Read more: Experts: America Doesn’t Need All These Nukes
But there’s an important qualifier in Lewis’s description of nuclear-averse American policymakers. And that’s the word “sane.”
“The risk is that he will be quicker to order their use in a confrontation with Russia, China, North Korea or Iran and that the conflict will escalate to all-out nuclear war,” Blair said.
Former President Barack Obama’s nuclear review, from 2010, stated that the United States would only use nukes “in extreme circumstances.” Obama also championed a wide range of new and improved atomic warheads, plus missiles, bombers, and submarines to carry them.
“We haven’t used nuclear weapons since 1945 because there are enormous political downsides to doing so,” Lewis added. “As a practical matter, I don’t think there will ever be a scenario in which using nuclear weapons will be an appealing option for a sane US policymaker.”
With today’s nuclear weapons, there are pretty much no options for US leaders to wage a “small” atomic war. You either end the world or you don’t. In concept, that all-or-nothing proposition makes nuclear conflict less likely.
A nuke is a nuke is a nuke, in Lewis’s conception. There are no truly small ones. By extension, there are no limited nuclear wars, and American leaders will be as loath to actually use Trump’s smaller nukes as they were to use Obama’s bigger ones.
“The reason I say this is that reducing the yield doesn’t make it any easier to use a nuclear weapon. In that sense, it is no more credible than the existing nuclear weapons in our stockpile—some of which, like the W80 and B61, already have variable yields with very low settings.”
The efforts to build, and develop rules for using lower-yield nuclear weapons reflects “wishful thinking” by leaders and military planners, Lewis said. Advocates of small nukes “imagine that there is some technical solution to what is an impossible political problem.”