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A new race for nuclear “superiority”?

March 9, 2017

The Trump tweet heard round the world. Meaning what, exactly?

If Robert Monroe has the ear of Donald Trump, US aspirations to seek a world without nuclear weapons, however ambivalent and distant they may have been under President Obama, could very quickly be replaced by an unrestrained quest for nuclear superiority.

Robert who? I had never heard his name before last week, when his byline started showing up in publications such as the Investors Business Daily and The Hill, a Washington-based political opinion blog. His articles—“Learning to live with nuclear weapons, long term” and “A Trump revolution is needed for America’s nuclear arsenal”—essentially recommend that the US throw off all pretense of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons (never mind eliminating them, even in some remote future) and commit itself to testing, building, and deploying new warheads, delivery systems, missile defenses, and infrastructure as fast as possible.

Monroe isn’t just spouting the feverish rhetoric typical of nuclear deterrence enthusiasts, although there’s plenty of that. Some samples:

“Our strategy of the past sixty years — of attempting to do away with nukes — is about to thrust us into a world of horror and chaos.” (Sound familiar? Russia has said virtually the same thing about the ban treaty.)

“The only strategy that can save the world is for the five nuclear-weapons states (sic) to accept the responsibility of enforcing nonproliferation, using military force if necessary.”

“Today we risk losing our country unless President-elect Trump launches a virtual nuclear weapons revolution to reverse the ill-advised policies that have been in place and rebuild our capabilities.”

“The Trump leadership team will have to reverse our national nuclear weapons policies instantly and initiate a crash course of actions if America is to survive.”

The “actions” he’s recommending, taken together, are intended to rehabilitate the image and role of nuclear weapons and make their “permanent” possession by a handful of states the cornerstone of national and global security. His proposals read like a shopping list for the unrepentant cold warrior:

  • “eliminate Obama’s national goal of ‘a world without nuclear weapons,’ and re-establish nuclear weapons’ superiority as the nation’s #1 objective;”
  • withdraw from the Iran agreement and threaten military force if Iran doesn’t dismantle its nuclear facilities;
  • “use deterrence (issue threats, create fear) on major foreign policy issues;”
  • enforce nonproliferation militarily, “if necessary”;
  • resume underground nuclear testing in order to “design and test advanced nuclear weapons of all types.”
  • “increase our understanding of nuclear weapons effects, for offensive and defensive purposes” (i.e., not in order to reinforce our abhorrence of weapons that urgently need to be eliminated);
  • “design, test, and produce an entirely new stockpile of advanced nuclear weapons”;
  • “design and produce replacement nuclear weapons’ delivery systems”;
  • “re-establish the Defense Nuclear Agency” (tuck that one away for a minute)

Monroe even thinks the US should encourage Russia, the UK, France, and China to resume nuclear testing and forge ahead with their own plans to rebuild their arsenals. Why? Are you sitting down? So that the P5 collectively can have “unquestioned nuclear superiority,” enabling them to “enforce nonproliferation absolutely,” This, after all, is their job under the NPT, whose authors, he says, “wisely” created a two-tier system of nuclear and non-nuclear states, but failed to give the upper tier a mechanism for enforcing non-proliferation. I kid you not.

Okay, but why does any of this matter? These and similarly outrageous ideas have been resurfacing in one form or another as the stigmatization of nuclear weapons has taken hold and the momentum has picked up for a ban treaty. It’s called pushback, and it’s a sign that we’re having an impact. So what if the lunatic fringe has another spokesperson?

Retired Vice Admiral Robert R. Monroe was the director of the Defense Nuclear Agency from 1977-80 (remember that last recommendation on the list?), during which time he managed research into the effects of nuclear weapons, their “vulnerabilities,” and their survivability after a first strike. He helped coordinate Pentagon opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty when President Carter tried to revive it. After retiring from the Navy, Monroe went to Bechtel and started its defense and space business division. As late as 2005, he was Bechtel’s point person on nuclear weapons, focusing, according to his bio, on deterrence, non-proliferation, and “future nuclear weapons posture.”

I was unable to find Monroe’s name on published lists of Trump’s military advisors, but his credentials and views—along with a complete set of “alternate facts” to back them up—perfectly match those of the extremists and warmongers who have populated the Trump administration. I think we’d be on safe ground to assume that the dangerous program he has outlined has proponents within the administration, who will be eager to take it up in nearly every detail.

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