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The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump

The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump by William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina. BenBella Books, 2020, 219 pp.\

The Button could have been a balanced, focused argument on nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons. Ultimately, it devolves into the same tired antinuclear arguments of the past 30 years. The work suffers from several limitations, first among them the conscious bias of the “usual suspects” cited in the work along with a plethora of hyperbolic state­ments. Some examples include the following: “We are all on the atomic Titanic. . . . The risk of accidental nuclear war is increasing. . . . [There is] very little in the way of controls. . . . We’re playing Russian roulette with humanity. . . . There is no way to prevent a deter­mined President from starting a nuclear war . . . without any provocation. . . . The system is unconstitutional, dangerous, outdated, and unnecessary.” Additionally, the book is not logically organized to make the argument against nuclear weapons; rather, it presents the material haphazardly. It begins with a fantasy-based scenario likely to deter most serious nuclear scholars from reading any further. Next, the authors meander from current blus­ter, to some nuclear history, to a host of problems with nuclear weapons, then more his­tory—but without a clearly focused argument or adequate context. The work would have been more effective by stating its arguments up front, then answering the question posed in chapter 9: “Why do we still have the Bomb?” Each problem or risk factor should have been addressed individually. Instead, the reader must wade through the disarray to reach the recommendations in chapter 10. This review begins there and analyzes each recom­mendation, offering a more balanced view of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.

The authors’ overarching argument is that the United States should ultimately elimi­nate all nuclear weapons, but until then, it should restrict authority for nuclear use and change its nuclear posture. They offer 10 recommendations to support this argument, summarized below.

End sole authority. The authors argue that presidents alone should not have the power to authorize nuclear use because they may be unstable or need to make a snap decision. Instead, Congress should be involved in any decision for first use of nuclear weapons to slow down the process and allow for more decision time. The president would retain sole authority to act freely and quickly in the case of a confirmed attack. The authors seem to believe that a president would, without provocation, make a nuclear-use decision without additional input. They conflate sole authority with sole decision-making, ignoring the consultations that would naturally occur before authorizing nuclear use—including whether use is legal in a given context. Such consultations were the case with President Trump’s decision to deny a strike on Iran. While it may regrettably be part of deterrence, bluster is not blunder. Furthermore, requiring congressional approval could create ambi­guity about who controls nuclear use and complicate extended deterrence. For example, if Congress voted to use nuclear weapons without presidential approval, based on the passions of the people, who decides? Does this ambiguity increase the risks that our ad­versaries might misunderstand US intentions or control? Such a situation creates a crisis within a crisis and may invite preemption by an adversary. The authors correctly state that control of nuclear weapons is scary. This is why the United States has sole authority.

No launch on warning (LOW). Perry and Collina are terrified of accidental nuclear use based on false warning, particularly from cyberattack or “if the STRATCOM Com­mander was having a bad day.” They recommend using nuclear weapons only in retalia­tion after a confirmed detonation (on the US or allies). However, their argument dis­counts how LOW complicates Russian assessments of war outcomes and enhances deterrence. The work of Steve Cimbala is instructive here and could have been referenced to great effect.1 The authors do not seem to realize that LOW is a US choice, not an automatic response. They fear LOW due to false alarms leading to an accidental nuclear war. The fact is, a nuclear accident is not war, and a nuclear war is no accident.

No first use (NFU). This recommendation may well be the most reasonable of the en­tire book. However, the argument for NFU is undeveloped and underexamined. On the one hand, NFU would appear to create a more stable deterrence environment because it offers a clear declaratory policy yet retains flexibility as a national security choice. How­ever, such a policy is only as strong as the trust between adversaries—currently in short supply. On the other hand, NFU would not be reassuring to allies—especially if the au­thors’ recommendation of congressional approval for nuclear use is adopted. This policy could lead to greater proliferation. The value of having options retains what Tom Schelling calls “the threat that leaves something to chance.” Perry and Collina also suggest limiting the first-strike threat from submarines by restricting their deployment areas. This think­ing is illogical. Since submarines are supposed to be stealthy, how would one know their location? And, even if restricted, their missiles could still be used for first strike.

Eliminate US ICBMs. This is the book’s third major argument because it most closely relates to the authors’ fears of false warning and LOW. They see ICBMs as simply a first-strike weapon of immense danger and not worth the yearly $10B replacement/sustain­ment cost over the next 30 years. While the authors support extending the New Start treaty limits on nuclear weapons, they fail to say what happens to Russian missiles not committed to US ICBM targets. They discount the “missile sponge” argument or using ICBMs as retaliatory weapons—even a sponge has holes. ICBMs impose costs on our adversaries and raise the stakes of an attack. Yes, the central US is in the crosshairs of Russian missiles, but without US ICBMs, what else would be in the crosshairs? Elimi­nating US ICBMs makes Russian targeting simpler and crucially more effective. These missiles are the safest leg of the triad and a worthy, affordable insurance policy for such an existential threat.

