A DECISION SOLELY FOR A PRESIDENT?
Absent a crisis, there’s no reason to empower a single person to launch nuclear weapons
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 Rather, we need to think seriously about our system because it is predicated on assumptions that have been out of date for more than 20 years.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
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.
CALM AND RESOLVE
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.