Ab­sent a cri­sis, there’s no rea­son to em­power a sin­gle per­son to launch nu­clear weapons

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Tom Ni­chols

Once again, the North Kore­ans have en­gaged in a mis­sile test. Once again, Pres­i­dent Trump has warned that “all op­tions are on the ta­ble.” And once again, es­pe­cially af­ter he tweeted Wed­nes­day that “talk­ing is not the an­swer,” Amer­i­cans are ner­vously won­der­ing what he means.

Should the pres­i­dent of the United States have sole au­thor­ity to use nu­clear weapons? Even be­fore North Korea’s re­cent provo­ca­tions, we were long over­due for a de­bate on a ques­tion that car­ries ex­is­ten­tial risk for hu­man civ­i­liza­tion.

Some Repub­li­cans are loath to sup­port any lim­its on the pres­i­dent’s abil­ity to use nu­clear weapons, such as a bill to first re­quire a con­gres­sional dec­la­ra­tion of war, in part be­cause they view such moves — un­der­stand­ably — as a di­rect at­tack on Trump’s pres­i­dency.

Many Democrats, mean­while, have long op­posed nu­clear weapons in prin­ci­ple and could well be us­ing public anx­i­eties about Trump as a stalk­ing horse for an agenda that in­cludes the even­tual abo­li­tion of nu­clear arms.

The ques­tion of con­trol over the strate­gic de­ter­rent is not, how­ever, a dis­cus­sion re­quired solely be­cause Trump is pres­i­dent. Nor is it time — yet, any­way — to elim­i­nate the cru­cial role of nu­clear de­ter­rence in our na­tional se­cu­rity. Rather, we need to think se­ri­ously about our sys­tem be­cause it is pred­i­cated on as­sump­tions that have been out of date for more than 20 years.


Ev­ery pos­si­ble change, in­clud­ing leav­ing things as they are, seems fraught with risk. But let us be­gin with a mod­est pro­posal: There is no ob­vi­ous rea­son, ab­sent a cri­sis or mil­i­tary threat, to in­vest sole au­thor­ity to use nu­clear weapons with only one per­son.

Nu­clear hawks will ob­ject and note that dur­ing the Cold War, we en­trusted a sin­gle leader with the key to the nu­clear ar­se­nal for many rea­sons — among them the need to main­tain tight con­trol over nu­clear re­lease and to re­spond rapidly in case of a nu­clear at­tack out of the blue. We are no longer in con­stant dan­ger of a sur­prise at­tack, how­ever, nor are we fac­ing a mas­sive en­emy coali­tion. To­day, we have room to re­form civil­ian con­trol of nu­clear weapons.

The es­sen­tial change would be to re­strict the pres­i­dent’s first use of nu­clear arms in peace­time, while defin­ing the cir­cum­stances that would re­turn full and uni­tary con­trol to the White House in or­der to deal with a cri­sis or other im­mi­nent dan­ger.

I sug­gest we re­or­ga­nize our day-to-day sys­tem of con­trol to leave au­thor­ity for first use of nu­clear weapons with the pres­i­dent — but sub­ject to the veto of one se­nior mem­ber of the leg­isla­tive branch. I would nom­i­nate the Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader: He or she is a na­tional fig­ure who can­not be dis­missed by the pres­i­dent and, be­ing out­side the line of pres­i­den­tial suc­ces­sion, does not stand to gain di­rectly from coun­ter­act­ing the pres­i­dent.

This two-leader rule, how­ever, would gov­ern only the first use of nu­clear weapons ab­sent any other threat. For ex­am­ple, if the U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand de­ter­mined that the United States was un­der at­tack of any kind, the act of com­mu­ni­cat­ing this warn­ing could re­turn uni­lat­eral nu­clear con­trol to the pres­i­dent. Congress could also al­low other trig­gers, such as if NATO in­voked Ar­ti­cle 5 to pro­vide a com­mon de­fense.


If we face a long pe­riod of hos­til­i­ties, a pres­i­dent could pro­pose an Au­tho­riza­tion for the Use of Mil­i­tary Force, which would in­clude grant­ing the pres­i­dent sole au­thor­ity to use nu­clear arms. (This alone would im­pose a new se­ri­ous­ness on AUMF de­bates.) Such changes would in­volve Congress in the ques­tion of nu­clear use, but with­out invit­ing chaos in a sit­u­a­tion where de­ter­rence de­mands calm and re­solve.

Such ar­range­ments would not only calm public con­cerns, they might also force more bi­par­ti­san­ship and com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the leg­isla­tive and ex­ec­u­tive branches. And they might make the Se­nate — and by ex­ten­sion, the Amer­i­can peo­ple — think a bit harder about whom to elect as ma­jor­ity leader.

These sug­ges­tions all have their draw­backs. But if we are to have a se­ri­ous na­tional dis­cus­sion about the stew­ard­ship of our nu­clear ar­se­nal in the 21st cen­tury, we have to stop re­ly­ing on de­fault po­si­tions we in­her­ited from the Cold War.

Cre­at­ing a more sta­ble de­ter­rent will re­quire some long over­due soul-search­ing on the part of an Amer­i­can public that has been loath to think about such things. The is­sue of pres­i­den­tial con­trol is a good place to start.

Tom Ni­chols, a Rus­sia spe­cial­ist and pro­fes­sor of na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs at the Naval War Col­lege, is the au­thor of The Death of Ex­per­tise. The views ex­pressed here are solely his own.


Tele­vi­sion news in Seoul, South Korea, show­ing Pres­i­dent Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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