Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Restless progressives eye 2024 Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run 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 TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE should the two face off in the general election.
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 KaineMenendez jabs State official over Colombian group's terror designation Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos Senate advances defense bill after delay 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 SandersOn The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Pence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin Senators huddle on path forward for SALT deduction in spending bill MORE (I-Vt.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandGillibrand, bipartisan lawmakers push to keep military justice overhaul in NDAA Klobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan MORE (D-N.Y.).
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo On steel and aluminum trade, Trumpism still rules Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon vows more airstrike transparency 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 GabbardThe perfect Democratic running mate for DeSantis? Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition MORE (D-Hawaii) and Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Ohio Republicans swing for fences in redistricting proposals Ohio redistricting commission gives up on US House map 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 BullockDark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 In Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line 65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal 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 CheneyThe GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous Trump allies leaning on his executive privilege claims Two Fox News contributors quit over Tucker Carlson's Jan. 6 documentary MORE (R-Wyo.) tweeted the day after the debate.
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 UnNorth Korea bans leather coats after Kim starts new fashion trend Belarus and Russia must resolve the migrant crisis on their own North Korea's Kim makes first public appearance in month 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.”