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Bulletin 228: Trump Tweet Hysteria

December 27, 2016

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

(Donald Trump, tweet on December 22, 2016)

Dear friends –

This tweet was a long time ago as news cycles go, but even as I type this the New York Times informs me that it is publishing a fresh batch of letters on the topic – a topic which the Times in its wisdom has thoroughly muddled, just as they manage to muddle so many things. Will the reaction ever stop?

We have had quite a few questions about this tweet and since (thanks to the Times and so many other news outlets) it has been immortalized and given depths of meaning it never had, we thought it best to say a few things about it and the subsequent commentary, most of which we judge to be problematic.

But not all. “Donald Trump is merely echoing Barack Obama's nuclear weapons policy,” is the headline of an article by Seema Guha in India’s FirstPost on Dec 24, 2016. Guha quotes nonproliferation and disarmament expert Achin Vinayak who, as Guha said, “believes that Trump as president will be no different from Barak Obama, so far as America’s weapons and nuclear programmes go:”

"I expect Trump to follow a similar course. What Trump tweeted was in keeping with the Obama policy of expanding the scope and accuracy of the US nuclear weapons,’’ he [Vinayak] said.


Why is this not obvious to Americans – especially professional journalists and professionals in nonprofit organizations that deal with nuclear weapons issues? That question is much more worrying than what Trump did or did not say.

Our collective ignorance is not limited to nuclear weapons issues. Progressives are not getting other issues right as well – climate change, the energy transition, hopes for economic stability and development, to take just three more. (On climate and energy please see “The Crisis at Hand, the Emergency Mode, & the Need for Full-Scale Mobilization,” presentation at, June 2016.)

We are terribly worried that progressives, by focusing on Trump, are missing the boat on a lot of issues.

I am asking liberals, progressives, and all of us to undertake more soul-searching ourselves rather than jump on the latest anti-Trump rhetorical bandwagon, headed – where exactly?

Fruitful directions for activism will be the same in 2017 as they were in 2016, before Trump.While the mainstream media will do what it does, reacting to tweets (and tweet-like utterances) is not one of those fruitful directions. Reacting with fear is especially counterproductive. Courage, concrete personal engagement, and realistic action and ambition in the public realm are always at a premium. Human survival, and the survival of living nature in its diversity and beauty, depend on overcoming feelings of fear and victimhood.

The story of this particular tweet starts on Wednesday, December 21, when President-Elect Trump met with at least seven top Air Force generals and Navy admirals in Florida.

These military leaders included some with specific nuclear responsibilities, notably Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, and Navy Vice Admiral Thomas More, Commander of Naval Sea Systems Command (who, as his official bio states, “oversees a workforce of more than 73,000 military and civilian personnel responsible for the development, delivery and maintenance of the Navy’s ships, submarines and systems,” including Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines now under development).

About noon Eastern Time the following day (12/22/16), Trump tweeted the following: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Within hours, speculation about what this enigmatic tweet actually meant began to dominate news feeds, email lists, and blogs. The New York Times jumped right on it, quickly offering a 1,200-word speculative article plus an accompanying 1,300-word interactive catalog of possible explanations for the tweet, together signaling how importantly it should be seen by serious people. This became the top story in the Times the next morning (12/23/16). A 1,200-word follow-up article by Michael Shear was added, based on hearsay from Mika Brzezinski (daughter of Zbigniew), a co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. As the Times repeats (gossips?) without independent verification,

“Let it be an arms race,” Mr. Trump said, according to Ms. Brzezinski, who described her conversation with the president-elect on the morning news program moments later. Mr. Trump added: “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

Shear gives Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway the last word – a quite reasonable one as it turns out:

Kellyanne Conway, who will become counselor to the president in the White House, appeared “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC on Thursday evening and downplayed the significance of Mr. Trump’s post.
“I don’t think the tweet was groundbreaking in this regard. It seems that President Obama himself has invested, has called for an upgrade in our capabilities,” Ms. Conway said. Referring to Mr. Trump, she said, “I think in his quest to keep us safe and secure, he’s putting the world on notice that he will do what he thinks he needs to do to keep us safe and secure.”

