My co-worker Eliezer Yudkowsky recently made the case on social media that Trump’s candidacy raises national security concerns qualitatively more serious than the sort you see in a normal US presidential race:
Every election, the Chicken Littles of both parties make a big deal out of how this year’s election opponent is the Worst Ever and Literally Hitler, and take every single thing their opponents do and try to make it sound as terrible as possible, and so on.
Okay, but here’s the thing. What does not happen every election cycle — and this happened months ago, not in the wake of the current bandwagon — is the entire Republican national security establishment going holy shit and repudiating the Republican candidate en masse.
Maybe I shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone already looks at the world and sees (a) a level of politics that’s theater and (b) a level of politics that’s deadly, deadly serious.
Maybe you heard that Trump said maybe we shouldn’t defend NATO countries if Russia invades. And you interpreted that as Trump expressing fed-up-ness with American military spending and our trying to defend everything in the world without getting much in return. Somebody in the newspapers seemed to be making a big deal out of it, just like they make a big deal out of Clinton emails. Clutching at their pearl necklaces and fainting about how terribly important it is that America honor its commitments to other countries, or something.
The people in the national security bureaucracy — hell, even me, even though I’m not a national security bureaucrat and have only read a handful of military history books — heard that and thought:
Members of the Washington, DC establishment who privately laugh about sexual assault and insider trading, heard that and thought: “You don’t do that.”
And I want to try to spell out why this was so terrible. But I’m not sure it will do any good for me to try to talk about that, until I can slice off and distinguish that discussion from the “that was oh such a terrible bad idea” of the pundits that you’ve already filtered out by now.
Which is a difference that might be difficult to convey. Because the news media and the pundits and certainly all the politicians pretend that, why, of course it’s all deadly serious. It’s hard to convey without me sounding like I myself think that taking bribes and grabbing genitals are not “deadly serious”. And to be clear, it’s not that all discussion of national security is on this separate serious level, because there’s lots of pearl-clutching and professional-wrestling about national security too, in the media.
In a previous thread on my Facebook wall, about the existence of expertise, Brent Dill observed that from the perspective of somebody sufficiently ignorant, maybe there doesn’t seem to be any higher expertise in the world. “Then who builds the spaceships, dammit?” I asked, and Brent Dill replied, “They just saw a TV special on how the moon landings were faked.” From your perspective and my perspective, there are these sorts of entertaining TV shows about the moon landing being faked, and then above that is Real Science, where some things are pretty darned solid despite all the frothy arguments that go on about the replication crisis.
Okay, but what if all you see is the arguments over whether the moon landing was real, and as far as you know, that’s all there is to see? You understand that the TV shows are entertainment, but you don’t realize that there’s a non-entertainment part. Or maybe you think that “did aliens build the pyramids” is real serious science and that it doesn’t get any more serious than that. The Discovery Channel isn’t going to tell you about it. If you’re sufficiently immersed in that world, maybe it’s the only world there is.
Maybe I’m assuming too much when I assume that everybody knows that politics is theater. Maybe the reason the political theater works is that people honestly don’t realize it’s all professional wrestling. That hypothesis doesn’t seem to quite fit with people’s behavior, but maybe this is one of those things I’m not likely to understand that well?
It does occur to me, though, that I might be presuming too much in supposing that other people realize that there’s a Level B in politics as well. Maybe if you grow up with the modern media, it’s easy to think that the Level A is all that exists and there is no deadly serious politics, that people clutching at their pearls and fainting is as serious as anything ever gets.
At this point the analogy to science breaks down, because in science, the Level B above the Discovery Channel is a virtuous place where you find the real pursuit of truth. The Level B in politics is not in the same way the repository of true concern for truly important things. But the Level B in Washington, DC, the issues that people take seriously unlike insider trading, is also not just sociopaths reacting to disasters that are so bad that their own personal hometown might get a nuclear missile. The Level B does contain more stuff than that. The Level B is also not the upper ranks of the Illuminati where they discuss how to keep power and worry about things so bad that they might affect their personal stock prices, because there aren’t any Illuminati and Washington, DC doesn’t work like that either. It’s not the level at which people are just trying to do their jobs, because nobody in Washington, DC is just trying to do their jobs.
