Social Media

Tweet by Tweet: Trump’s Nuclear Musings

Dr. Heather Williams

In a recent article titled ‘The nuclear education of Donald J. Trump’, Dr. Jeffrey Michaels and I catalogued almost all of President Trump’s statements regarding nuclear issues over the past thirty years. This catalogue included sources ranging from Playboy to Presidential debates. The study’s findings were both surprising and concerning.

The research revealed that Trump has been thinking and talking about nuclear weapons for a sustained period of time. In a 1984 interview, Trump revealed that he had a “fantasy” of becoming an arms control negotiator, something he has been publicly discussing ever since. The 2016 Presidential campaign focused more so on Trump’s personal character than on the substance of his views, which are now shaping national strategy and policy. His own biographical ghost-writer, Tony Schwartz, commented that if Trump became President and had access to the nuclear codes “there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.” So how worried should we be about Trump in charge of the US nuclear arsenal?

The biggest source of surprise in our study was how consistent Trump has been in his views on nuclear weapons. Since the 1990 Playboy interview, he has been concerned about the status of the nuclear arsenal and whether or not it is truly credible due to a lack of investment and infrastructure problems. He has consistently been interested in arms control to showcase his negotiating skills, whilst simultaneously remaining sceptical of deep reductions, disarmament, and any no-first-use declarations, as this would be “taking options off the table.”

In many ways, Trump’s views on nuclear weapons are nothing particularly new. Obama increased investment in the US nuclear infrastructure, which indeed is in need of attention. Additionally, Obama called for increased burden-sharing among NATO allies, though perhaps more delicately compared to Trump’s label of NATO members benefiting from a “free ride.” Furthermore, previous Republican presidents expressed scepticism about limiting America’s strategic options, including arms control.

Of course, Trump’s nuclear policies will also be shaped by those around him. For example, while Trump has consistently accused China of failing to “solve” the problem of North Korea’s nuclear development, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that working with China would be preferable to any military actions. Mattis has also been a strong advocate of American leadership abroad and recently visited US allies in Asia and Europe, including a stop at the Munich Security Conference where he stated, “security is always best when provided by a team.”

But there is also cause for concern about Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons. In one very important way, Trump significantly differs from his predecessors, shuns the constraints of his advisors, and presents a nuclear risk: his use of Twitter. Many of Trump’s nuclear-related tweets raise important questions about social media as a disruptive technology. For example, recent scholarship has highlighted the importance of “audience costs” in strategic signalling, whereby if a leader fails to deliver on a threat, he/she will suffer a loss of credibility in the eyes of allies and adversaries. But what is the audience cost of a tweet? Tweets are often off-the-cuff remarks without the benefit of expert advice or fact-checking. Should tweets be interpreted as credible policy statements?

Additionally, nuclear signals are often misinterpreted, particularly in times of crisis when tensions are high and decision-making time is short. Are tweets more prone to misperception than other means of signalling? It is extremely difficult to communicate such signals in 140-characters or less- Trump has offered plenty of recent examples to help prove this point. Our study did not find any clear answers to these questions, but rather highlighted the need for further research and scholarship into these policy issues.

One example of this was on December 22, 2016, when Trump tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” This could be interpreted as reinforcing Trump’s pre-established views: he is not interested in nuclear disarmament and wants to increase investment in the US nuclear infrastructure. At the same time, it suggests an arms race, which Trump later confirmed in a discussion with Mika Brzezinski, a journalist and presenter on Morning Joe, and potentially undermines America’s commitment to organizations such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and agreements such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

After attempting to decipher Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons, our study raised three big questions. First, how committed is Trump to providing nuclear security guarantees to America’s allies? The early days of the Administration have suggested it will indeed be committed to allies as demonstrated in the actions and statements of General Mattis, in particular.

Second, is there a future for US-Russia arms control? Ultimately, this will remain unclear until Putin meets Trump. While there are limited prospects for further arms control, Trump has a thirty-year-old fantasy of being an arms control negotiator and he might not want to miss the opportunity. Instead, arms control may have to get creative.

Lastly, how does social media interact with traditional means of strategic signalling? This remains to be seen. But an additional cause for concern is that of an unpredictable nature: a strategic shock. This could be positive, such as the rise of Gorbachev which offered Reagan an opportunity to pursue arms control and reduce Cold War tensions. But strategic shock can also be negative, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, which significantly shaped the Presidency of George W. Bush. Trump remains untested in his role as a crisis leader, but when the time comes, his instinct to take to Twitter may sow more confusion than security.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Are there any in the British army who know what Facebook is?


The seemingly incongruous title of this post comes from a tweet I sent at the weekend forwarding the Guardian’s report on the establishment of 77 Brigade, a unit designed to ‘control the narrative’ of current and future British operations through, amongst other things, the intelligent use of social media. My tweet started a long discussion on Twitter over the weekend involving quite a few serving British officers, as well as other interested parties. The medium of Twitter, however stimulating, has its restrictions, so I thought a longer form blog post would allow for some of the points and ideas from the debate to be aired more fully.