In yet another article on the topic that morning – one that provided some much-needed sobriety – the Times reported on Putin’s annual marathon news conference (“Vladimir Putin, Unsurprised by Trump’s Remarks, Says Russia Wants No Nuclear Arms Race,” by Neil MacFarquhar and Ivan Nechepurenko).

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Friday that a statement by Donald J. Trump, the American president-elect, that the United States should expand its nuclear capabilities was not a surprise because he had said the same thing during the election campaign….
“As for Donald Trump, there is nothing new about it, during his election campaign he said the U.S. needs to bolster its nuclear capabilities and its armed forces in general,” he added.
Mr. Putin said that any new Russian nuclear weapons would stay within the limits of existing treaties.

USA Today (David Jackson) went for tongue-in-cheek humor the same day with its title “Trump open to arms race and better relations with Russia and Putin.”

Amid back-and-forth about nuclear weapons capability, President-elect Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin exchanged end-of-the-year greetings revealed on Friday and pledged to improve U.S.-Russia relations.
"A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin; his thoughts are so correct," Trump said in a mid-day statement.
Trump's office released the letter, dated Dec. 15, in which Putin said he hopes to work with the new U.S. president in a "constructive and pragmatic manner" in order to "restore the framework of bilateral cooperation in different areas."
Said Trump "I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path."

In these articles and so many others, and in many blog posts and emails, the arms control and disarmament community has been hyperventilating about Trump’s tweet and his alleged comments to Ms. Brzezinski. In many emails, this terrible “news” is combined with year-end fundraising appeals.

What does all this really mean? The short answer is that we know little or nothing more about Trump’s nuclear policies and plans than we did a week ago.

We can’t know what those policies will be because neither Trump, nor his advisors and appointees (whoever they all turn out to be; his supposed appointees are obviously not confirmed) know. And we don’t know how plans and policies will change with circumstances and crises, internal and external.

Not only is this particular tweet ambiguous, but even if it were precise it would also be of negligible predictive value. These aren't policy promises or sketches. They are gestures, elements of a spectacle, histrionic flourishes. What Trump will do in six months, a year, or three years is as unknown today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow.

All the parties commenting so breathlessly surely understand that no president-elect, especially one with such limited mandate and no command experience in national security, can change US nuclear policy with a tweet. Or start a new arms race while simultaneously warming up relations with Russia.

We do know a lot about Obama’s nuclear weapons policies, and trump’s tweet is not at all inconsistent with what President Obama is already doing and committed to doing, just as Vinayak said:

  • Modernizing every kind of nuclear warhead and delivery system in the US inventory with new (and in some cases destabilizing) new capabilities, with essentially no permanent reduction in numbers;

  • Expanding US warhead design, testing, and production capabilities and providing the highest budgets in history to do so;

  • Planning missile defense upgrades in Europe in the face of threatened Russian withdrawal from New START and other Russian responses, including basing short-range nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad (which is already done);

  • Maintaining options for US breakout from New START (the upload “hedge” of reserve warheads to re-MIRV ground- and sea-based ballistic missiles, being preserved indefinitely); and

  • Replacing, in the 2020s, unreliable, non-stealthy cruise missiles with new, stealthy Long-Range Stand Off (LRSO) cruise missiles, capable of reaching targets anywhere in Eurasia and not counted under New START, a terrific net increase in nuclear threat.

All this is reliably expected to cost, with deployments, more than $1 trillion over 30 years.

Modernization is indeed “greatly” increasing “capability.” When, for example, each US submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead is equipped with a new burst-height compensation fuze (i.e. when a W76-0 is upgraded to become a W76-1) it becomes approximately three times as effective in destroying missile silos. (See: Dr. Ted Postol, “How the US Nuclear Weapons Modernization Program Is Increasing the Chances of Accidental Nuclear War with Russia,” Feb 25, 2016.) In counterforce targeting, one W76-1 can destroy what it took three W76-0s to destroy.

