Trump won’t be president forever. Nuclear policy shouldn’t pretend he will.

There has long been an idealistic, even utopian, streak in American society that has held that the abnegation of power by the United States will inspire other countries to follow suit. This view became ascendant during the 1920s, when Republican administrations naively negotiated a series of naval arms-reduction treaties and, as the piece de resistance, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which outlawed war “as an instrument of national policy.” When the biggest war in history began a decade later, the United States paid a high price for its lack of preparedness.

Last year, a pair of Yale University law professors published a book arguing that Kellogg-Briand wasn’t the failure it was universally assumed to be. They said the treaty was responsible for the decline of interstate conflict after 1945. But their argument wasn’t persuasive. The real reasons conventional warfare became less common after World War II had more to do with revulsion against total war, the creation of alliances such as NATO, the spread of democracy and free trade — and, above all, the ability and willingness of the United States to deter aggressors with its conventional and nuclear forces.

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