You might imagine the president’s power to launch a nuclear war would be constrained by checks and balances, but you’d be wrong.
Earlier today, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough made public a conversation between an unnamed foreign policy expert and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, during which Trump reportedly asked three times: “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?”
Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?
We can’t use them because they’re designed to indiscriminately kill hundreds of thousands, even millions of innocent people — to wipe entire cities off the map.
We can’t use them because even one would trigger a humanitarian, environmental and economic catastrophe on a global scale. (Let alone several. Let alone all of them.)
We can’t use them because if launched against a nation that has them, they would almost certainly be used against us in retaliation, ensuring the destruction of the United States.
We can’t use them because doing so would violate a universal norm against nuclear violence that has held up for more than 70 years.
The answer is so obvious that on this, at least, disarmament and deterrence advocates basically agree: The whole point is not to use them.
But there are no safeguards in place if an American president ever decides the answer to that question is “why the hell not?”
As General Hayden pointed out to Scarborough this morning, the U.S. nuclear apparatus is “built for decisiveness. It’s not designed to debate the decision.” In fact, it’s designed to preclude debate. The president’s decision to light the world on fire is his and his alone. It is an order that must be obeyed.
As these weapons increasingly become a topic of debate during this election, we should bear in mind the way nuclear command-and-control systems have long operated: The commander-in-chief has virtually limitless authority to order a nuclear strike at any time he or she chooses. There are essentially no democratic checks on that power. That will be true for the next American president, whoever that may be.
In a recent and disturbing exposé in Politico, Global Zero co-founder and nuclear command-and-control expert, Dr. Bruce Blair, describes the process that would follow a presidential order to use nuclear weapons. After giving the launch command, the president’s identity would be confirmed by the Pentagon. Within minutes, U.S. nuclear missiles would fire from their underground silos and hurtle across the Earth at roughly 22 times the speed of sound. There would be no take-backs. They would reach their target cities in 30 minutes or less.
There are no legal, political or operational restraints on this autocratic power to launch a civilization-ending nuclear attack. Nothing to prevent a president from unleashing this hell based on misinformation or poor judgment. No need even for a president to explain or provide rationale.
Once that decision is made, the system will execute it with devastating deference and speed.
This throws into stark relief what a powerful and terrible burden American voters face in this election. With the keys to the White House come absolute control over thousands of nuclear weapons. The fate of entire nations lies in the unknowable inner workings of the mind of one man or woman.
Pending their total elimination worldwide, we should do everything we can to challenge our unjust, undemocratic and terrifying nuclear autocracy — and lower the risks these weapons will be used. One thing the United States can do immediately is adopt a policy banning the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, which would help keep the United States and the rest of the world safe from an itchy trigger finger.
Right now, President Obama — under pressure for his failure to live up to the vision he outlined in Prague seven years ago — is considering precisely such a move. If there were ever a time to hold his feet to the fire, this is it.
Meanwhile, we have less than 100 days to choose the next commander-in-chief. We must use that time to look to the candidates and ask how they will ensure these weapons are never used again. The rest of the world is looking to us and asking the same.
Derek Johnson is the executive director of the Global Zero movement for a world without nuclear weapons. Jennifer Knox contributed to this piece.