During the final presidential debate, Hillary Clinton announced that it would only take four minutes for an order from the president to launch a nuclear attack to be converted into action, continuing a debate over if Donald Trump has the correct temperament to be in charge of the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal. While there are indeed no foolproof safeguards in place to prevent Trump from firing irrationally, there’s also not much evidence that his nuclear policy is completely insane.
He has promoted proliferation and states such as Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia obtaining nuclear arms, but so has prominent international relations theorists Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer, who promote nuclear proliferation as a means to international stability. He has also been cavalier with his statements regarding a reversal of the American no first use policy—where the US states it will not use nuclear weapons against states without them—particularly in regards to dropping a nuclear bomb on ISIS, dropping nuclear weapons on ISIS held territories has also been discussed by Ted Cruz, Vladimir Putin, and possibly Rear Admiral John Weale, the head of the United Kingdom’s Trident fleet of nuclear submarines. His statements regarding nuclear weapons are questionable, but not as uncommon as one might think.
There is, however, an area where more concern is warranted. Should Donald Trump be elected as commander-in-chief, he would also be in charge of the world’s most advanced drone fleet. Unlike with nuclear weapons, drones have no true formal institutional structure surrounding their use, nor any longstanding historical precedent. The official American drone policy can vary wildly depending on the president and is largely a reflection of the sitting president’s opinions regarding what the nature of American foreign policy should be.
While the Bush administration began the use of drones overseas, it only launched approximately 50 drone strikes abroad while the Obama administration has launched over 500, largely due to the fact that the Bush administration preferred tactics with boots on the ground while the Obama administration has leaned more strongly towards tactics that prevent the deployment of American troops. The Obama administration also expanded the regions where American drone strikes have taken place from primarily in Pakistan to Yemen, Libya, and Somalia and has also built American drone bases throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa.
So, what exactly would a Donald Trump drone program look like? Unlike the Bush and Obama administrations where leaders and drone pilots have attempted to minimize civilian casualties, with varying results depending on the metrics used as well as who is using them, Donald Trump has no such concerns. In regard to combatting terrorism, he’s said, “when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families”. Not only does this represent an extreme deviation from trying to avoid civilian casualties to actively seeking out civilians, it also represents a breach a breach of article 51.2 of the Geneva Conventions, which states that civilians “shall not be the object of attack”. Drones would be the perfect method to carry out such an agenda.
While Donald Trump’s nuclear policy may be extreme and potentially devastating, it’s not the only issue to consider when it comes to thinking about Trump’s foreign policy, especially as how it might apply to civilians abroad. Trump’s statements about targeting the families of suspected terrorists as well as how easily such an agenda could make use of the US drone fleet represents a danger not only to foreign civilians, but also to the reputation of the United States as a protector of human rights and international law.