Nothing in a lifetime of international relations prepared me for my president trading threats with the paranoid, autocratic leader of a state whose economy is one-four-hundredth the size of ours about how well their (nonexistent) desktop nuclear launch buttons work. Not ten years serving presidents of both parties at the State Department, the White House, and overseas. Not leadership training. Not two degrees’ worth of coursework in international relations and deterrence theory, including the value of signaling, bluffing, and credibility. Not following decades of feminist scholarship pointing out the phallic nature of the nuclear arms race — though we owe those much-derided academics and activists a “You’re right,” don’t we?
What I thought of first as I scrolled through Twitter on Tuesday night, mouth agape, was my mom’s personal story about nuclear Armageddon. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, near Strategic Air Command, which was presumed to be one of the prime targets of a Soviet nuclear first strike, were one to occur. My mom used to tell us about a talk she had with her dad during the most frightening days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when many Americans believed a Soviet strike was imminent. She was leaving for a post-college job in Des Moines, Iowa, a few hundred miles away. “If anything happens,” said Grandpa, “come back and look for your mother.” Of course, after a nuclear strike, that would be ridiculous. But Grandpa was holding on to how the world was supposed to work — dads look after moms, children look after parents — even as the world failed to follow its own rules.
I’m not worried about a nuclear exchange with Pyongyang this weekend or next. The more absurd the public exchanges become, the easier it will be for cooler heads on both sides to prevail — in the short term, at least. We now know that President Nixon did not, in fact, have control of the nuclear launch codes during a period when his closest aides judged him to be impaired and unreliable. Perceptions of erratic behavior also played a part in the palace coup that drove Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader whose actions sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis, out of office. Current and former U.S. defense officials have gone out of their way, in congressional testimony and other public forums — pretty much anytime a reporter asks — to make it clear that they do think about receiving illegal or immoral orders, and how they might respond. Even Kim Jong-un, who said last fall that a “frightened dog barks louder,” seems to understand that these exchanges with Trump are for show.
No, what I’m worried about — and much more worried about after the “button” tweet — is what happens when a powerful country loses credibility so rapidly that it doesn’t know it’s gone. Imagine the plight of the U.S. envoys trying to negotiate a Ukraine peacekeeping mission with teeth, or the military officer telling Iranian boats to stay clear of our ships. Imagine foreign nations offering a response that seems to say, “And how is your button today?”
The temptation to try to reestablish U.S. credibility through shows of force — on the Korean Peninsula or elsewhere — is going to be enormous. The pressure won’t just come from our president wanting to use his metaphorical button. It will come from the men and women in the security Establishment who are used to demonstrating U.S. resolve. And it will come from our allies and partners, who agreed to work with a U.S. that means what it says.
At the same time, Kim Jong-un has just made it look easy to make our president look ridiculous. Others will be tempted to follow suit. Tweets, though embarrassing, are harmless. Other kinds of provocations may not be.
A world in which our enemies feel more emboldened to provoke and taunt us — and we feel more compelled to respond when they do — is a less stable world. It’s a world in which our partners doubt us and our military needs to perform more shows of force to prove that our planes and ships, unlike the desktop launcher, are real. It’s a world in which diplomatic misperceptions and accidental escalations are more likely. That’s the world our president — and all his enablers who told us to focus on his policies, not his tweets — has given us.
I wonder what stories my son will tell his kids about the Nuclear Button Crisis.