Since at least early September, when Russian forces began to melt away from the positions they occupied in Eastern Ukraine under intense pressure from advancing Ukrainian forces, I became convinced that we needed to have a national conversation about nuclear deterrence. Well, Joe Biden took up the charge on Thursday night, and it’s a reminder that I should be more careful about what I wish for.
Speaking at, of all places, a closed-door Democratic fundraiser in New York City, the president let loose a volley of half-baked thoughts about the prospect of global thermonuclear war.
Putin “is not joking when he talks about [the] potential use of tactical nuclear weapons,” the president said. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
Biden added that, for “the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have the direct threat of the use of a nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue down the path that they are going.” He insisted that the West would not change its current posture toward Ukraine, but the logic of that assurance led him to a dark place.
“We are trying to figure out what is Putin’s off-ramp,” Biden thought aloud. “Where does he get off? Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position that he does not not only lose face but lose significant power within Russia?” If the president had a more reassuring conclusion to this line of thought, it was not reported.
There’s a way to talk about the crisis that would arise from a nuclear standoff, but this is not it.
Obviously, the commander-in-chief could have chosen a better venue than a partisan fundraiser to talk about a matter of such national significance as the battlefield use of nuclear weapons. That alone betrays a lack of seriousness about the issue, and it flies in the face of his apocalyptic rhetoric.
The flippancy with which he discussed the subject is Biden’s second error. I don’t care how drawn your face is or how sober your tone. If you claim that the inevitable response to a nuclear detonation of any kind, regardless of the circumstances, will result in a world-ending strategic nuclear exchange, your grasp of the subject matter is tenuous at best.
The Biden administration has been understandably tight-lipped on what exactly America’s response would be to such an event, but we can assume it would be proportionate. Indeed, to hear retired Gen. David Petraeus tell it, NATO forces would respond conventionally to the use of an unconventional weapon. That’s no less risky, but at least it doesn’t skip all the way down the end of the flow chart, leaving us with visions of a scorched planet where the living will envy the dead. By incepting in the public mind the notion that “Armageddon” is the inevitable consequence of even a demonstrative nuclear detonation, he’s propagating a misapprehension and sowing undue anxiety.
That’s dangerous. The West absolutely would have to respond to a Russian nuclear provocation unless we want to see a lot more nuclear provocations in the future. But if a detonation occurred tomorrow, it would cause a global panic. Markets would crash. Cities would empty. Shops would be stripped bare. There would be chaos in the streets, with the promise of more to come. Western governments need to summon the courage to enforce their own red lines, and domestic instability would only complicate that.
That’s why it’s unlikely that the president was letting Democratic donors in on the juiciest tidbits of the presidential daily briefing. We can be dead certain he was not articulating anything resembling administration policy. It wouldn’t be the first time Biden has gone off script on matters of national security. Moreover, his invocation of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis also suggests he was winging it. The war in Europe is a crisis, and a nuclear standoff is a possible endpoint. But we’re not there yet. And Joe Biden just loves to compare himself to John F. Kennedy.
Biden invoked Kennedy in a speech this year while discussing his own plans for a national “moonshot” to fight cancer. The 46th president has written about how the 35th president’s life inspired him. He’s even borrowed, without attribution, the Kennedy family’s work on occasion. As Biden’s coterie often reminds the president, he’s only the second Catholic to occupy the office. The president’s fans see eerie parallels between the two presidents, their tragic pasts, and tumultuous tenures in office.
Maybe the president divulged something imminently real in a moment of ill-considered candor. We can’t know. But given that, the low-stakes venue where Biden made these remarks, and his amateurish grasp of the subject matter, we can probably deduce that this was more “Scranton Joe” than Curtis LeMay. That’s not exactly reassuring.
Entire generations have devoted themselves to the devilishly complex challenge of establishing and preserving nuclear deterrence. There are lessons to which we can appeal in the event of a standoff. Conveying those lessons would be a productive exercise, in fact. It would both reassure the public that deterrence works and convey the West’s resolve in ways the Kremlin would regard as familiar and predictable. Instead, we must make do with a logorrheic president cavalierly musing about “Armageddon” just to loosen up Democratic wallets.
These are serious times. It would be nice if we had an equally serious person in the Oval Office to meet them.