In my view, the response to my tweet demonstrates some important things about the use, and abuse, of social media. First, one of the great joys of a medium like Twitter is the ability to convey multiple meanings in short form. Obviously, many words have more than one meaning and so can seemingly simple phrases, like ‘are there any in the British army who know what Facebook is?’ Of course I know that many in the British army use Facebook and other social media. A glance at my Twitter page shows that many of those I follow on Twitter are either British officers or British military units. The meaning I intended with my question wasn’t ‘is there anybody out there,’ but rather ‘how well does the British army as an institution understand the subtleties of social media use’? Following from this, a further meaning is ‘is the British military the most appropriate institution to be attempting to do this type of thing’?

Fortunately, I think a fruitful discussion on this topic emerged from the subsequent Twitter discussion. I certainly learned a lot from the debate. Personally, I learned that irony and sarcasm don’t translate well into 140 characters (points to anyone that spots incidences in this post!). On the topic of social media usage, one of the important things I learned from the discussion is that the reports across the British media about 77 Brigade were ill-informed, if not misleading. (For those interested on its broader roles, see pp. 121-122 of the not-very-social-media-friendly The British Army 2014. My thanks to @ForcesReviewUK for drawing my attention to this document.)

This raises an interesting question, though. Why did the UK media report the unit in the way it did? The inability of the British armed forces to get its message across on this to a (generally) friendly media doesn’t fill me with confidence in its ability to ‘control the narrative’ against hostile media and other unsympathetic opinion formers.

This leads me back to my original question about understanding the subtleties of social media use and the armed forces as an appropriate institution to attempt to shape narratives. Undoubtedly, getting one’s own message out and countering an opponent’s message is hugely important in wartime, now as it has ever been. (We used to call this ‘propaganda,’ but ‘message’,  ‘narrative’, or ‘influence’ sounds a lot less threatening in today’s world.) Throughout history, the most effective communicators have rarely been those in the armed forces (or academics for that matter!), and I haven’t seen anything recently that would convince me that armed forces today are any better than their predecessors at communicating.

On the contrary, my personal experience with the British armed forces has demonstrated a broad, if no means complete, hostility towards and distrust of the way so much of the world communicates today. Regulations may permit members of the armed forces to use social media and to blog, but most I have encountered feel strongly that it isn’t the ‘done thing’ and that commands actively discourage individuals from using these media. Indeed, amongst many I have come across there is a palpable fear that surrounds its usage. (Vide, a recent thought-provoking post from on the curious absence of military bloggers in Britain.) Moreover, the regulations themselves appear to be far from clear. While troops may be allowed to use social media, other regulations indicate that all external communication has to be cleared with Defence press officers. Indeed, even the page leading to the regulations permitting social media use is headlined ‘Think Before You Share.’ It’s no wonder that there is a reluctance by many in the UK armed forces to take the risk of learning to make use of social media.

We might think of this as the ‘social-media problematique’: In order to become proficient at using social media, individuals need to be trusted to make use of its platforms for communication. However, using social media opens the organisation up to all manner of potential risk from individuals saying the ‘wrong’ thing or being misinterpreted. To protect itself, the organisation understandably attempts to control messages and restrict open communication, but this can have unintended consequences, particularly as communication is complex and difficult to control.

Now obviously 77 Brigade will have social media usage a part of its remit, so its troops will presumably be encouraged to use and understand modern social media. I am confident that there will be some individuals who will do this very, very well. The problem comes, in my view, from this broader organisational culture that frowns on troops who make use of social media outside 77 Brigade, as it is from the wider armed forces that 77 Brigade will draw its troops. Unlike strategy or international relations theory, social media usage cannot be taught in a couple-week course. It has to be practiced, and troops must feel ‘empowered’ — to use a term from last weekend’s debate — to share and to communicate. Moreover, there will be some that will be adept that this type of communication and others who are not. Fear of ridicule or fear that one’s career might be put in jeopardy for saying the ‘wrong’ thing do not lead to empowerment and retard a culture of using social media for institutional (and individual) good. If the much-larger US armed forces are struggling to find individuals capable of doing these tasks, can the smaller and more social-media hostile British armed forces?

So while 77 Brigade might have been formed, in part, to help Britain and its armed forces ‘control the narrative’ in its current and future operations, finding the right people to do this will, in my view, pose some serious challenges unless the British armed forces can change its own culture to embrace modern means of communication. I sincerely hope that they can do this — permitting broader discussion would benefit the armed forces in more ways than simply providing recruits for 77 Brigade. If this cannot be done, than perhaps such operations should be left to institutions that are culturally better suited to the complex task of shaping and informing public opinion.

In the meantime, anyone fancy joining the ‘#MechanizedMySpacers’ or ‘#Google+Guards’? I hear recruiting has begun!

The views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and do not represent those of King’s College London, the Defence Academy, or the Joint Services Command and Staff College.

Image courtesy of the Ministry of Defence, via through OGL.