations including my own will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere. People of Berlin, people of the world, this is our moment.

    This is our time.”

    Cue canned cheering crowd sounds.

  19. That fool of an US Air Force general who said he wouldn’t do it is a hundred fold more of a threat to peace than Trump ever could be.

    This. Absolutely this. If I were a better blogger I’d have remembered that story, dug it out, and made this point in the post.

  20. In other news, I feel better getting that off my chest.

    Good! I felt better having read it, too.

  21. The most effective reaction against chinese adventurism has been so far Indian on the Dokhlam incident, that took the PLA completely unprepared

    Blimey, I’d heard nothing about that. Did the press not cover it, or did I spend the summer alseep?

  22. Yes it was and there was a stand off at the G20 meeting because of it, I think you would have considered it less pressing than a shortage of photocopier paper.

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