Donald Trump is No Jack Kennedy. Or Khrushchev.
The president lacks the experience, character, credibility, and confidence to navigate our country through a Cuban Missile Crisis. We need Joe Biden.
The world teetered on the brink of nuclear catastrophe 58 years ago this month. The 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis in late October 1962 tested the maturity and wisdom of the nuclear-armed United States and Soviet Union at a time when mutual distrust and suspicion ruled the day.
One of us was a boy in Miami then and still has strong memories of how close we came to nuclear war. What ultimately saved us all was a deep appreciation by President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the unthinkable carnage that would be caused by a nuclear exchange. Both men served in World War II and witnessed first-hand the horrors of war; neither man took lightly his responsibility to safeguard humanity from annihilation.
President Donald Trump has proven during his tumultuous first term that he does not have the background, character, credibility, or confidence in him to navigate our country through a similar existential crisis. He should not be reelected on November 3.
Our concerns have only deepened as Trump continues to mishandle the COVID-19 crisis and much else. The president’s decision-making is mercurial, unpredictable, and ultimately driven more by transactional calculations than by serious concern about the pandemic and the public good. Based on what we have witnessed for the last four years, the odds are slim that Trump will respond with calm and clear thinking to a fast-breaking international crisis.
An ability to solicit and take advice, respect experience, and sort through realistic options is more vital now than ever. In 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev had a window of several days in which to de-escalate a nuclear confrontation through the slower paced time of phone calls, photographs, and paper trails. Today’s leaders have no such luxury. The lightning speed of technology and associated “fog of crisis” make decision-making more perilous and fraught than ever. Near-instantaneous cyber delivery of disinformation by shadowy figures and organizations creates a minefield of hazards that must be assessed within minutes, not hours or days.
While much of the world has been distracted by COVID-19, few realize that in about three months we still risk losing New START, the last major U.S.-Russian bilateral, strategic nuclear arms control treaty that expires in February 2021. If the treaty lapses, the world’s strategic nuclear arms control will be in unconstrained free-fall. Late last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia would unconditionally sign a five-year extension. The Trump administration, hoping for a new arrangement that either unrestrained the United States or included China, did little to make progress towards those goals and only lost valuable time in realistically addressing New START.
As events are proving, the administration shouldn’t have waited this long — perhaps waiting for a politically motivated October surprise — to close a full 5-year extension. As a bridging measure to address unresolved issues, both sides have been belatedly negotiating an interim deal extending the treaty for just one year with a warhead freeze. It looks unlikely it will be signed before Election Day.
Overall, this administration has presided over much of the dismantling of our remaining arms control and verification architecture. Tweaking or renegotiating outdated treaties with difficult interlocutors such as Russia requires diplomatic foresight, patience and persistence, traits this administration has in short supply. Its overall disdainful attitude toward multinational cooperation and its track record of withdrawing from important treaties and organizations are not only self-defeating, but dangerous.
Former Vice President Joe Biden says that he would sign a full extension if he were to win the election. The Russians know this. If he becomes president, this should be his top initial diplomatic priority as only two weeks would remain to do such after the January 20 inauguration.
After a full term of observing Trump’s erratic behavior and daily drama, all the way through the 2020 pandemic and presidential election, can we say that we truly have confidence that our current president can lead us out of a major end-of-the-world military crisis? Are we comfortable with Trump’s continued stewardship of the nuclear code-carrying “football,” considering his unpredictable temperament and his inability to pull together a broad-minded interagency team for crisis decision-making, such as during the pandemic?
Which leadership demeanor is better suited for a major crisis? Donald Trump’s bluff and bluster? Or Joe Biden’s calm, thoughtful toughness?
The answer, we think, is clear.
Air Force Brig. Gen. (ret) Charlie Martinez is a retired aviation systems engineer who served on active duty as a pilot, missile test and manpower management engineer, and as a scientific analyst in the Reserves. He was born in Havana, Cuba, and grew up in Miami during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Amb. Nancy Soderberg is president and CEO of Soderberg Global Solutions. She served as deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration, from 1993 to 1997. Retired Army Brig. Gen. Peter B. Zwack is CEO of Zwack Eurasia LLC. His 34-year Army intelligence career began in a Cold War era nuclear capable artillery battalion through serving as the senior U.S. defense attaché to Russia from 2012 to 2014.