Trump, Clinton, and the risk of nuclear war

Voter Guide


Sam Nunn, “Only Hillary Clinton Is Prepared for the Nuclear Threat; Donald Trump is an apprentice in the nuclear world. Worse, he has no appetite for learning,” Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2016 (updated 1:09 p.m. ET).

Many of us have heard and read all kinds of things about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and are sick of the stories about his character and alleged lies and actions, and about her character and alleged lies and corruption.

Yet one critical issue deserves our further attention before we vote. That issue is how our vote for president could affect our own individual chances of physical survival, our own physical existence, over the next four years.

In a word, the outcome of he election could affect not only our future, but whether we have a future.

While politicians and others seem to have forgotten the fact, we still live in a nuclear world in which both the United States and Russia possess thousands of nuclear weapons targeted at the cities and infrastructure of the other country.  The time a president of the U.S. or Russia would have to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike in response to a real or perceived incoming nuclear attack is probably less than 15-30 minutes.

The possibility of nuclear war triggered by accident, misunderstanding, or a false assessment of one’s ability to outbluff the other side is far greater than we allow ourselves to contemplate.

Since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when we came perilously close to a full nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, Soviet, Russian, and American leaders have worked hard to decrease the risk of nuclear war. These efforts took the form of a series of arms control agreements in the ensuing 50 years and the adoption of a number of confidence-building measures on both sides.

However, such efforts have now ceased. No new agreements are being negotiated, while the continued viability of the INF agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe is in question due to Russian violations of its basic provisions. Both sides appear to be developing new kinds of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, in the last few years Russia,  under Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly resorted to nuclear threats to affect U.S. foreign policy actions in the Ukraine, Syria and within NATO.

Russia recently conducted its largest civil defense exercise in decades.

Russian propaganda has put out the story in recent weeks that if Hillary Clinton becomes president it will lead to World War III. In essence, the argument is that if the U.S. strongly opposes Russia in Syria, it will lead to nuclear war. This amounts to an argument by Russia that if we do not vote for appeasement and Donald Trump, World War III will ensue.

The threat of nuclear war is real, but its source is not a potential failure to pursue appeasement with Russia.


(1) Michaek Khodarkovsky, “Playing With Fear: Russia’s War Card,” New York Times, October 26, 2016.

(2) Anne Applebaum “Why is Trump suddenly talking about World War III?” Washington Post, October 28, 2016.

“Back in March 2014, just after the Russian invasion of Crimea, Russia’s most famous state television broadcaster presented the international situation in stark terms. ‘Russia, Dimitry Kiselyov told his millions of viewers, ‘is the only country in the world that really can turn [the] USA into radioactive ash. Against a backdrop of mushroom clouds and throbbing nuclear targets, he spoke ominously of how President Obama’s hair was turning gray — ‘I admit this can be a coincidence’ — and the increasing desperation of a White House that truly feared that nuclear war might break out at any moment.

Now it’s October 2016, and Kiselyov, who also heads Russia’s state-owned news agency, is at it again. ‘Impudent behavior toward Russia’ has a ‘nuclear dimension,’ he warned ominously on Oct. 9. In the same program, he again featured photographs of Obama. Kiselyov said that there had been a ‘radical change’ in the U.S.-Russian relationship, and he added a threat: ‘Moscow would react with nerves of steel’ to any U.S. intervention in Syria — up to and including a nuclear response. ‘If it should one day happen, every one of you should know where the nearest bomb shelter is. It’s best to find out now,’ another television channel has advised.

(3) “Putin’s playing “chicken” in Syria and the risk of escalation to nuclear war,” The Trenchant Observer, October 8, 2015.

Vladimir Putin knows that the weak foreign policy of Barack Obama would come to an end if Clinton is elected.

Before we cave in to Putin’s nuclear threats, let us bear in mind a few cold, hard facts.

Russia has invaded and annexed the Crimea and invaded and still occupies the eastern Ukraine provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, defying the cornerstone principle of the U.N. Charter and international law prohibiting the illegal use of force across international frontiers.

