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With its just-released nuclear strategy, the Trump administration is threatening another nuclear arms race and bringing the world closer to catastrophe, says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Pentagon has released its new Nuclear Posture Review. It calls for a major upgrade of the nuclear arsenal to confront Russia and China. And for the first time, it would permit the use of nuclear weapons even in response to a non-military attack, like the cyber hacking of US infrastructure.
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Welcome, Colonel.
So, we’re speaking on a day when just after this Nuclear Posture has come out, but also the new START Treaty, which is the aim to reduce the arsenal of both the US and Russia, is taking full effect today after it was signed eight years ago under President Obama. Many analysts are now saying that this new Posture Review, this Nuclear Weapons Posture Review from Trump, heralds the end of that era and the start perhaps of a new nuclear arms race. Your thoughts?
LARRY WILKERSON: They may well be right. I see this as partly a continuation of what the Obama administration had put in motion, which was a modernization of our nuclear stockpile to ensure that it was effective, that is to say, they would work. When you leave a nuclear weapon on the shelf for a long time, sometimes you need to check it. It’s called surety, and to modernize as I said and to ensure that the arsenal was best shaped for what threats might be envisioned in the future. They were going to spend lots of money on this over the next decade or so. I thought that was even far too much in terms of money. It’s mainly to keep the nuclear weapons part of the military-industrial complex alive and well, the scientists, the facilities, and so forth, as much as it is to protect America’s security.
Now we have the Trump administration, particularly in this Review, orchestrated mostly by the Pentagon, saying, “That’s not enough, really.” And they’re saying that based on some things that the Russians are doing in their exercises and in their doctrine as well as on what the Chinese are doing but in many cases, it is our efforts that have propelled the Russians and the Chinese to do what they’re doing. So, this is another form of what you might call Cold War-like competition starting up to keep our military-industrial complex alive and well prospering, as well as to deal with what might be potential threats in the world.
Let’s just look at what the Russians have been doing and they’ve incorporated in their doctrine. In their field army exercises of late, 2013 at least, 2014, they have been saying that one of the things they will do to counter NATO’s supposed superiority in precision-guided munitions, conventional weaponry, is use small-yield nuclear weapons as if that would not be escalatory. I’ve had conversations to this effect. “Don’t you know that would be escalatory and that we would use them back, and so forth?” So, we’re sort of trying to counter that with regard to Russia with this Review.
With China, it’s probably more serious because China’s always had the theory that Mao Zedong gave them that nuclear weapons were basically useless. I kind of like that theory. The Chinese thought, “Well, we’ll only build enough nuclear weapons so that we deter anyone from ever using them on us.” Mao, of course, used rhetoric like, “You shoot me with them and you might kill 300 million but I’ll have 400 or 500 million left. I’ll shoot Los Angeles and New York with mine and you won’t shoot any more, or you’ll sue for peace, or whatever.” So, Mao’s theory persisted for a long time.
Now the Chinese are thinking differently. With North Korea having created nuclear weapons, and with Japan and the potential for Japan to become a full-up nuclear power, which could happen overnight, with all of that going on, the Chinese are re-looking at their nuclear policy. They’re thinking that they better build enough weapons in order to survive a first strike and to retaliate majorly. This is perturbing and changing the entire nuclear weapon portfolio, if you will, around the world for a lot of countries. Not only that, the proliferation is hurting us.
We’re looking at a brave new world for sure in terms of nuclear weapons, and things like the START Treaty which you mentioned, and the cooperation that went along with that, and the Moscow Treaty, and other such arms limitation treaties, are probably going to fall by the wayside. We’re going to see another arms race, and in particular, one in nuclear weapons. That’s going to be I think very dangerous for the world. I think the Atomic Bulletin, which moved the Doomsday Clock I think to two minutes or so from midnight, it hadn’t been that close since the Cuban missile crisis, in my knowledge. I think they’re right. I think we’re probably approaching a threshold where we’re going to be closer to a nuclear exchange than we’ve been since 1945.
AARON MATÉ: That’s right, Colonel. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its famous Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, the highest point it’s been at since 1953 when the US tested a hydrogen bomb.
LARRY WILKERSON: Was it ’53? I was thinking about ’62. I think they didn’t have a chance to react to the Cuban missile crisis. It unfolded so quickly.
AARON MATÉ: Right. So, you mentioned how Trump is in many ways continuing Obama’s more than 1 trillion dollar nuclear upgrade but in terms of what’s new here, what about the leeway that he is offering in terms of the grounds for using nuclear weapons? The Review talks about using it in response to a non-military attack, something that cripples US infrastructure. That is unprecedented.
LARRY WILKERSON: Yeah. That’s frightening. I don’t discount the nature of the new threats, particularly this one, cyber warfare and so forth. I don’t discount that at all but I don’t, at the same time, think that a nuclear response is necessarily how we should be thinking about it. I particularly don’t think that given what Senator Risch, for example, of Idaho, Republican of Idaho, my political party, said in the Bob Corker SFRC hearing recently, talking about that debating in the Congress, as they well should debate, whether or not the president had the right first to use nuclear weapons without consulting the Congress and second to do so in a first-use capacity.
And Senator Risch essentially described the constitution as an anachronism, the war power as silly if it were exercised as the constitution says, and as the War Powers Resolution, US Code title 50 chapter 33, says, the War Powers Resolution codified it into the law that the Congress must be consulted. He essentially said that’s poppycock, that in these modern times the president has to have the right to push the button.
You put those things together, the deterioration of arms control treaties, and the whole deterioration of the nonproliferation regime, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and this laissez-faire attitude by the leading world power with nuclear weapons, the United States and it becomes a really dangerous world.
AARON MATÉ: Finally, Colonel, there was a recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News that said that showing that more than half of Americans are concerned that Trump will launch a nuclear attack without justification. This deterrent we hear often about where his military leadership wouldn’t obey an unlawful order, can we trust that?
LARRY WILKERSON: That’s a very important question. It’s a question I’ve asked myself since Mr. Trump was elected. I’ll have to be honest and tell you it’s a question I’ve asked myself a couple of times before, in various usually Republican administrations. Richard Nixon comes to mind immediately. Richard Nixon actually threatened on more than one occasion to use nuclear weapons. I think he was just doing that rhetorically but it is a matter of concern, and I must say, this concern on my part and I think a lot of my colleagues has been deepened profoundly by this administration. I say that because this administration seems to have so little experience and yet such a big ego. You put those things together and you’ve really got a situation that’s perilous. And just having John Kelly, and Jim Mattis, and H.R. McMaster, and perhaps even Rex Tillerson in there to advise the president is not as comforting as some think it should be. So, I’m worried. I’m deeply worried.
AARON MATÉ: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary, thank you.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks, Aaron. Take care.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.