Renew New Start. While not a major argument in the book, the authors obviously want to stress the importance of arms control with a goal of nuclear zero. It seems the New Start treaty will be extended. However, the Russians do not intend to further reduce their strategic weapons or, seemingly, limit tactical/short-range nuclear weapons. The authors would like the US to immediately reduce its entire nuclear arsenal to 100 nuclear weapons and deploy only 10 nuclear submarines, without specifying a deployment pos­ture or the effects on their other proposals. They somehow believe that such drastic re­ductions will make the US safer, ascribing much more trust to Russian intentions than to US military nuclear planners at STRATCOM. Finally, Perry and Collina predict grave implications from a lapse of New Start, claiming that a runaway arms race would be worse than current modernization efforts. This too is hyperbole. First, there is no current arms race, nor must there be one without New Start. Current modernization efforts re­spect New Start limits and will ensure that the systems remain viable. Nuclear weapons are not like fine wine: they do not get better with age. Second, as the authors mention, we do not need arms control to reduce our weapons—to even below New Start limits. How much is enough for minimum deterrence of a low-probability, high-consequence event? Is it zero or something else? This is a national security choice.

Limit BMD. The authors excoriate the US for deploying BMD, blaming it for most of our arms control problems and for Russian behavior. They posit that BMD is ineffective, costly, and destabilizing. Further, they fear that if a president believes missile defense is effective he may “escalate . . . [and] . . . the more we spend the more we convince ourselves it will work.” This is fear mongering. By testing BMD, we learn what works and what does not. This process increases confidence in the system’s ability to protect against a rogue state attack—buying time to consider retaliation. As for destabilizing, the US BMD system is not designed to defend against an attack from Russia or China. To think otherwise is ludicrous. Consider that the Russians have 100 missile defenses around Moscow. The US will soon have 64 systems in Alaska and California. The Russians would like the US to be completely vulnerable even though our systems will be extremely lim­ited if used as a defense. Just as the US cannot assure allies, it cannot allay the suspicions of Russian leaders. Nations must convince themselves. Doing so requires trust and a trust­worthy partner. The authors quote George Schultz’s statement that “deterrence cannot protect the world from nuclear blunder or nuclear terrorism.” It seems reasonable to be­lieve that BMD might.

The authors conclude the book with four more recommendations: using executive ac­tion rather than treaties to make unilateral changes to our nuclear posture, engaging North Korea and Iran, exercising public diplomacy toward nuclear zero, and electing an antinuclear president. Regrettably, few specifics emerge. However, earlier parts of the book suggest that they would prefer executive action to “de-mate” warheads from weap­ons to increase safety. They seek to increase public support for nuclear zero and, of course, the environmental and climate change benefits of nuclear abolition. Finally, they hope for a president committed to changing US nuclear policy. Success in the two latter efforts will require that the authors first convince Russian leaders of the need for change— something not likely until 2030 (post Putin).

The authors deal in possibilities without any analysis of probabilities and second-order effects of the risk of such drastic changes. They focus on US actions, neither addressing our adversary’s actions and intentions nor suggesting turning Russian nuclear weapons into glowing ploughshares. The recommendations do not approach the kind of Reagan-Gorbachev moment of a grand bargain toward nuclear disarmament. Perhaps the authors were being realistic, but their fictional scenario makes it less likely. They could have sug­gested immediate, complete elimination of all ground-based nuclear weapons. Their argu­ment remains unclear if the suggested limits (only 100 nuclear weapons) are unilateral or post–New Start goals for the US and Russia. However, since the book exhorts nuclear zero, suggesting anything short of zero seems useless. It would have been insightful for the authors to consider other more probable scenarios than the opening example. For instance, what should the US response be if we successfully intercept a rogue nuclear-armed missile launched against the United States? Even more interesting, what if the intercept fails?

Three recommendations are noteworthy: upgrade command-control systems, protect the president, and eliminate the Trident low-yield nuclear missile. C2 upgrades will make current and future systems less vulnerable and more effective. New methods of protecting the president will ensure continuity and proper authority. The authors should have suggested changes to presidential succession—to include the secretary of defense as third in line. Other options exist for a low-yield nuclear option that would help maintain submarine survivability.

The book proclaims that Bill Perry was the strategist behind most of the US military advantage today. If so, it seems strange his views have changed to such a degree. One wonders if this is part regret for unfinished work, missed opportunity, or perhaps an overzealous antinuclear coauthor. For those who believe that eliminating nuclear weap­ons is feasible, desirable, and acceptable, this book will likely disappoint. Those who be­lieve otherwise will be equally unconvinced. A more balanced view of nuclear deterrence can be found in the writings of Forsyth, Chilton, Obering, Heinrichs, Mahnken, and Cimbala.2 Read this book if you wish to learn the arguments of the antinuclear establish­ment, and remember that “it is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

W. Michael Guillot
Editor, Strategic Studies Quarterly


[1] See, for example, Stephen J. Cimbala, "Nuclear Arms Control: A Nuclear Posture Review Opportunity," Strategic Studies Quarterly 11, no. 3 (Fall 2017): 95–114, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/.

[2] See the Strategic Studies Quarterly archive at https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/.

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