In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize today to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the Nobel committee acknowledged the limitation of the group’s efforts. None of the world’s nuclear powers participated in the negotiations that led to the nuclear ban treaty adopted by the United Nations in June, and the accord comes at a time when the risk of nuclear war is greater than it has been since at least the end of the Cold War. At the time, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called the effort unrealistic, saying “Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?”
Since then, the situation has become even more dire, with additional atomic tests in North Korea and an escalating war of insults between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The obvious danger in ratcheting up the threatening rhetoric is that sooner or later either side could miscalculate and precipitate a real war neither wants. There’s never been a direct war between two nuclear-armed states, and no one knows whether such a conflict could be limited to conventional weapons or whether it would quickly go nuclear.
The United States is not about to sign on to the nuclear weapons ban treaty, but there is something it can do to acknowledge the international consensus against nuclear war without jeopardizing the safety and security of the American people and of our allies: Limit the president’s authority to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
The president’s authority to launch a nuclear attack is virtually unlimited and has been since the dawn of the nuclear age. Though the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, in practice the president can launch nuclear weapons either in retaliation for a nuclear attack on the U.S. or its allies or as a pre-emptive strike aimed at disarming a nuclear armed foe — and he can do it essentially without consulting Congress at all. When it comes to the use of nuclear weapons the president has dictatorial powers nearly as absolute as those of a foreign despot like Mr. Kim.
That’s why U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, is promoting a bill that would limit the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons in a potential conflict. Mr. Markey’s legislation would bar the president from launching a nuclear first strike — as opposed to a retaliatory blow in response to an enemy attack — without a declaration of war by Congress.
"No president should have the power to launch a nuclear first strike without congressional approval," Mr. Markey insisted earlier this year. "Such a strike would be immoral, disproportionate and would expose the U.S. to the threat of devastating nuclear retaliation that could endanger the survival of the American people and human civilization."
We cannot assume that leaders of nuclear armed states — even our own — will always act rationally and that they will always recognize that the costs of waging atomic warfare inevitably will be greater than any benefits such a conflict might bring. That premise underlies the strategy of deterrence, but we can’t rule out the possibility of a nuclear exchange that comes about as a result of miscalculation or technical malfunction. That the Cold War ended without the use of nuclear weapons is attributable to luck as much as wisdom.
Suggesting that Congress should have a veto over the president’s power to wage nuclear war doesn’t mean the U.S. wouldn’t be able to retaliate in kind if it were attacked by another nuclear-armed state. Nor would it hamstring the president’s ability to defend the nation in the event that deterrence fails. It simply means that Congress would have to approve the first use of nuclear weapons in a situation where hostilities have broken out but the other side has not used such weapons against us or our allies, and it would rule out the kind of pre-emptive strike aimed at destroying an enemy’s capability to use weapons of mass destruction against us. That by itself could help reduce tensions before they reached the nuclear threshold.
Mr. Markey’s proposed legislation (and a companion bill introduced in the House by Democratic Rep.Ted Lieu of California) face tough odds in Congress where not a single Republican lawmaker has come forward yet in support of the measure. Congress has been reluctant to declare war — the last time it did so was when America entered World War II in 1941 — and any bill requiring a declaration of war by Congress would likely face a presidential veto as well.
But this issue isn’t going away. The global community is united in its belief that nuclear weapons have no place in a civilized world. Whatever moral authority we have to challenge that position lies in the promise that we will only use our arsenal to protect ourselves and our allies, that our nuclear weapons serve as an ultimate deterrent against any other nations using theirs. The Markey bill simply puts that promise into law.
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