But it is the level where you worry about things like the stability of the Europe-Russia border, not because a journalist is going to clutch their pearls in offense because you don’t seem concerned enough, but because you actually care about the stability of the Europe-Russia border. Yes, there are people in Washington, DC like that.
I said this in a comment elsewhere on Facebook, but I’m going to repeat it here, in case there’s people on my Facebook wall who haven’t seen it before:
My reading of history books is admittedly biased by having read about historically interesting cases. This does tend to be cases where things went very right, or more usually, very wrong. American revolution, French revolution, World War I, World War II.
Perhaps there are dozens of other cases where a country elected an impulsive, chaotic, populist leader and nothing whatsoever went wrong.
But when I think of Trump, I think of Hitler, and not in the generic sense of “Hitler” meaning “bad”. I think of the British diplomats who sent Hitler a sternly worded note on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, warning that Britain would defend Poland even though they hadn’t defended Czechoslovakia. According to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Hitler read the note himself instead of having his diplomatic corps explain it to him, and interpreted the standard diplomatic politesse as conciliatory and a go-ahead to invade Poland.
I once played a four-hour live simulation/game called the National Security Decision-Making Game, which was run by various people who were ex-whatevers. There were around 80 of us simulating just 3 different countries, with myself trying to play the Secretary of Defense of the US.
Thinking myself probably above-average intelligence for the room, I’d originally asked for a position that involved intrigue; I was given the title for Director of National Intelligence. But somebody who’d played the game before said he really wanted to be DNI, so I traded it for his Secretary of Defense position. Which I’m glad happened, because my ambitions rapidly went from world optimization to “Understand what is happening immediately around the Department of Defense.”
By the end of NSDM, I left with a suddenly increased respect for any administration that gets to the end of 4 years without nuclear weapons being used. We did not do that well in our NSDM session. I left with a greatly increased appreciation of the real skill and competence possessed by the high-level bureaucrats like the Secretary of Defense who keep everything from toppling over, and who understand what the sternly worded diplomatic notes mean.
I think that a lot of the real function of government is to keep things from toppling over like they did in our NSDM session, and that this depends on the functionaries including the President staying inside certain bounds of behavior — people who understand how the game is supposed to be played. It’s not always a good game and you may be tempted to call for blowing it up rather than letting it continue as usual. Avoid this temptation. Randomly blowing it up will not end well. It can be so, so much worse than it already is.
The system isn’t as stable as it might look when you’re just strolling along your non-melted streets year after year, without any missiles ever falling on your own hometown. I don’t even know how much work it really takes to prevent everything from falling over.
If I were to try summarize very briefly why Trump’s remarks on NATO crossed a holy shit line, it’d be along the lines of: “If you read the history books, you realize that it is really really bad to have any ambiguity about which minor powers the major powers will defend; that is how World War I and World War II both started.”
And: “In the wake of the second World War that started from that kind of ambiguity, the senior leaders in both the East and the West, enemies though they may have been, decided to learn the lesson and henceforth be more clear about which countries they’d defend. Not only did Trump blow through that, he did so in a way that indicates he has no idea of how World War I started and why this is one of the things you absolutely don’t do. He doesn’t listen to advisors. He doesn’t have advisors! God knows what other guardrails he’s going to blow through!”
Trump didn’t realize he was blowing through one of the deadly serious guardrails. And Trump is not actually stupid, he does not actually have an IQ below 100, he took economics at Wharton. So it’s fine, it’s okay, it does not make you a bad person, if you also don’t know why that was so much more terrible than everything else the media is making a fuss about. Not every citizen of America needs to read The Guns of August and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, like I did, or study a vastly larger amount of real military history, like the Republican national security bureaucracy did.
However. If you want to be in the national government, you are supposed to know that this is one of those places where you talk to one of the senior bureaucrats before deciding that it is okay to mouth off about NATO commitments, or before deciding to go ahead and invade Poland.
Even people in Washington, DC who haven’t read any history books understand that part, because most people in Washington, DC do know that politics has a deadly serious level as well as a media theater level.
