Campaign 2016

Donald Trump, Nuclear Deterrence, and the Virtues of the Electoral College

By Philip Bobbitt
Monday, November 7, 2016, 4:50 PM

I doubt anyone would pay much attention to my political opinions and it would be vain to assume otherwise. Most voters have their minds made up by now.  But there are some subjects as to which I have some special expertise, some informed view that the reader might not get from some more general source.  

So what do I have specially to contribute and how is it relevant to tomorrow’s election?

I have some modest experience in government with nuclear targeting and I have written about the general subject of U.S. nuclear strategy with others (see U.S. Nuclear Strategy, with Sir Lawrence Freedman and Gregory F. Treverton) and on my own (see Democracy and Deterrence: the History and Future of Nuclear Strategy). In these books and elsewhere, I have urged that it is extended deterrence that drives the cyclical changes in US nuclear doctrine, and not central deterrence. (Central deterrence describes the relationship between national states that protects a national homeland by targeting and adversary’s homeland; extended deterrence is maintained by the nuclear threat to protect non-homeland theaters, such as the territories of allies.)

Insofar as one of the candidates for the presidency appears to be oblivious of these concepts (“If we had them, why can’t we use them” Donald Trump asked, which I take to mean, what do we have these weapons for if we’re not going to use them?) and has suggested that NATO, which is maintained largely by extended deterrence, is obsolete it would be curious if I did not think such a candidate’s views to be objectionable.

I’ve also maintained for many years, beginning at a time when this relationship was largely ignored, that there was a crucial relationship between deterrence and proliferation. It used to be that the deterrence theorists were principally defense intellectuals and military personnel, often rather hawkish; and the nonproliferation advocates tended to be engineers and arms control experts who could be broadly characterized as doves interested in nuclear energy more than nuclear targeting. But I hope we realize now that the great success of nonproliferation in the postwar period was the ability of US extended deterrence to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to states like Japan and West Germany that possessed the technology, the technocracy, the vast financial resources, and faced the nuclear armed threats that might otherwise have led them to acquire a nuclear arsenal. The suggestion by Trump that we should be indifferent to nuclear proliferation (“Now, wouldn’t you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?  [Saudi Arabia, too, he was asked?] “Saudi Arabia, absolutely,”) is hardly one with which I would agree.  But even if such a proposal made sense during the Cold War, which some commentators believed, it can hardly wise during  the wars on terror when the security of proliferated arsenals would pose a threat that would be difficult to manage through deterrence.

Also, I have devoted much of my professional life to the study of the U.S. constitution both as an academic and occasionally in government service.  My interests have been to some degree esoteric—one Amazon reviewer rather woundingly asserts that my book, Constitutional Fate, “is not written in a manner that is accessible to the casual reader”—but I have also focused on the pressing, real-world question of the basis for the legitimacy of our constitutional system, a system that I revere.

Therefore it should not be surprising that my interest is piqued by a candidate who claims that the upcoming election for the presidency is “rigged” and is “one big fix”.  By this Donald Trump means, apparently, both that “dishonest and distorted media” are misrepresenting his views, but also that “the election is absolutely being rigged…at many polling places.”  As late as October 17, he tweeted: “Of course there is large-scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.  Why do Republican leaders deny what’s going on?”  In this respect, Trump’s after the 2012 election are relevant: “Our country is now in serious and unprecedented trouble…like never before...This election is a total sham and a travesty.  We are not a democracy….We can’t let this happen.  We should march on Washington and stop this travesty….The phony electoral college made laughing stock out of our nation….The electoral college is a disaster for our democracy."

There is nothing wrong with members of either party being concerned about rigged elections and voter fraud.  We have many ways of addressing these problems, including through the courts and electoral commissions.  But with respect to the election of a president, we have one marvelous check on this threat, and it is the much-maligned Electoral College.  As one of its few fans in academia, let me explain.

Imagine a close election for the presidency, an office whose constituency spans 50 states.  If we have a single national plebiscite—a single vote for the country like the ones we have in states for primaries—it would be impossibly difficult to have recounts in every single precinct and have much confidence in the result (which could take months, given the various challenges to every ballot box).  But with the Electoral College and with the also much-maligned practice of polling we know after an election precisely where to look.  We needn’t check for fraud in California or Texas, reliably partisan states where the winning candidate runs up huge popular margins.  We only have to look at those states whose electoral votes might change the outcome, and where the vote is close.  (That’s why the resolute refusal to recount the votes in the entire state of Florida rather than in a few counties was such an historic error in 2000.)

Moreover, the effect of the Electoral College is to magnify the success—and thus the legitimacy—of the winner. That is one reason why a statistical analysis like that of gives, at present, roughly a 68% chance of a Clinton victory even though it projects only a 3% difference in the popular vote.

This has been a trying period, not least for the candidates and their supporters.  I hope that the election will be a decisive one and will be a vindication of those constitutional institutions on which our security ultimately depends.