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Monday, May 2, 2016


All of a sudden, I am swamped with more interesting and thoughtful comments than I can respond to.  I am going to start by replying to a comment by Richard Lewis that is, for me at least, extremely provocative.  Here is what he wrote:

“I disagree with the calculations that would cause a person on the left to reluctantly pull the lever for Clinton. I would argue that there is a factor which trumps the others; existential threat to civilization via global nuclear war. I would argue, based on the candidates' explicit statements, foreign policy advisors' backgrounds, and personal inclinations, that under Clinton the chances of a nuclear confrontation with Russia might be around 1%; under Trump about 0%. I would argue that even this small difference in odds dwarfs any progressive pragmatic inclination to go for Clinton over Trump.

I'm also not sure I see Clinton quite the way Prof Wolff does - as a 'known' quantity - dull, center-right, cautious, etc. On the contrary I fear she may be as much or more of a loose cannon than Trump. The only two instances where she has had real decision making power - the 1990's health reform debacle and the Libya air strike debacle (in depth reporting on both these is available, and disturbing) don't bode well for her basic mental stability and ability to listen to advisors and make rational decisions based on that advice. In short, she scares me more than Trump.”

This comment especially moved me because I spent a number of years, more than half a century ago, thinking about very little else besides the threat of nuclear war, lecturing, writing, arguing in public and private about the threat and informing myself as much as possible about every aspect of it.  Only one president, John F. Kennedy, has brought this country to the brink of a nuclear war, and so far as I am concerned, that fact alone is sufficient to judge him a disaster as a president.

If I really believed that the probabilities rather casually tossed off by Richard Lewis were in fact correct, that alone would not merely justify voting for Trump rather than Clinton but would argue strongly for planning her assassination.  A nuclear war would surely kill more than one hundred million people, pollute large portions of the earth’s surface for countless millennia, and destroy the world’s economy for generations.  A 1% probability of such a catastrophe would, by standard expected utility calculations, imply the certainty of an outcome worse than a world war.

I have no idea at all how Richard Lewis arrived at those numbers, nor do I have any clear idea how I might come up with alternative estimates myself, but I think I can say something about the circumstances under which the United States government would deploy and use nuclear weapons [I am utterly unable to judge the probability that the Russian government would do so.]  First of all, dramatic movies to the contrary notwithstanding, presidents do not make these decisions alone nor do they carry them out alone.  Elaborate bureaucratic procedures are in place that make such decisions very much collective chain-of-command decisions.  I think it is inconceivable that Clinton would initiate such a decision under any circumstances I can now imagine, nor do I think that the notoriously risk-averse US high command would press her do make such a decision.  I can conceive of circumstances in which Trump would be moved to issue such an order, but if he were to do so, I do not think it would be carried out.  Instead, almost certainly, there would be a defensive gathering of generals and admirals around him who would carefully, delicately try to dissuade him while simultaneously consulting with civilian figures about the procedures for removing a president from command on grounds of medical incapacitation.  I am quite serious about this.

Short of nuclear war, would Clinton be more or less likely to use military force than Trump?  This is a very important question and one that it is uncommonly difficult to answer, because of the incoherent quality of Trump’s statements on these matters.  He talks casually of “not taking off the table” the use of nuclear weapons in Europe [!!! Against whom???]  He brags wildly of wiping out ISIS in weeks, without the slightest apparent awareness of the military situation on the ground.  Are we to take these statements seriously?  Are we to ignore them entirely?  I have no idea.

We do have grounds for making predictions about Clinton’s use of military force.  She would be hawkish, as it is now common to say, which means that during her presidency, we would probably see a number of military deployments overseas, and perhaps the initiation of yet another limited war.  That is one of the principal reasons why I so strongly supported Sanders as against her.  My guess, and it is only a guess, is that Trump would be very likely also to order military deployments, particularly if he surrounds himself with the sorts of advisors whose names he has thus far given out.

