I have no problem with President Trump's tweet on nuclear weapons.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Of course, many others reacted with pathetic uproar. The perpetually enraged liberal think-tanker Neera Tanden led the way in attempting to persuade U.S. enemies that we are psychologically weak.
I had to just reassure my teen-age daughter not to panic about nuclear war with North Korea because she read Trump’s tweet. I’m so filled with rage at Donald Trump.— Neera Tanden???????? (@neeratanden) January 3, 2018
While I recognize that there are serious voices who have raised concerns about Trump's tweet (the best example is nuclear warfare expert, Tom Nichols, who has written eloquently on these issues), I don't share them.
For a start, the context matters greatly here.
Remember that Trump's tweet came in response to an explicit nuclear threat from Kim Jong Un. The president was simply reminding Kim and those around him that the U.S. has the ability to annihilate them on very short notice. And be under no illusions, Kim's questionable sanity requires a constant and explicit counterpart in U.S. deterrence. This necessity was furthered last week when the British intelligence community reported that Kim's command authority operates on a very short time constraint.
In addition, although crude, Trump's tweet was accurate in its "bigger" button narrative. Consider the most forward deployed element of the U.S. nuclear triad: the U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet (SSBNs). As the president frequently points out, at least one of these boats is now constantly stationed off the North Korean coast. And as I've explained,
"the SSBNs represent the pinnacle of warfighting lethality. With each SSBN armed with 24 missiles and at least 8 independent nuclear warheads per missile, one US Ohio-class submarine carries at least 192 nuclear warheads varying between yields of 100 and 475 kilotons. Moreover, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists blog noted in March, these missiles possess exceptionally accurate targeting systems."
Again, this isn't about bluster but balance of power on the most consequential of all national security concerns: nuclear deterrence. It's about Kim knowing that his existence exists subject to the discretion of the United States and not vice versa.
Yet Trump's words might also hold value at a broader strategic level.
After all, in order to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis diplomatically, China must believe that Trump is prepared to use the full measure of U.S. military power to disarm Kim Jong Un. If China does believe this, it will have a far greater inclination to pressure Kim to come to the negotiating table in good faith. If Trump's tweet fosters that Chinese perception, it is a good thing.
And the Chinese are certainly watching.
According to CIA director, Mike Pompeo, Trump's tweets are regarded with very close analytical attention by foreign governments. Indeed, Pompeo claims that the president's penchant for tweeting has actually provided material benefits to the U.S. intelligence community's understanding of foreign leadership calculations!
Ultimately, one of former President Barack Obama's central challenges was the foreign perception — by friends and foes alike — that he was reluctant to employ the full range of U.S. power. And the former president certainly did little to assuage these perceptions in the field of nuclear warfare. In contrast, cognizant of the immense national security challenge that North Korea poses to the United States, I believe Trump is right to roll the dice and take the opposite approach.