Four Ideas for Preventing Nuclear War
The U.S. president has sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. Now that authority is being questioned, and for good reason.
There is more concern now about the control of America’s nuclear arsenal than there has been for decades. We’ve assembled a useful summary of resources and proposals on this issue, below. The concern and the debate was summed up well by The Washington Post editorial board on Saturday.
“Impulsive, bombastic, and prone to grudges, President Trump has stirred serious questions in the minds of many Americans about the command and control of nuclear weapons. Mr. Trump has already threatened North Korea with ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen.’ Could he really do it? Are there restraints?”
“No national decision is as consequential, irreversible and fateful as the decision to use nuclear weapons,” nuclear historians Alex Wellerstein and Avner Cohen wrote last week. On November 14, Congress convened its first hearing in more than four decades to discuss nuclear launch authority. Myriad experts have weighed in on the issue in the weeks since.
Much of the conversation around command and control of nuclear weapons has centered on the legality of the orders. Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told the Halifax Security Forum this month that he would not follow “illegal” launch orders. But when former STRATCOM commander Gen. Kehler was asked by senators in last week’s hearing what would happen after he refused an order he believed illegal, he admitted, “I don’t know exactly.”
“What exactly would constitute an ‘illegal’ order?” ask Wellerstein and Cohen. “This new focus on ‘legality’ as the key issue is a red herring. The legal scenario contemplated here is not a court of law (with adversarial lawyers and a judge, much less a jury), but a rushed, in-house assessment of whether a military action can be narrowly construed as justified under the often nebulous laws of war or interpretations of executive powers under the Constitution.”
“If President Trump wants to use one of the thousands of nuclear weapons in the U.S. military’s arsenal,” they warned, “the chance of anyone stopping him appears to be very low.”
“For better or for worse,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “President Donald Trump’s views and behaviors have thrust nuclear weapons back into the public spotlight… Nuclear weapons can quite literally end human civilization and with the current U.S. posture, one person can decide to make that nightmare a reality.”
Bell took a deep dive into the debate: “The country has largely ignored the legal, political, and moral implications of these weapons… What exactly would constitute a legal nuclear strike and would international laws have any effect on launch decisions? Do U.S. investments in nuclear modernization influence the actions of other nuclear and non-nuclear states, making an arms race more likely? Are nuclear weapons inherently immoral? Above all, it is time to accept that nuclear weapons policies are not sacrosanct. U.S. leaders and the American public can and should be asking hard questions about the choices ahead.“
Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione previously warned that “the legality of the order is a false issue. All the war plans in the binder carried in the ‘nuclear football’ that follows the president every where he goes...are legal orders. They have been pre-vetted for legality. If North Korea does something provocative, the president could quickly order a legal nuclear strike. No one could stop him.”
Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agrees. He told ABC’s This Week on Sunday, “I think any senior military officer always approaches it from the standpoint of we're not going to follow an illegal order. That said, the president is in a position to give a legal order to use those weapons. And the likelihood that given that order that it would be carried out I think would be pretty high.
Mullen fears that nuclear war has become “more probable than it used to be. And it scares me to death, quite frankly.”
There are four major policy options for how to best avert a nuclear war, short of the elimination of these weapons.
One is the dual key system, which has been suggested by experts such as Raven Rock author Garrett Graff and Cohen and Wellerstein. At every subsequent step in the nuclear launch process, two people are required to verify an order - why not extend that requirement to the uppermost echelon of the decision-making process?
Another approach would be to take nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert. Officials in every administration since President George H.W. Bush have considered it, but presidents have backed down in the face of resistence from the nuclear bureaucracy. The policy has nearly resulted in mistaken launches several times over.
Experts have long advocated reducing the launch alert status. “Twelve years after the end of the Cold War,” argued Sam Nunn in 2003, “what requires us to continue to live with the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch?” The Washington Post’s editors concur. They write, that it would be “a smart, pragmatic move to ease off the hair-trigger alerts, which pose a threat of miscalculation and catastrophe. The nuclear weapons would still retain their awesome destructive power; they would remain a potent deterrent. But giving a leader more than mere minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis seems to be a wise step that Mr. Trump, who carries that nuclear weapons authentication card around with him, can surely appreciate.”
A third tactic would be to establish Congressional control over the first use of nuclear weapons. The Constitution gives Congress alone the power to declare war; that includes nuclear war, the most consequential war of all. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) introduced a bill requiring the president to obtain Congressional approval before starting a nuclear war. There are over 73 co-sponsors so far in the House and over 13 in the Senate, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Chris Van Hollen, Dianne Feinstein and Kirsten Gillibrand.
“By any definition of war,” the bill argues, “a first-use nuclear strike from the United States would constitute a major act of war… A first-use nuclear strike conducted absent a declaration of war by Congress would violate the Constitution.”
The most comprehensive approach would be for Congress to proscribe any nuclear first use by the United States. “Congress should take a role in defining what use of nuclear weapons is or isn’t against the law,” argue Wellerstein and Cohen. “Because if not Congress, who else can do it? Who will?”
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced just such a bill the day after the Senate hearing. One sentence long, the text in its entirety reads:
“It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”
This debate is likely to grow in intensity in the months ahead. We provide a short list of some of the best recent articles and podcasts on these issues, below.
-- Rose Blanchard is a research assistant and Meghan McCall a policy associate at Ploughshares Fund.
--“The Most Dangerous Man in the World” by Tom Collina for Defense One here.
--“'Then What Happens?': Congress Questions the President's Authority to Wage Nuclear War” by Uri Friedman for The Atlantic here.
--“Presidents have too much power over U.S. nukes. Especially President Trump” by Bruce Blair for The Washington Post here.
--“How Will Trump Change Nuclear Weapons Policy?” by Jon Wolfsthal for Arms Control Today here.
--“Nukes” featuring Alex Wellerstein for Radiolab podcast here.
--“The Donald and The Nuclear V: The Senate Strikes Back” by Jeffrey Lewis and Aaron Stein for the Arms Control Wonk podcast here.
--“Congressman Ted Lieu on Nuclear First-Strike” by the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation podcast Nukes of Hazard here.
--“Shaken By Trump, Senators Ask: What Stops Him From Launching Nukes?” by David Welna for NPR here.
--“Don’t Count on the Cabinet to Stop a Trump-Ordered Nuclear Strike” by Edward-Isaac Dovere for POLITICO here.
--“Former Pentagon chief: Defense secretary couldn’t stop Trump if he wants nuclear war” by Mallory Shelbourne for The Hill here.
--“Trump’s nuclear authority divides senators alarmed by his ‘volatile’ behavior” by Karoun Demirjian for The Washington Post here.
--“Whose Finger Is on the Button? Nuclear Launch Authority in the United States and Other Nations” by Eryn MacDonald for Union of Concerned Scientists’ blog All Things Nuclear here.
--“The most important Senate hearing of this presidency” by Jennifer Rubin for The Washington Post here.
--“President Trump and the Risks of Nuclear War” by Peter Feaver for Foreign Policy here.
--“No stopping Trump if he decides to push nuclear button” by Murray Polner for The Chicago Sun Times here.
--“Lawmakers Fear President Trump's Authority To Launch Nuclear Weapons” by Samantha Raphelson for NPR here.