What Trump said wasn’t a gaffe, it was not one of those things that you’d have to be an idiot to say in front of journalists, it was a world-threatening misstep in the real-life version of the National Security Decision-Making Game.
And now Xi Jinping is thinking about the part where Donald Trump said “Why do we have all these nukes if we can’t use them?” and wondering whether China can take for granted America’s possession of nuclear weapons given that America’s electoral system seems to allow for a certain kind of President. That has already happened and cannot be undone. Even though Donald Trump doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the NSDM, the NSDM gives a fuck about him.
Like it or not, there is in Washington, DC a perceived difference between “committed sexual assault” and “violated the system guardrails that prevent World War III”. Some people in Washington, DC think sexual assault is a big joke, and other people honestly believe it is quite bad and would be just as swift to fire any abuser whether or not the journalists knew about it. But both of those kinds of people understand that the current culture in Washington, DC dictates a difference.
And I’m glad that cultural rule exists, because the Level A culture where everybody clutches their pearls and every gaffe indicates a life-threatening level of incompetence and everything is oh so terribly serious, is not a culture where policy-making can take place. The fact that there are quiet backroom talks with no journalists present, in which at least some people are actually concerned about the Europe-Russia border, is why the Earth hasn’t already blown up.
Again, it’s not that all discussion of national security takes place on that level, there’s lots of theater about that too, the entire Transportation Security Administration is well-known to be pure theater. But there’s also cases where somebody blows through the real actual guardrails, which is when the senior bureaucrats in your own party repudiate you.
That didn’t happen to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she made a move about suggesting a no-fly zone over Syria. Because that’s a kind of move people make sometimes in the NSDM. Some people disagreed with that as a Level B move, and maybe some of those people wrote Level A articles about how terribly wrong and serious it was; but nobody who understood that Level B existed went holy shit over it. From their standpoint the difference is clear-cut, even if it so happens that you can’t immediately perceive that difference and what Clinton did sounds maybe arguably just as bad as what Trump did. The holy shit reaction to Trump from senior national security bureaucrats, and from a lot of smart people you know who never seemed that worked up about Mitt Romney in 2012, is one cue as to what just happened. Even though you can’t tell the difference yourself and maybe shouldn’t expect to be able to tell the difference yourself. Certainly the media isn’t going to tell you about the difference, because everyone in the Level A theater has to pretend that all the professional wrestling is terribly, terribly serious.
Maybe you wish that Washington, DC culture would take sexual assault more seriously, as something deadly serious in its own right, as serious at it is possible to be — instead of some people laughing it off, some people being frankly offended, and everyone in Washington, DC tacitly understanding that this is not one of the issues that everyone has agreed to take deadly seriously even when no journalists are looking.
Maybe you look at that, and conclude that this ‘deadly serious level of politics’ thingy does not respect your own values and priorities. Maybe you conclude that the kind of political issues people are fighting over theatrically in the newspapers are, yes, every bit as vital to you as that so-called ‘deadly serious’ stuff, even if a lot of other people are treating them as entertainment.
I think you’re making a dreadful mistake. Scope is real. If you ever have to choose between voting a convicted serial abuser of children into the Presidential office — but this person otherwise seems stable and collected — versus a Presidential candidate who seems easy to provoke and who has ‘bad days’ and doesn’t listen to advisors and once said “Why do we have all these nukes if we can’t use them?”, it is deadly important that you vote for the pedophile. It isn’t physically possible to abuse enough children per day over 4 years to do as much damage as you can do with one wrong move in the National Security Decision-Making Game.
An evil but sane NSDM player is far, far less dangerous than an impulsive one who doesn’t care all that much about what the rules of NSDM are supposed to be.
That’s one reason why people at my level of national security expertise and above–and there’s a hell of a lot of headway above me on that one–went into holy shit mode over Donald Trump, on both sides of the aisle.
Programmer Michael Keenan details the circumstances under which ambiguous alliances sparked WW1 and WW2, as well as the Korean War and the Iraq-Kuwait War.
Maritime security author John-Clark Levin’s “How Trump Could Realistically Start a Nuclear War” picks one example of how Trump’s temperament is likely to increase the probability of international catastrophes:
[…] Trump has pulled off a stunning victory. Transition team Chairman Chris Christie’s first task is assembling a solid national security staff, but most of the top officials who would normally serve in a Republican administration refuse to serve under Trump (many have already stated this publicly).
