In a bold and controversial move, Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation this week that would revoke Donald Trump’s existing authority to trigger a nuclear holocaust whenever he feels like it. The “No First Use Act,” which Warren co-authored with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, would legally establish that it is the policy of the United States to never be the first power to use nuclear weapons in an armed conflict.
“No First Use” (except, perhaps, in extremely unlikely hypothetical scenarios) has been America’s unspoken policy for decades. And toward the end of his time in office, Barack Obama considered making that policy official. But the president’s advisers proved nearly unanimous in their objections to such a move, on the (retrospectively ironic) grounds that Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric was making U.S. allies nervous. As the New York Times reported in September 2016:
[I]n the end, Mr. Obama seems to have sided with his current advisers, who warned in meetings culminating this summer that a no-first-use declaration would rattle allies like Japan and South Korea. Those nations are concerned about discussion of an American pullback from Asia prompted by comments made by the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump.
Whether those nations were more rattled by Trump’s unexpectedly inheriting the unilateral authority to commence the eschaton remains unclear. Regardless, Warren and Smith insist that the president should not be constrained from ordering a nuclear first strike by informal norms, but rather, official law.
“Our current nuclear strategy is not just outdated — it is dangerous,” Smith and Warren wrote in a joint statement. “By making clear that deterrence is the sole purpose of our arsenal, this bill would reduce the chances of a nuclear miscalculation and help us maintain our moral and diplomatic leadership in the world.”
Advocates of “no first use” believe the adoption of such a measure could spur more concrete changes in atomic policy, like putting our nuclear arsenal into a lower state of readiness (and thus reducing the probability of an accidental world war).
But leading Republicans believe that maintaining “calculated ambiguity” about whether America is a rogue, terrorist state that just might wipe a city off the face of the Earth at any moment is cool and good. Nebraska senator Deb Fischer said of Warren’s bill Wednesday, “With Russia and China increasingly attempting to intimidate their neighbors — some of whom are U.S. allies — this is the wrong message to send. It betrays a naïve and disturbed world view.”
Thank God our current leaders have a worldview that is sophisticated and sane.