Tough Lessons: Advice for the Next President

Jeffrey Lewis on how the next president should fix our broken nuclear policy


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Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis had a stark suggestion on how much money the next president should take out of the nuclear modernization budget, currently set at roughly $2 trillion over the next three decades. 

“Every little bit,” he said. “Zero it.” 

“And everyone says, ‘Oh my God, people will think we’re weak on security,” Lewis followed. “No, they won’t. They will love you. If a president stood up and said, ‘Yeah I zeroed it out. Sure, my actual number is higher than that, but these are negotiations. Have you ever done a negotiation before?’ People will love it.” 

Lewis joined Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione for a wide-ranging discussion on national security, presidential authority, and how the next occupant of the White House should tackle nuclear policy issues. 

His first piece of advice: campaign platforms matter, but more important is putting the right people in the right places after the election. 

Case in point: the Obama transition. “Somehow we went from a situation where we had a campaign that was incredibly progressive,” Lewis explained, “to having a team in place at [the Department of Defense] who was writing the nuclear posture review.” 

"Democrats have this kind of fear that maybe we aren't tough and maybe the Republicans really are right about these things," Lewis continued. "And I think that builds, because you see a lot of people come up through the ranks - they are far more worried about being attacked from the Right than they are about being attacked from the Left." 

Lewis’ next piece of advice: “change our declaratory policy about the situations in which we would use nuclear weapons.” In other words, declare a policy of No First Use. 

“I don’t think there is anybody who believes that it would ever be in the interests of the United States to use nuclear weapons first,” Lewis explained. “And I don’t think there’s anybody who believes that it’s in our interest for other countries to be confused about that fact. And so I think the president can simply say that.”

“And it is pure timidity that stops presidents from doing this,” Lewis continued. “And I think the thing that we’ve learned from Donald Trump — and I, frankly, have learned living in California — is this stuff that we think in Washington, DC is earth-shaking, that would be the end of the world, isn’t even a ripple out in the real world.”

But, Lewis warned, some events could still be earth-shaking, and not in a good way. His recent book, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United Statesis closely tracking with reality. “The book is basically about how there is a diplomatic process, the diplomatic process fails for the reasons that it is currently failing, and as the US returns to a maximum pressure campaign, things go badly,” Lewis explained. 

“One of the things that I try to highlight is that in the book, Trump does not want a nuclear war with North Korea,” Lewis continued. “He is actually trying to avoid that outcome, but because of all of the choices people have made and, frankly, a lot of decision-making pathologies we have in Washington — the desire to look tough, different bureaucratic maneuverings — people back themselves into an outcome no one wants.”

“It’s not a lot of fun to write a novel about nuclear war and then feel prescient.” 

Jeffrey Lewis is the Director for the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Listen to the entire interview on Press the Button.

Learn more about Jeffrey Lewis’ most recent book at