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Warren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback

Warren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden: 'Difficult decision' to staff administration with House, Senate members The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience On The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus MORE (D-Mass.) is taking heat from all sides over her proposal to make it official U.S. policy not to be the first to use a nuclear weapon.

Republicans slammed the proposal as sending a dangerous signal to both allies and enemies about a lack of U.S. resolve -- previewing a potential attack line from President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE should the two face off in the general election.

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Some Democrats do back the idea. But others say a "no first use" policy like the one Warren proposed is too simplistic for a complex world.

“The worry is that, of course, that should be our policy, but if we tell the world that is our policy … you actually may perversely encourage bad behavior in others,” said Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Grassley tests positive for coronavirus MORE (D-Va.), who was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016.

The United States has long reserved the right to be the first country to launch a nuclear weapon in a conflict.

Former President Obama reportedly thought of declaring a no first use policy toward the end of his tenure, but was talked out of it by advisors who argued it would worry allies and embolden adversaries.

Arms control advocates hold that declaring a no first use policy would improve U.S. national security by lowering the risk for miscalculation. 

Warren made no first use a key part of her foreign policy early on in her run.

“No first use. To reduce the chances of a miscalculation or an accident, and to maintain our moral and diplomatic leadership in the world, we must be clear that deterrence is the sole purpose of our arsenal,” she said in a November foreign policy speech.

The speech was delivered before she officially jumped in the race but was considered an early sign she was running.

In January, she introduced the Senate version of a bill to make no first use official U.S. policy. The bill has six co-sponsors, including follow presidential contenders Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden: 'Difficult decision' to staff administration with House, Senate members Hillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far MORE (I-Vt.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Social media responds to Harris making history: 'I feel like our ancestors are rejoicing' Ocasio-Cortez says she doesn't plan on 'staying in the House forever' MORE (D-N.Y.).

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithHouse Democrat accuses Air Force of attempting to influence Georgia runoff races US national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Overnight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names MORE (D-Wash.), a longtime no first use advocate, also introduced the bill in the lower chamber. The House version has 35 co-sponsors, including presidential candidates Reps. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardSix people whose election wins made history Next Congress expected to have record diversity Native Americans elected to Congress in record numbers this year MORE (D-Hawaii) and Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanHouse Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education Now's the time to make 'Social Emotional Learning' a national priority Mourners gather outside Supreme Court after passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg MORE (D-Ohio.).

Only Warren, though, was asked to defend the policy at this week’s Democratic debates.

“We don't expand trust around the world by saying, ‘You know, we might be the first ones to use a nuclear weapon,’” Warren said Tuesday night from the stage in Detroit.

“That puts the entire world at risk and puts us at risk, right in the middle of this," she said.

She also noted that Trump's policies, including pulling out of a nuclear deal with Iran, had gotten the world "closer and closer to nuclear warfare."

"We have to have an announced policy that is one the entire world can live with," she concluded.

Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race Senate control in flux as counting goes forward in key states MORE (D) shot back that he wouldn’t take the option off the table.

“I don't want to turn around and say, ‘Well, Detroit has to be gone before we would ever use that,’” he said.

Nonproliferation advocates hailed Warren after the debates.

“#NoFirstUse is exactly the kind of ambitious and far-reaching policy agenda we need to defuse nuclear flashpoints around the planet and begin to unravel the undemocratic and absolute power every American president holds to unilaterally start a nuclear war,” tweeted Derek Johnson, executive director of Global Zero.

“#NoFirstUse is a no-brainer that makes America, and the world, safer and more secure. It takes pressure off adversaries to ‘go nuclear’ first in a crisis.”

Some of Warren’s fellow Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee, though, said the issue is more complicated than simply declaring “no first use.”

“Our nuclear force has to be an effective and strong deterrent, and so I think that it has to be regarded and used in that way, and over-simplistic terminology tends to diminish its force,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “The problem with talking about first strike and the reason why it’s over simplistic is that we’re developing new means of delivering nuclear deterrent, and I think that the meaning of first strike is undergoing new definitions.”

Republicans, meanwhile, pounced.

“Key question for Elizabeth Warren @ewarren today - which American cities and how many American citizens are you willing to sacrifice with your policy of forcing the US to absorb a nuclear attack before we can strike back?” Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Trump: Liz Cheney's election remarks sparked by push to bring US troops home Biden's lead over Trump surpasses 6M votes as more ballots are tallied MORE (R-Wyo.) tweeted the day after the debate.

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Sen. Deb. Fischer (R-Neb.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services subcommittee with oversight of nuclear weapons, said a strong deterrence must include both nuclear capability and the commitment to use that capability.

“Our European allies, I’m sure they have to be scratching their heads that any presidential candidate would make a statement like that. We’ve never had a president who has ever, ever said that,” Fischer said. “It’s very, very disturbing that you would have any candidate for president make a statement like that and put this country in jeopardy. It’s basically saying that we’re not going to respond unless we see a city wiped out with a nuclear bomb, one of our cities.”

Trump’s own history with nuclear policy has been complicated.

During his first presidential campaign in 2016, Trump waffled on his willingness to use nuclear weapons, alternately saying he would “certainly not do first strike” but that he “can’t take anything off the table.”

As president, Trump has made threats interpreted as nuclear taunts, such as threatening “fire and fury” on North Korea before developing a relationship with Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnJapan's role could redefine Asia-Pacific relations under Biden and Suga Biden leans on foreign policy establishment to build team Biden rolls out national security team MORE. Trump has also bragged about the size and power of the nuclear arsenal, but has added “hopefully we will never have to use this power.”

His administration’s Nuclear Posture Review says the United States would only use nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances.”

The review added the United States will “posture our nuclear capabilities to hedge against multiple potential risks and threat developments,” including non-nuclear threats such as chemical, biological, cyber and large-scale conventional attacks.

The Trump campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Hill on Warren’s no first use proposal.

In response to criticism of the policy, Warren’s campaign sent The Hill seven tweets and articles from nonproliferation advocates in support of Warren. The support included former Defense Secretary William Perry, who tweeted that “our nuclear arsenal is intended to deter a nuclear attack, not to initiate a nuclear war.”

Warren campaign spokeswoman Saloni Sharma added that “our bill sends a clear signal to the world that deterrence is the sole purpose of our arsenal.”