Submarine-launched warheads can have flight times not much more than the time it would take for Russia to launch a retaliatory strike. US submarine-launched warhead modernization thus raises the perceived threat to Russia and therefore the actual threat to the US. As far as I know the Russians, unlike during the Cold War, have no satellite early warning systems. They rely on over-the-horizon radars. (For more on this, see the above and the earlier George Lewis and Ted Postol, “The Capabilities of Trident against Russian Silo-Based Missiles: Implications for START III and Beyond,” Lewis & Postol, MIT, 1998.)

The W76 upgrade is just one example. Every modernized US nuclear weapon will have significantly greater “capability” than before. The existing modernization program is indeed “greatly strengthen[ing] and expand[ing] [US] nuclear capability.”

The military and Republican-controlled Congress have not asked for more. No one knows where the money will come from, but Obama has already promised (and budgeted for) the complete nuclear Christmas wish list.

It will be very difficult to build all this, especially if President Trump simultaneously initiates a big infrastructure program and a tax cut, and restrains federal borrowing to satisfy the libertarian part of his political base and builds up the military in both equipment and manpower, as he has promised.

Relevant to this discussion, Congressional Budget Office (CBO) tax revenue projections are based on the resumption of “normal” economic growth. Since 2009, these projections have been optimistically wrong. Without belaboring the point, we expect a long-lasting recession soon.

Recession or not, even before Trump was elected it has been clear that any changes to Obama’s grand nuclear plan would be subtractive, not additive.

From the perspective of the Air Force nuclear brass, the main purpose of meeting with Trump was protect the promised suite of new nuclear delivery systems from budget-driven attrition. These include 80-100 new long-range heavy bombers (B-21 “Raiders”) (estimated cost: classified, at least $50 billion), more than 1,000 LRSOs (estimated cost: $20 billion), and 600 new ICBMs (estimated cost: $85 to $150 billion, not counting warheads), all of which are to be acquired at the same time as $400 billion in F-35s. The Navy meanwhile needs a total of roughly $97 billion for 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, not counting missiles and warheads.

By the way, the notion that Obama’s modernization plan would result in “smaller” nuclear weapons, which the New York Times persists in spreading (including in its 12/23/16 lead article) is mostly not true. Only one of the planned new bombs and warheads, the B61-12, comprising only about 10% of the US stockpile, will be smaller in yield than the bombs it is meant to replace. In any case the uppermost yield of the B61-12, 50 kilotons, is not really all that “small.”

Returning to Trump’s tweet, why do you suppose the reaction of Russia is a complete non-reaction, while the reaction of so many in the liberal commentariat is so extreme? Who is right?

There is actually no great distance between Trump’s tweet and Obama’s 2009 Prague speech, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. “Until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes” is just a version of Obama’s “This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime.” Trump’s “greatly strengthen and expand [US] nuclear capability” turns out to be, in hindsight, what Obama really meant when he said, “Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies…”

In summary, and adding some further points of interest:

  • President-Elect Trump’s recent nuclear tweet, which ambiguously called for the US to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” actually describes current US policy – President Obama’s policy.
  • We are not the least worried about this tweet, because the Obama nuclear plan provides the whole “Christmas wish-list” of the nuclear warhead complex and the military. No service branch or congressional committee has been asking for more. For the past few years nuclear hawks have focused on protecting what has been promised by Obama, which will come under intense budget pressure.
  • Trump’s tweet also describes the votes and accompanying statements of pro-nuclear-weapon members of Congress in both political parties – including New Mexico Democratic senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who are among the greatest nuclear hawks in Congress.
  • A bipartisan majority in Congress has been fully supportive of “strengthen[ing]” and “expand[ing] US nuclear capability” for the past eight years, with little serious or effective opposition since the retirement of Rep. David Hobson (R-OH) in January 2009.
  • Few in Congress, the media, or the public understand just how “greatly” current nuclear plans would “strengthen” and “expand” US nuclear capabilities – or, even more importantly, how President Obama’s wars, coups d’etat, continued additions to NATO, continued missile deployments, and sanctions against Russia have eroded arms control and prevented disarmament.
  • Many of those broadcasting Trump’s tweet are the same newspapers and organizations which have expressed little skepticism or indignation over these past 8 years as President Obama, congressional Republicans, and pro-nuclear-weapons Democrats have developed and pursued today’s aggressive nuclear modernization program.
  • Among journalists there has been, for many years now, a near-total absence of skepticism toward administration claims and talking points in national security. Among nonprofits, there has been no effective opposition, which would have required a critical, adversarial stance toward the Obama administration. Personal and institutional ties would need to have been broken. The pivotal year was 2010, when the arms control community lined up behind the administration and went along with the blank check offered to Senate Republicans and the nuclear establishment in return for New START ratification. That “deal” has proven hard to roll back.
  • To this day there is almost no opposition in Washington – and certainly, no effective opposition despite ample resources – to high and rising nuclear budgets in the Department of Energy (DOE) or to the new warheads and production facilities these budgets are buying.
  • The result of all this has been that in terms of nuclear disarmament, Obama has been the worst president since Reagan. There has been almost no opposing force to the administration’s growing nuclear ambitions.