Well, enough speculation.  If anyone has factually grounded probability estimates of the use of nuclear weapons by either Trump or Clinton, I would very much like to hear them.


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Karl said...

Professor Wolff,

Perhaps you have already come across this anecdote from a recent NY TImes article ("How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk"), but I think it's illustrative of her attitude regarding great-power confrontation:

A few months after my interview in her office, another split emerged when Obama picked up a secure phone for a weekend conference call with Clinton, Gates and a handful of other advisers. It was July 2010, four months after the North Korean military torpedoed a South Korean Navy corvette, sinking it and killing 46 sailors. Now, after weeks of fierce debate between the Pentagon and the State Department, the United States was gearing up to respond to this brazen provocation. The tentative plan — developed by Clinton’s deputy at State, James Steinberg — was to dispatch the aircraft carrier George Washington into coastal waters to the east of North Korea as an unusual show of force.

But Adm. Robert Willard, then the Pacific commander, wanted to send the carrier on a more aggressive course, into the Yellow Sea, between North Korea and China. The Chinese foreign ministry had warned the United States against the move, which for Willard was all the more reason to press forward. He pushed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, who in turn pushed his boss, the defense secretary, to reroute the George Washington. Gates agreed, but he needed the commander in chief to sign off on a decision that could have political as well as military repercussions.

Gates laid out the case for diverting the George Washington to the Yellow Sea: that the United States should not look as if it was yielding to China. Clinton strongly seconded it. “We’ve got to run it up the gut!” she had said to her aides a few days earlier. (The Vince Lombardi imitation drew giggles from her staff, who, even 18 months into her tenure, still marveled at her pugnacity.)

Karl said...

I also thought I'd share a couple of interesting things I've come across recently that have to do with what's been discussed on your blog recently. The first is an interview with Ralph Nader by the journalist and activist Chris Hedges. Nader talks about building a third party, the 2000 election and its aftermath, and Bernie Sanders's campaign. He says that Sanders should take his campaign to November. The second piece I wanted to share is an article by Hedges in which he interviews Kshama Sawant, the socialist city councilwoman of Seattle who has started a petition to get Bernie Sanders on the Green Party ticket. I'd be interested in your take on their idea that one should prioritize putting fear into "the establishment" and thereby perhaps winning some concessions rather than voting for the least worst and that this is done by breaking with the Democratic Party. I believe the video interview with Sawant will be uploaded in the next couple of days.

Richard Lewis said...

Dear Professor. Thanks for replying to my speculative comment. Of course there can't really be a thoroughly scientific way of predicting such things as a President's future foreign policy decisions. By tossing out speculative (but I believe plausible) numbers like 0% and 1% I really just wanted to start a conversation .

There is certainly a wealth of anecdotal information and journalism about Clinton's hawkishness (as Karl above illustrates). There is also the reported exodus of neocons from the Trump to the Clinton corner. Combine that with a military stance toward Russia from the 'experts' and military top brass that is worryingly aggressive already (see John Mearsheimer's various arguments about the West's provocations of Russia) and a Clinton (with proven poor decision making tendencies) determined to show off her muscularity in the first year of office and I think there are genuine reasons to worry, or at least to factor this in to a decision between Trump and Clinton.

Richard Lewis said...

I would add that of course there are institutional 'breaks' and barriers to the deployment of nukes within the military apparatus and among the President's advisers - hence my 1% figure pulled out of the air.

The 1% scenario might arise from an instance of conventional anti-Russian brinkmanship by a Clinton administration in a possible conflict between Russia and Turkey, which might lead to a careless response from Russia, followed by some kind of escalation. I imagine the initial use of tactical nukes coming from the Russian side in these scenarios.

With Trump we know maybe one thing fairly certainly - his non hostile attitude to Russia borne of psychological affinity with Putin, family connections, and an admittedly fuzzy 'America first' isolationism.