So instead of the smartest and ablest leaders, Trump is forced to fill essential defense and intelligence posts with hacks — the B-level talent whose ambition overcomes their objections, and the C-level talent whose loyalty wins them undeserved appointments. Some good people do go to work in the Trump White House, judging they’d rather be in the Situation Room than the alt-righters who’d otherwise get their jobs. Maybe, they think, they can influence Trump for the better.
By the end of Trump’s first 100 days, though, it’s clear that his lifelong leadership style will not change. First, he surrounds himself with people who flatter him and tell him whatever he wants to hear, because he is a “great loyalty freak.” Second, he can’t take criticism or dissent, and sees these as disloyalty that must be punished. Third, he has a profound insecurity that cannot tolerate advice from big minds and strong personalities. Instead, he famously said, “Always be around unsuccessful people because everybody will respect you.” Over Trump’s first years in office, these traits force more good people out of government, replaced by those willing to follow Trump blindly.
Meanwhile, just as Trump boasted during the campaign that he knew more about ISIS than the generals, he now demoralizes top military leaders, publicly denigrating their competence even as he thwarts them with meddling and micromanagement. Trump continues to alienate the CIA, just as during the campaign he ignored consensus assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies in their briefings to him, instead bizarrely insisting that the DNC hacks weren’t the work of Russia, but perhaps a “400-pound man sitting on his bed.” Under these conditions, many of the best people in the Pentagon leave, and Trump makes good on his campaign statements by firing others.
On an October afternoon in 2019, terror strikes again — this time, a truck bomb in Jersey City kills almost a hundred people. Trump’s first instinct — as it has been throughout his long and well-documented life — is immediate and overwhelming retaliation. Despite contemplating nuclear counterattacks during the campaign (“Somebody hits us within ISIS — you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?”), Trump now orders conventional punitive airstrikes on civilian areas in Raqqa, Syria. “We have no choice, people,” Trump says. Trump’s Justice Department insists that the strikes are legal, but as images of maimed children fill the airwaves, officers of conscience start retiring or resigning rather than participate in what they see as war crimes.
Then, on a sleepy summer morning in 2020, Chinese jets make simulated attack runs against the USS Ronald Reagan, operating in the South China Sea. Trump’s pride is pricked. Officials in Beijing have been bragging about how the SCS is becoming a Chinese lake. It makes him look weak. So Trump orders the jets shot down (which he has already said he would do in similar circumstances). Several Chinese airmen die. China responds by shooting down a B-1 bomber off Taiwan.
Trump orders the carrier to enter Chinese waters in a show of force to reassert American might in the region. The admirals who would have resisted such recklessness have already left or been muscled out. Chinese warships intercept, and in the tense and confused standoff, someone starts shooting. American firepower blows the smaller Chinese vessels out of the water. In minutes, DF-21 carrier-killer missiles rain down on the U.S. strike group, and when the smoke clears, the Ronald Reagan is on the bottom along with a couple thousand American sailors. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Beijing has ordered its nuclear forces to maximum alert in preparation for a first strike.
6,500 miles away in Washington, an admiral approaches President Trump as an aide unlatches the nuclear football. “Well, Mr. President. Here are your options…” […]
This particular scenario, obviously, isn’t likely; but it seems broadly in keeping with Trump’s impulsive and Jacksonian brand of militarism. Freelance policy analyst and GCRI affiliate Matthijs Maas comments on Levin’s hypothetical:
(1). The specific scenario that’s presented — a tit-for-tat with the Chinese — may be slightly exaggerated — specifically: while the Chinese might gamble with shooting down the (nonnuclear) B1 bomber, they would know that a DF-21D strike on a US carrier group would constitute an attack against US regional nuclear capabilities (viz. the US Navy doesn’t confirm or deny whether carriers carry nukes, but strategically it would be surprising if they didn’t). Given that Chinese nuclear first-strike/counterforce capabilities are by far insufficient against the US, they would be unlikely to sanction such a gamble. On the other hand, the Chinese would certainly disperse their nuclear forces to increase survivability in case of a US first strike, and this could in turn be misperceived by the US as preparation for a first strike, and… you get the picture. Let’s not take the gamble.
