It Is Time to Update the President’s Nuclear Command Authority

October 4, 2018
Nikolai Sokov and Miles A. Pomper

The following is an excerpt from The National Interest.

Last week, the California Senate approved AJR-30, a resolution that calls for restricting presidential authority to launch a first nuclear strike. It would not be surprising if other states decided to take similar action responding to increasingly widespread concern about the risk that President Donald Trump might decide to resort to nuclear weapons if North Korea continues to refuse to denuclearize. Indeed, legislation that would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike absent an explicit resolution from Congress has been introduced by Democrats in both houses of Congress ( H.R.669, S.200 ).

Although the common belief that presidents possess complete and unfettered freedom to use nuclear weapons is not entirely correct, there are few barriers to such action. This is true even in the case where the United States is the first country to resort to nuclear weapons. What barriers that do exist are largely informal as former special advisor to National Security Council Peter Feaver recently explained. Even if a decision by Donald Trump to send nuclear missiles against North Korea on the spur of the moment would likely prompt questions and delays from military commanders, this does not mean that U.S. citizens should have to rely on such informal and unproven mechanisms to stop such a strike.

Presidential authority to employ nuclear weapons almost at will is rooted in history and specific Cold War period scenarios.

Its historical roots can be traced to World War II, when the president in his capacity as commander-in-chief (CINC) possessed full unchallenged authority to make all decisions related to the prosecution of war. This authority extended by default to President Harry Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons in 1945. After the end of the Cold War, no one seriously thought about limiting the powers of the president in his CINC capacity until after the U.S intervention in Vietnam.

Continue reading at The National Interest.

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