  • There is no reason to think that the alarm and indignation over Trump’s tweet is anything more than the same kind of “shadowboxing” seen for the past eight years. The underlying institutional imperatives, loyalties, and habits have not changed. Neither has the tacit acceptance in Washington of US exceptionalism, empire, militarism, nuclear “deterrence,” and, in liberal circles, a paralyzed approach to political change that is captive to Democratic Party politics and politicians. This is what is scary.

  • In the 2016 general election, Donald Trump was the peace candidate. Hillary Clinton was the war candidate and favorite of the neoconservatives. Their goal, which was also Hillary’s, remains “regime change” in Russia – or as Henry Kissinger described Obama’s policy, “breaking Russia.”

  • Trump has strongly signaled that he wishes to improve our relationship with Russia, which President Obama has allowed to deteriorate to depths not seen since the 1980s. Trump’s peacemaking stance toward Russia has deeply threatened the neoconservative-dominated U.S. foreign policy establishment. The military-industrial complex stands to gain hundreds of billions of dollars in the short run (and trillions in the long run) from the new Cold War ginned up on Obama’s watch.

  • Trump’s recent nuclear tweet looks more like real or feigned reassurance to these potentially dangerous domestic foes than it does belligerence to Russia – which, as an enemy, is the raison d’etre for the vast majority of the 7,000 or so intact US nuclear weapons.
  • It is a political mistake for citizens to react against, or critically speculate about, tweets as if they were concrete policy or could predict it. Policy can be opposed. Tweets cannot. There is nothing there to oppose.
  •  Since Trump’s tweet describes current policy, is ambiguous, and because plans and commitments always change once a president actually takes office, this particular tweet imparts no meaning. We will probably not know much about Trump’s nuclear policies until months from now, possibly more than a year, after key appointees are confirmed, policies are drafted, and a budget is submitted.
  • By “trumpeting” an objectionable tweet everywhere with added detail, journalists become a megaphone and policy-exploration shop offering vast free publicity. Thanks to this kind of “journalism,” a tweet such as this becomes more important politically and harder for the future President Trump to walk away from.
  • Trump has benefited politically by making himself a magnet for outrage. Key Trump constituencies, which learn about current events through independent, highly-partisan channels, may take seemingly-authoritative criticism of Trump as a sign of merit. Many who are outraged with the outcome of the presidential election have yet to understand this political ju-jitsu or how to avoid feeding it.
  • For those wanting to influence events it is especially important to not invest mental or emotional energy in the ephemeral, disempowering spectacle of a tweet-driven news cycle. We have other, more concrete plans, through which we realistically expect to exercise influence.
  • There has been a lot of fear in the published responses to Trump’s nuclear tweet. In our experience, fear is not a useful political emotion. It is passive, generally manipulated by those with the biggest megaphones and most convincing lies, and it is mutually exclusive with the courage we need to save our civilization and the species which have been our companions since the beginning of time.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year to all!

Greg Mello, for the Study Group

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