This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
When it comes to the art of the deal, at least where arms sales are concerned, American presidents, their administrations, and the Pentagon have long been Trumpian in nature. Their role has been to beat the drums (of war) for the major American weapons makers and it's been a highly profitable and successful activity. In 2015, for instance, the U.S. once again took the top spot in global weapons sales, $40 billion dollars of them, or a staggering 50.2% of the world market. (Russia came in a distant third with $11.2 billion in sales.) The U.S. also topped sales of weaponry to developing nations. In these years, Washington has, in fact, peddled the products of those arms makers to at least 100 countries, a staggering figure if you stop a moment to think about the violence on this planet. Internationally, in other words, the U.S. has always been an open-carry nation.
Donald Trump has, however, changed this process in one obvious way. He's shoved the president's role as arms-purveyor-in-chief in everybody's face. He did so on his initial trip abroad when, in Riyadh, he bragged ceaselessly about ringing up $110 billion dollars in arms sales to the Saudis. Some of those had, in fact, already been brokered by the Obama administration and some weren't actually "sales" at all, just "letters of intent." Still, he took the most fulsome of credit and, when it comes to his "achievements," exaggeration is, of course, the name of his game.
And he's just done it again on his blustery jaunt through Japan and South Korea. There, using the North Korean threat, he plugged American weaponry mercilessly (so to speak), while claiming potential deals and future American jobs galore. In the presence of Shinzo Abe, for instance, he swore that the Japanese Prime Minister would "shoot [North Korean missiles] out of the sky when he completes the purchase of a lot of military equipment from the United States." Both the Japanese and the South Korean leaders, seeing a way into his well-armored heart, humored him relentlessly on the subject and on his claims of bringing home jobs to the U.S. (In fact, one of the weapons systems he was plugging, the F-35, would actually be assembled in Japan!)
Strangely enough, however, the president didn't bring up an issue he raises regularly when it comes to weapons sales in the United States (at least, sales to white people, not Muslims, with an urge to kill): mental health. Isn't it curious that, as he peddles some of the more destructive weaponry imaginable across Asia and the Middle East, he never brings that up? Fortunately, TomDispatch regular and expert on American arms sales William Hartung raises the issue today in an adaptation of a piece he wrote for Sleepwalking to Armageddon: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation, a book just published by the New Press. You might say that he considers the most mentally unnerving aspect of American arms sales: the way, since the 1950s, the nuclear lobby has sold planet-destroying weaponry of every sort to presidents, the Pentagon, and Congress. And if that doesn't represent a disturbing mental health record of the first order, what does? Tom
Brought to You By the Nuclear-Industrial Complex
By William D. Hartung
[This piece has been updated and adapted from William D. Hartung's "Nuclear Politics" in Sleepwalking to Armageddon: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation, edited by Helen Caldicott and just published by the New Press.]
Until recently, few of us woke up worrying about the threat of nuclear war. Such dangers seemed like Cold War relics, associated with outmoded practices like building fallout shelters and "duck and cover" drills.
But give Donald Trump credit. When it comes to nukes, he's gotten our attention. He's prompted renewed concern, if not outright alarm, about the possibility that such weaponry could actually be used for the first time since the 6th and 9th of August 1945. That's what happens when the man in the Oval Office begins threatening to rain "fire and fury like the world has never seen" on another country or, as he did in his presidential campaign, claiming cryptically that, when it comes to nuclear weapons, "the devastation is very important to me."
Trump's pronouncements are at least as unnerving as President Ronald Reagan's infamous "joke" that "we begin bombing [the Soviet Union] in five minutes" or the comment of a Reagan aide that, "with enough shovels," the United States could survive a superpower nuclear exchange.
Whether in the 1980s or today, a tough-guy attitude on nuclear weapons, when combined with an apparent ignorance about their world-ending potential, adds up to a toxic brew. An unprecedented global anti-nuclear movement -- spearheaded by the European Nuclear Disarmament campaign and, in the United States, the Nuclear Freeze campaign -- helped turn President Reagan around, so much so that he later agreed to substantial nuclear cuts and acknowledged that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."
It remains to be seen whether anything could similarly influence Donald Trump. One thing is certain, however: the president has plenty of nuclear weapons to back up his aggressive rhetoric -- more than 4,000 of them in the active U.S. stockpile, when a mere handful of them could obliterate North Korea at the cost of millions of lives. Indeed, a few hundred nuclear warheads could do the same for even the largest of nations and those 4,000, if ever used, could essentially destroy the planet.
In other words, in every sense of the term, the U.S. nuclear arsenal already represents overkill on an almost unimaginable scale. Independent experts from U.S. war colleges suggest that about 300 warheads would be more than enough to deter any country from launching a nuclear attack on the United States.
Despite this, Donald Trump is all in (and more) on the Pentagon's plan -- developed under Barack Obama -- to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and missiles, as well as new generations of warheads to go with them. The cost of this "modernization" program? The Congressional Budget Office recently pegged it at $1.7 trillion over the next three decades, adjusted for inflation. As Derek Johnson, director of the antinuclear organization Global Zero, has noted, "That's money we don't have for an arsenal we don't need."
Building a Nuclear Complex
Why the desire for so many nukes? There is, in fact, a dirty little secret behind the massive U.S. arsenal: it has more to do with the power and profits of this country's major weapons makers than it does with any imaginable strategic considerations.