More hands needed on the nuclear football

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States in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will meet for the first time June 21-23, 2022, in Vienna.

Fears about President Trump’s unilateral access to nuclear launch codes in the remaining days of his troubled administration led Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others to call for limiting the President’s ability to authorize a nuclear strike. What may have seemed like political theater is in fact a serious and known gap in accountability that lawmakers and scholars have tried to address for decades without success. 

Trump was not the first embattled U.S. leader whose access to the launch codes spooked Congress. President Nixon, who revealed to the press in 1985 that he considered using nuclear weapons on four occasions, reportedly told two congressmen in the summer of 1974 that “I can go back into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” Concerns about Nixon’s heavy drinking and pressure from the impeachment proceedings are said to have led Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff that any emergency order coming from the president — such as a nuclear launch order — should go through him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger first. But Schlesinger had no legal authority to intervene and it is not clear what would have happened if Nixon had ordered an attack. 

Two years earlier, Senator J. William Fulbright sought to include an amendment to the landmark War Powers Resolution (which Nixon vetoed but Congress overrode) that would have required prior congressional authorization for nuclear weapons use except in response to a nuclear attack. The exception, presumably, was to cover the scenario of a surprise nuclear strike by the Soviet Union designed to disarm us. The amendment failed, but the conviction that the president needed full freedom of action lived on. 

Today, there is less merit than ever to support unilateral authorization without consultation and many ways to structure a process that would still be flexible but accountable. For example, the United States could modify its nuclear decision making procedures to require that one or more officials concur with a presidential order to use nuclear weapons before the military carries it out. 

This would be the policy equivalent of the actual ‘two-person rule’ for implementing nuclear launches. Three of our colleagues at MIT and the University of Maryland have developed a proposal suggesting a succession tracking system operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be useful here. Such technology would allow for a rapid decision in a situation where such a dreadful outcome was under discussion. 

Current and evolving technology and communications will only make it easier and more efficient to facilitate an immediate and secure multi-party decision about initiating a nuclear attack. 

But that’s only part of the solution. President Biden also should immediately pursue a no-first-use policy that would go hand-in-hand with shared nuclear war decision making. To put it simply, the U.S. should declare it will not use nuclear weapons first. The Obama administration got close to a declaration but faced serious pushback from U.S. allies. 

The no-first-use idea is neither radical nor new. Several states with nuclear weapons have adopted this policy, including China and Russia, which exchanged no-first-use pledges in 1994. Allies would continue to be protected by U.S. extended deterrence. There should be no doubt in Pyongyang that a North Korean nuclear weapon against Japan or South Korea, would provoke a U.S. nuclear strike and therefore, it would be deterred from ever contemplating such a strike. The Nobel laureates at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have been pushing for just such a policy for 40 years. 

In the 1980 Doomsday Clock statement they urged that to avoid nuclear war, “Our objective is a universal declaration of no-first-use of nuclear weapons (the nuclear equivalent of the Geneva Protocol of 1925). As a first step, it might be easier to achieve an agreement on no-first-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states adhering to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty… But our overriding goal must remain the achievement of a universal no-first-use agreement at the earliest possible date. 

In 1981, scientists urged that “The avoidance of nuclear war is the first of all priorities. Whatever our visions for the future — getting from here to there must be our overriding concern. So, we must first buy time. But we must buy it for a larger purpose: the universal recognition that international disputes cannot be settled by nuclear war. The principle of no-first-use (ultimately the principle of nonuse) must become the cornerstone of all relations between nations.”

By 1984, President Reagan acknowledged that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

President Biden faces a daunting agenda both at home and abroad. Nuclear issues are never a favorite topic of presidents – they are just too complex and fraught with ambiguities. Perhaps the power is too enormous. 

Nonetheless, President Biden can reduce fear and uncertainty about U.S. nuclear weapons while lengthening the nuclear fuse by ending sole authority to use nuclear weapons for himself and all future presidents and declaring the U.S. will not use nuclear weapons first.  

As the Doomsday Clock looms large, we literally do not have a minute to lose. 

Rachel Bronson is president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Sharon Squassoni is a research professor at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University and a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board.

Tags Biden Donald Trump foreign relations Government Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi No first use Nuclear arms race Nuclear proliferation Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons in popular culture Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

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