Despite the sneering tone of his comment [“(Professor Wolff) cannot bear to have readers desecrating the sanctity of his blog…”], Robert Shore raises a question of the very greatest urgency, viz which of the two major candidates poses a greater threat of nuclear war, and I should like to address that matter at some length. Dr. Shore is quite correct that this question takes precedence over all others. Indeed, if I may invoke the jargon of rational choice theory, it is lexicographically prior to all other questions – which is to say, if one candidate poses even the tiniest greater threat of nuclear war, that consideration alone should outweigh any benefits, however large, in other realms. Dr. Shore says that as he lives in a safely blue state, he plans to vote Green. But that is hardly sufficient, if he is not simply using me as the occasion for blowing off steam. He lives next to a battleground state, and I assume that in addition to donating to the Trump campaign and publicly supporting it, he will also go on weekends to New Hampshire to campaign for Trump. Anything less would be a confession of unseriousness in the face of what he believes to be a mortal threat to civilization.
Let me note before I begin that I do not come late to a concern for this matter. I first took an active public stance against the threat of nuclear war and the policies of the American government that increased that threat in 1959, some fifty-seven years ago, which, if I am not mistaken, is well before many readers of this blog were born. I argued against Henry Kissinger and Zbigniev Bzrezinski at Harvard, where I joined forces with David Riesman and Erik Erikson and many others. I debated Herman Kahn at Jorden Hall in Boston, I wrote, I published, I spoke on the radio, I served for several years on the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, I lectured on military strategy and foreign policy at the University of Chicago, I chaired a protest meeting at Harvard seeking to reverse America’s Cuba policy. Struggle against the threat of nuclear war has been a part of my private and public life for nearly six decades. As we think through this vitally important topic, let us never forget that the United States invented nuclear weapons and is the only nation ever actually to kill people with them.
Historical perspective is useful in thinking about the present presidential campaign. Some modern powers have pursued their imperial ambitions by seizing and holding territories far from their borders. Great Britain and France come to mind. Others, like China and the Soviet Union, have enlarged their empires by absorbing contiguous weaker nations, exhibiting great hesitation about sending their military forces to regions not connected to the homeland by a land bridge. The United States has pursued an imperial project that is something of a combination of these two approaches. Its principal imperial expansion has consisted of the absorption of contiguous lands to the west and southwest of its original borders, expanding to the Pacific Ocean and the boundaries of Mexico and Canada, but it has of course also extended its empire militarily overseas as well – one thinks of the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and so forth. The distinctive feature of American imperial expansion is that, unlike China, Russia, France, and Great Britain, Americans sought to exterminate rather than incorporate the indigenous peoples they conquered.
At the end of the Second World War, Germany and Italy were defeated and Great Britain and France, despite being part of the winning coalition of forces, began to lose their empires. The two principal beneficiaries of the war were the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Union responded to the changed international balance of forces in characteristic fashion by incorporating territories in Eastern Europe. The United States undertook to replace Great Britain and France as world hegemons, forging alliances with a wide array of states and stationing its troops permanently in every sector of the world not already claimed by the Soviet Union. These efforts were of course not all successful. The Soviet Union was several times compelled to use force to stop its Eastern European imperial appanages from breaking away, and its disastrous adventure across its southern border in Afghanistan led eventually to the collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union. The United States, for its part, came close to destroying the cohesion and effectiveness of its military in its failed attempt to take the place of France in Southeast Asia, forcing it to bring the military draft to a close and substitute a professional army that could function effectively and without major political cost as an instrument of empire.
For a time, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole unchallenged imperial power in the entire world. As one would expect, America responded to the Eastern European vacuum created by the breakup of the Soviet Union by expanding its sphere of influence eastward, using the device of membership in NATO. Now, we see Vladimir Putin seeking to recapture some of the territory lost in the breakup, annexing Crimea, nibbling at Ukraine, beginning to make eyes at the Baltic States. The fall in the price of oil has put severe strains on the Russian economy and hence on Putin’s ability to pursue his ambitions for a revived Russian empire. But he does have some arrows in his quiver. He has been offering financial and other support to extreme right-wing European political parties, such as the National Front of Marine le Pen in France, and Russian oligarchs allied with Putin have made several hundred million dollars in loans to Donald Trump [which may perhaps explain the fulsomeness of Trump’s praise for Putin.] And of course, Putin has at his command a sizeable nuclear arsenal, even though it does not compare with the Soviet military force in Russia’s heyday.
All of which brings me to the question with which I began: As between a President Clinton and a President Trump, who is more likely actually to get the United States into a nuclear exchange with Russia? For seventy years now, American presidents have embraced and implemented the American imperial project. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, I have watched them all, and all have pursued essentially the same project. [We must not allow ourselves to be misled by their rhetoric, which is usually quite high minded and selfless. Let us recall that it was not an American who coined the memorable phrase, “the white man’s burden.”] Some presidents have been rather more belligerent, some less. Only one, John F. Kennedy, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Clinton would clearly be rather more belligerent than Obama, rather less than George W. Bush. She would resist Putin’s expansionist efforts, and would deploy American forces and weaponry in that resistance. If she did not, Putin would push further. Let me emphasize this point, as it is crucial to everything I am saying. It is a left-wing fantasy to suppose that the United States is the source of conflict in the world, and that if it were to give up its imperial project, the world would be a peaceful multi-polar harmony. Whatever room America leaves for Russia’s imperial expansion Russia will take. And whatever room Russia leaves for America’s imperial expansion America will take. And should both America and Russia, in a fit of self-abnegation, retreat from the field of imperial struggle, China and other nations will take their place.
Both Clinton and Putin, I think it is clear from the available evidence, would be as careful as possible to avoid a nuclear confrontation, but I am well aware of the dangers of miscalculation. Clinton would not act rashly, precipitously, or without thorough consultation with the military. Everything we know about her makes that clear. Would she be more likely than Obama to start small wars? Pretty clearly yes, but that is not the subject of this discourse. It is not small wars against real or imagined enemies that risk nuclear war. The threat comes from a miscalculation by Clinton or Putin in a confrontation involving American and Russian troops.
What then of Trump? This is a much more difficult problem to work out, and that fact by itself is significant. When it comes to nuclear confrontations, uncertainty is an even greater danger than belligerence. Trump has no ideological commitments or beliefs on the basis of which we might make a prediction of his behavior, and he has no track record on these issues, nor any experience on which he could draw as president in making decisions. He is vain, ignorant, and narcissistic, and exhibits no capacity for impulse control even when it is in his self-interest to rein in his impulses. He is desperately in need of constant ego-reinforcement, and what is more, he is in hock financially to Putin. I find this combination of traits and defects terrifying.
Nor can we calm our fears by telling ourselves that the civilian and uniformed leadership of the military would not permit Trump to make disastrously dangerous decisions. That is a fantasy that ignores the realities of the bureaucratic character of American government. A President Trump could quite well plunge us into a civilization ending nuclear exchange.
Therefore, I am for Clinton. I look forward to hearing Robert Shore’s reports of his experiences on the campaign trail in New Hampshire working for the election of Trump.