Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

Only Hillary Clinton Is Prepared for the Nuclear Threat

| October 24, 2016

America’s Founding Fathers were determined to avoid a concentration of power in any one person or branch of government. When it comes to the authority to launch nuclear weapons, however, there are no checks or balances. Millions of lives and perhaps the fate of the planet rests on the judgment of a single person, the commander in chief. When voters choose America’s next president on Nov. 8, this is what’s at stake.

Nine nations possess nuclear weapons. In a military confrontation, leaders will have little warning of a potential nuclear attack and only minutes to respond. Sophisticated hackers could deceive warning systems or disrupt command-and-control processes. Moscow and Washington still posture their nuclear forces so that they can be ordered to fire in minutes, a dangerously outdated strategy from the Cold War. Once a missile is in the air, even if fired by mistake, there is no way to order it back.

Proliferation is also a serious problem. With weapons-usable nuclear material in more than 20 countries and the spread of nuclear know-how, nation states no longer have a monopoly on these weapons of mass destruction.

America’s next president must think carefully about these challenges. How would he or she approach a crisis with only minutes to decide how to respond? What would he or she do if confronted with a warning, potentially false, of a nuclear attack on the U.S.? Despite the erosion of trust between America and Russia, the citizens of our two nations have an existential stake in the judgment of both of our leaders.

Several years ago I sat around a conference table in Moscow with Americans and Russians, including President Vladimir Putin. I expressed concern that neither he nor the American president would have more than a few minutes to decide whether to use nuclear weapons if warned of an attack. The two countries’ militaries, I suggested, should work together to give their presidents more time to weigh the options. Mr. Putin made clear that he was fully aware of Russia’s short nuclear window. “Senator Nunn,” he added, “at some point it becomes automatic.”

What about moral considerations? William Swing, a retired Episcopal bishop, recently offered, in a memo sent to about a dozen leaders, a powerful reminder of the importance of this year’s presidential choice: “Whoever wins will have his or her hand on the weapons that could end life, as we know it, on this planet. We are not so much voting for a president as choosing a god. When you put your hand on the nuclear trigger and become the single agent of the Earth’s destruction that is power beyond human imagining.”

Is any human prepared or qualified to make this fateful decision for mankind? I think not. Yet this is the responsibility of the commander in chief. Temperament, composure and sound judgment are essential. So is understanding America’s adversaries and allies and, most important, possessing the leadership qualities required to reduce the risk that such a terrible call will ever have to be made.

One candidate, Hillary Clinton, has the experience, judgment and skills to take on this awesome responsibility. For years, on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as secretary of state, she dealt with the leaders of Russia and China and America’s key allies. She understands the importance of reducing nuclear dangers and keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. She has helped make decisions about war and peace under intense pressure. Like other leaders, Mrs. Clinton has made mistakes. She has, however, learned from them, a crucial requirement for effective leadership. She knows—like Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev did—that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has unfortunately demonstrated that he is an apprentice in the nuclear arena. Worse, he has no appetite for learning. Mr. Trump seems not to care what he doesn’t know, and he apparently listens to no one. His colossal ego and disdain for military leaders are far from comforting.

In apparently off-the-cuff statements, Mr. Trump has suggested that the world would be safer if more nations, including Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea, had nuclear weapons and were willing to use them. This is dangerously off base. Mr. Trump has even suggested that he might deploy nuclear weapons against terrorists, seemingly unaware of the devastating damage this would inevitably inflict on thousands of innocent victims.

What Mr. Trump hasn’t thought through—or doesn’t understand—is that adding to the number of nuclear states dramatically increases the risk of proliferation. A terrorist group would have many more ways to get its hands on a nuclear weapon or the material and technology required to make one. Mr. Trump’s suggestion would make American families less safe.

Over the past two years, relations between the U.S. and Russia have been in a downward spiral—from Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, to evidence that it is interfering in the presidential election. Reducing these tensions and nuclear risks is imperative. But this will require increased and continuous communication between the two countries’ leaders, just as avoiding a nuclear exchange during the Cold War required dialogue between John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, and Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The absence of checks and balances in the nuclear age has haunted the world for decades. The risk of conflict can be reduced, but there is no substitute for a president with good judgment who seeks sound advice from experienced military and civilian leaders. I believe that Hillary Clinton is the right choice on Nov. 8 to be America’s president and commander in chief.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nunn, Sam.“Only Hillary Clinton Is Prepared for the Nuclear Threat.” The Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2016.

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