Recently it has been committing war crimes and supporting the Syrian government in the commission of war crimes on a large scale in Syria, while operating in extremely close proximity to U.S. forces in and over the country.

Relations between Russia and the United States are probably at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, if not the 1960’s.

Today, the possibility of nuclear war, accidental or resulting from an escalation over a non-nuclear event, is real — and substantial.

U.S. Elections: The choice on November 8, 2016

Who, between the presidential candidates, has the knowledge and analytical abilities, the ability to mobilize our allies, the steady temperament, and the absolute composure to see us through a nuclear crisis with Russia, or for that matter with North Korea?

Our answer to that question may have a decisive impact on the likelihood of a nuclear war, and our own physical survival.

One might also ask, who has the vision and strategy to halt or reduce nuclear proliferation, as well as to control and reduce the risks of a nuclear confrontation with Russia or North Korea?

After stressing that there are no “checks and balances” on the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons, Senator Nunn writes,

What about moral considerations? William Swing, a retired Episcopal bishop, recently offered, in a memo sent to about a dozen leaders, a powerful reminder of the importance of this year’s presidential choice: “Whoever wins will have his or her hand on the weapons that could end life, as we know it, on this planet. We are not so much voting for a president as choosing a god. When you put your hand on the nuclear trigger and become the single agent of the Earth’s destruction that is power beyond human imagining.”

Is any human prepared or qualified to make this fateful decision for mankind? I think not. Yet this is the responsibility of the commander in chief. Temperament, composure and sound judgment are essential. So is understanding America’s adversaries and allies and, most important, possessing the leadership qualities required to reduce the risk that such a terrible call will ever have to be made.

Contemplating Nuclear War and Our Own Deaths

We tend to avoid and even shun the thought of our own individual deaths, particularly in the near term.  The thought is almost too terrifying to face directly.

Nonetheless, we must face the reality that who we choose to be president may have a signficant impact on the likelihood of our and our families’ physically surviving the next four years.

This may sound alarmist. Yet it is reality itself that is alarming.

Read closely the op-ed cited above by former Senator Sam Nunn, a long-time leader in the Senate on nuclear arms control agreements and related issues.  Consider carefully each of the points he makes.

Then, look at the character of each of the candidates, and how each of them reacts under stress or direct challenge.

Which of them, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, has a record of steady nerves under intense criticism and confrontation?   Which of them has the more stable and predictable personality? Which of them has experience in foreign policy, and is more likely to gather highly qualified advisors around himself or herself?

Above all, which of them is more likely to coordinate and follow expert advice in a crunch, even the ultimate crunch of a nuclear show-down or ambiguous signals that could possibly lead to accidental nuclear war?

Both candidates have endless liabilities. At this point, secondary arguments should be put aside to focus on the one most critical issue:

In whom can we trust our lives to handle any nuclear crisis, and to take effective steps to reduce the chances of one ever occurring?

The Trenchant Observer



This article has not been indexed by Google, and may not be in time to be be read by voters before the election. Not one hit for the following article has been referred to The Trenchant Observer website by Google in any of the countries in which it maintains search engines, as of 3:00 p.m. ET on November 7, 2016.

Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo all indexed the article more or less in real time.

The fact that Google is in effect censoring the blog by not indexing it in a timely fashion reveals the incredible power Google has achieved to affect the public discourse in many countries, including the United States. Google appears to cooperate quite regularly with foreign governments in filtering content.

The technology created by Google and its dominant market position in the search industry have resulted in the existance of a totalitarian instrument with incredible power to shape political discussion by not indexing certain pages, or not doing so in real time. It systematically filters out the content of foreign newspapers, and news articles with which your previous searches indicate you would not agree.

It is like a newspaper distributor which has absolute power to unilaterally decide if you will get the New York Times the day it is published, or next week, or maybe a week after a critical debate in Congress–or even after the elections.


About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.