On Donald Trump’s first day in office he will be handed the “nuclear biscuit” – a small card with the codes he would need to talk to the Pentagon war room to verify his identity in the event of a national security crisis.
Some presidents have chosen to keep the “biscuit” on them, though that is not foolproof. Jimmy Carter left his in his clothes when he sent them to the dry-cleaners. Bill Clinton had it in his wallet with his credit cards, but then lost the wallet.
Others have chosen to give the card to an aide to keep in a briefcase, known as the “nuclear football”, together with a manual containing US war plans for different contingencies and one on “continuity of government”, where to go to ensure executive authority survives a first nuclear strike.
The “biscuit” and “football” are the embodiment of the awesome, civilisation-ending power that will be put in Trump’s hands on 20 January. They only become relevant in very rare moments of extreme crisis, but a US president’s ability to manage crises around the world will help determine whether they become extreme.
There is one such situation already in the in-tray Trump will find on his desk, on the Korean peninsula, where the North Korean regime is rapidly developing a long-range nuclear missile. Another could blow up at any time with Russia, whose warplanes are flying increasingly close to Nato planes and ships in a high-stakes game of chicken. And Trump could trigger a third crisis, with Iran, if he follows through with his threat to tear up last year’s agreement curbing its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.
Trump vowed to undo the Iran nuclear deal, but getting others to follow him will be tough https://t.co/GYf4V1Thgd ? — Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) November 11, 2016
Trump has claimed he could improve relations with Russia, and in particular with Vladimir Putin personally, that would defuse the high tensions over Ukraine and Syria. Such deals could well be at the expense of the people of those countries, but could conceivably lessen the chances of a complete end to arms control and the return to an expensive and dangerous nuclear arms race. Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), points out that the deepest cuts in nuclear arsenals have been achieved by Republican administrations.
“Republicans love nuclear weapons reductions, as long as they’re not proposed by a Democratic president,” Kristensen wrote on an FAS blog.
“That is the lesson from decades of US nuclear weapons and arms control management. If that trend continues, then we can expect the new Donald Trump administration to reduce the US nuclear weapons arsenal more than the Obama administration did.”
The current arms treaty limiting the strategic arsenals of both countries, New Start, expires in 2021. A decision will have to be made whether to replace it or let arms control wither. Both Putin and Trump could save tens of billions of dollars by cutting arsenals. As part of any deal, however, Putin would ask for the scrapping of the US missile defence system currently being erected in eastern Europe. Any concessions on the US trillion-dollar nuclear weapon modernisation programme, which Trump endorses in his transition website, would bring him in direct conflict with the Republican establishment.
“I could imagine Trump personally being more flexible,” Acton said. “But it would set up a huge fight with Congress. Congress loves missile defence.”
One Russian paper today claims "Clinton will surround us with nuclear rockets". What Russia's press is saying as Americans go to the polls. pic.twitter.com/AcFjcN3OlL— Steve Rosenberg (@BBCSteveR) November 8, 2016