House Democrats sent a letter to President Joe Biden on February 22 urging the Commander in Chief to give up his ability to unilaterally launch a nuclear weapon.
“Vesting one person with this authority entails real risks,” the letter said. “Past presidents threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons or exhibited behavior that caused other officials to express concern about the president’s judgement.”
Thirty-one House Democrats signed the letter, including Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Illhan Omar (D-MO). The letter also offered four alternatives to vesting the sole power to launch a nuclear weapon in the office of the president. It proposed allowing the Vice President and speaker of the House “to concur with a launch order, utilizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s tracking of those officials to ensure prompt communication.”
Another proposal suggested that the President seek approval from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff and the attorney general. The third suggestion would put power on Congressional hands and force the President to seek its approval. The fourth would have the most far reaching consequences. “Creating a permanent active council of congressional leaders that would regularly participate in deliberations with the executive branch on vital national security issues and mandate some portion of the council be consulted before the first use of nuclear weapons.”
None of these proposals address the core issue. The United States, and much of the world, relies on the threat of nuclear Armageddon to keep the peace, a doctrine known as mutual assured destruction, or MAD. These solutions add more steps to a system that’s already ludicrous and buys into the idea that America’s nuclear rivals—but primarily Russia—might one day launch a nuclear attack that requires immediate retaliation.
“Any of the things that letter suggests would be better than the current situation,” Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies told Motherboard on the phone. “Because the old thinking was that the election is the safeguard. We no longer believe that.”
According to Lewis, the Trump presidency made people pay attention to nuclear weapons in a way he hasn’t seen since the Cold War. In the early days of his campaign and presidency, people used the threat of Trump launching a nuclear weapon as an allegory for his unfitness for office. “Trump had a radicalizing effect on people,” Lewis said. “In the past, people would say ‘The president has sole authority to launch nuclear weapons and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. It sounds sort of crazy but what president would ever do that? After Trump, you can no longer say that. Trump was an unnerving glimpse of the national psyche.”
Lewis said that any of the letter’s proposed solutions would be better than our current system, but that the whole thing is still based on a false premise of nuclear deterrence. “They’re still accepting the idea that there may be scenarios where it would make sense to give the president only a few minutes to decide on the large scale use of nuclear weapons,” he said. “And I reject that. I think that’s the psychotic mindset that got us into trouble in the first place.”
America’s reliance on nuclear weapons as the foundation of its national security problem runs the risk of, one day, destroying the planet. “We are prepared to run all these insane risks, like giving Donald Trump the ability to just pick up a phone and do it, in order to guard against the extreme scenario where the Russians decide to hit us with everything they’ve got,” he said. “They’re still conceding that the organizing principle of our forces should be the prompt use of nuclear weapons in a dire scenario. As long as you have that mindset, all the things you do to protect that are like having a loading gun laying around in your living room.”
Lewis said that it’d be better to craft command and control policies that give the President time and flexibility to make the correct decision instead of the fast one. “There’s this idea that if somebody nukes us we have to nuke them back within half an hour,” he said. “Why? The argument is that if you don’t do it immediately, there might be some doubt as to whether you would do it at all. But it took us 28 days after September 11 to go into Afghanistan. I lived through that and let me tell you, no one for one second of those 28 days had any doubt that there was going to be a ton of payback.”
The best deterrence against nuclear attack is to own nukes, but on a long enough timeline something will go wrong. “We have to be honest about the nature of the bargain we’re making,” Lewis said. “Which is that we are deterring these incredibly destructive conflicts at the price of running an awful risk. We’re buying time, but it isn’t going to work forever. And so what do we choose to do with this time? I think we should use this time to reduce these risks and find a way to transition to a different basis for our security.”