(2) Setting aside discussions of this specific illustration — I think the key phrase in this article, and the broader underlying argument, is ‘Uncertainty breeds danger’. This is perhaps the fundamental geopolitical insight which I’d want people to take away / keep in mind.
In short: it’s been suggested that Clinton’s bad relations with the Kremlin would lead to destabilising conflict. However, reliable antagonism may lead to outcomes that are tense, but at least predictable (and therefore ‘manageable’): both sides roughly know each others’ ‘red lines’, and trust that the other side grasps the basics of nuclear deterrence, and the magnitude of mismanaging it, and to count those risks in their decision-making. So it might be useful to note that a Clinton presidency may see a higher base rate of crises (specifically vis-a-vis Russia), as a function of her bad relationship with Putin and general hawkish tendencies — but that these crises generally will remain more ‘manageable’. (doesn’t mean it’s a good situation to be in, in terms of global catastrophic risks, but we’re considering relative cases).
(3) Conversely, even if we assume that Trump’s bravado and unpredictability may cause some countries to tread more lightly, ensuring a slightly lower base rate of crises, the stakes of these crises will be higher. By taking all guarantees off the table, his presidency would increase strategic uncertainty, creating opportunities for conflict between other powers, and making those crises that do inevitably occur massively more vulnerable to miscalculation and unintentional escalation. That doesn’t mean those cannot be managed — Consider Nixon’s ‘madman strategy’, where he once ordered a fake nuclear assault on the Soviet Union to force them to suspend their support for the Vietcong (this failed); or when another time (during the Watergate proceedings) threatening that ‘I could walk out of this room and pick up a phone, and in 20 minutes 70 million people will be dead’—but managing such bravado requires a responsible, capable, and realistic national security staff (which, as the article rightly points out, Trump will likely not suffer to have around for long).
(4) At that point — and considering how short is the chain of nuclear command, how tiny the window for decision-making, and how irreversible the command to launch –Trump’s personality traits create a dangerous situation. At worst, we’ll see a combination of (a). Trump’s (perceived) personality traits (e.g. impulsiveness; inability to back off), unchecked by (b). a sycophant national security apparatus; and tempted by (c). the availability of a new generation of ‘flexible’ nuclear weapons now being developed (e.g. hypervelocity missiles; the LRSO).
(5) Even if his sort of policy-making doesn’t lead directly to nuclear catastrophe, it will indirectly heighten the baseline global risk of such (or other) global risks. Trump’s disregard for international institutions and laws (yes — they’re boring; yes — they’re imperfect; yes–we need them), his retraction of US security guarantees, the idea that all alliances are negotiable or conditional, and his overarching zero-sum view of the world will work to increase states’ incentives to engage in arms races or realpolitik, and decrease willingness to cooperate on non-proliferation / responsible development and innovation regimes.
Trump’s warning that he’s liable to ignore Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty “if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed” — even though the treaty itself doesn’t include this as a requirement; even though Article 5 has only ever been invoked once; and even though the one time it was invoked was on behalf of the U.S., drawing NATO into Afghanistan in response to 9/11 — suggests a new regime in which international law is much softer and more ambiguous than we’ve seen in past decades. It suggests that Trump’s perspective is a novel one on which treaties as they’re understood today should be replaced with more informal arrangements, and that from his perspective the US government ought honor its word to other nations only while it happens to be favorably disposed to those nations.
That’s at least one way of understanding what Trump means when he says — in response to a question from NBC’s Katy Tur, “Do you think the Geneva Conventions are out of date?” — “I think everything’s out of date. We have a whole new world.” Without the benefit of context, I might take this to mean that Trump thinks the Geneva Conventions ought to be revised through some ratification procedure. Now, this sounds like a more sweeping statement: the threat of terrorism means that international law simply doesn’t apply anymore. Absent is any apparent insight into why the rule of law (both domestically and internationally) has serious practical value, and why some measure of forced predictability makes us more safe.
I think it’s extremely clear that this is one of the most critical issues American voters should weigh when they decide who to vote for this Tuesday.