Hot-button campaign issue: 2020 Democrats disagree on nuclear launch authority

By John Krzyzaniak, February 11, 2020

Nuclear launch console. Launch console at the historic Nike SF-88 missile launch site, California. Photo credit: Marcin Wichary via Flickr.

Let’s pretend you’re a Democrat trying to figure out who to vote for in your state’s upcoming presidential primary contest. Let’s also pretend you care about American foreign policy, and particularly nuclear weapons policy.

Joe Biden wants to immediately extend the New START treaty with Russia. So does Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. Who do you vote for?

On the Iran nuclear deal, guess who wants back in? Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg all say they’d rejoin the agreement, without preconditions. Klobuchar would aim for minor improvements but, at the end of the day, really just wants the same as the other candidates. Have you made your choice yet?

To be sure, on the issue of both New START and the Iran nuclear deal, all the Democrats diverge sharply from the Trump administration’s views, and that’s helpful information for the general election. But it’s primary season, and one point of the debates is not so much to help Democratic voters figure out where the candidates agree, but where they diverge on important issues. If everyone agrees, there’s little to debate.

So where can a Democratic voter turn for some healthy disagreement about US nuclear policies? To some degree, nuclear no first use. But to find substantial disagreement, voters should consider the issue of whether a president should have sole authority to launch nuclear weapons.

A glimmer of divergence on no first use. On the issue of no first use, there is a little daylight between the candidates, but not much. For as long as the United States has had nuclear weapons, its leaders have reserved the right to use them first in a conflict. Progressive Democrats are looking to change that by implementing a policy under which the United States would vow never to start a nuclear war. In 2019, Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill (cosponsored by Sanders) to that effect in the Senate. The entire text of the bill is a single sentence: “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”

But it’s not just the progressive Democrats who are looking to adopt a no-first-use policy. Joe Biden, apparently without irony, said last fall that he supported no first use 20 years before Warren introduced the bill.

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are the only top-tier candidates who have not expressed outright support for a no-first-use policy, but their positions are still not all that different from the no-first-use crowd. Buttigieg has said “it would be hard to imagine a scenario” where it would be appropriate to launch a first strike. Klobuchar, for her part, could envision a “series of horribles” under which nuclear first strike might be warranted. Most of these scenarios involve retaliation following the use of other weapons of mass destruction. In taking the “extreme circumstances” position, both candidates are essentially following the same logic that ultimately convinced the Obama administration not to adopt a no-first-use policy.

The sole authority split. In the middle of impeachment hearings in 1974, President Richard Nixon raised a few eyebrows when he said, quite accurately, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, 70 million people will be dead.”

Nixon had vividly encapsulated a major issue that every president faces: sole authority. Right now, the president has the authority to launch, on his own volition, a nuclear attack (including, of course, a first strike).

It’s an issue that has been largely overlooked so far in the Democratic primary campaign—and one about which the candidates may substantially disagree.

The fact that no one can stop a presidential order for nuclear attack generated acute interest when President Trump took office. In a 2019 editorial for the Washington Post, Joe Cirincione, an anti-nuclear advocate and president of Ploughshares Fund, drew some parallels between Presidents Nixon and Trump and concluded that “we must prepare to do all we can to ensure that no one individual—sane or insane—can ever start a nuclear war on their own.”

Not all of the Democratic candidates are on the record about this issue, but from what information is readily available, a question about sole authority would be sure to spark a lively debate. Andrew Yang has made clear that he shares Cirincione’s views, saying that “at a minimum…you need at least one other clear-thinking individual to sign off” on a nuclear launch order, such as the vice president. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Yang was envisioning only first-strike scenarios, or whether he would put a check on the president’s launch authority even in retaliatory situations. Either way, such a change would have wide-ranging implications for US nuclear posture.

Notably, this is not the only option on the table for reforming the president’s authority to order a nuclear launch. Sanders and Warren have cosponsored a bill (introduced by Senators Ed Markey and Ted Lieu) that would stop the president from launching a nuclear first strike unless Congress makes a declaration of war that explicitly allows one. Such a policy, if it were enacted, would take away the president’s sole authority for a first strike without tying his or her hands in retaliatory situations.

Buttigieg sits on the other end of the spectrum, with apparently no appetite for reform on this issue. In August 2019, he said, quite unambiguously, that “command authority needs to be integrated with the president,” meaning he wants to keep the status quo, for better or worse.

What do Biden, Klobuchar, and all the rest think? And which policy is the best? Now’s the time to ask.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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Frank Munley
Frank Munley

Where do the candidates stand on ABM systems in Europe? The Aegis launchers, from what I understand, are capable of being loaded with either ABMs or with small nuclear weapons. If true, what a dangerous ambiguity!

I may be wrong, but while the president has sole authority to order a launch, he/she cannot actually execute the launch. And there are a number of layers of military command the order must go through, layers where the order could be countermanded, as happened in Russia (or maybe the USSR) a number of years back.

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