The standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and, to a lesser extent, questions about the future of Iran’s nuclear program both have drawn certain scholars, members of the media and even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to debate whether the time has come to restrict the American president’s unilateral authority to launch a nuclear strike.
As appealing as that notion might seem on the surface, poorly designed restrictions could put U.S. national security in jeopardy.
There are several ideas on the table for ways ostensibly to prevent a “madman” launch, including legislation introduced in both the House and the Senate that would prevent the president from launching a nuclear weapon without explicit congressional authorization unless an adversary first launches a nuke at the United States or its allies.
Concerns about a single individual holding power over use of mankind’s most awesome weapons are legitimate; the capacity for destruction is staggering. However, such proposals would unintentionally weaken the commander in chief’s constitutional authority to make decisions in the face of imminent threats.
Absent an imminent threat to U.S. security, the president does not have unilateral authority to approve military force. For most uses of force, the president is legally obligated to rely on congressional authorization, including for the use of nuclear weapons. However, where there is an imminent threat, such as an invasion or a missile launched at the nation or its allies, the president does have the authority to respond unilaterally. The Framers intended for the president to have that authority, leaving the executive the power to “repel sudden attacks.” Proposals to stop the president from using nuclear weapons would hamper the president’s duty to repel those threats through either conventional or nuclear means.
The bills before Congress would create a congressional check that would serve as a potential veto on nuclear launches. If the proposed check is designed to apply in all circumstances, including the response to imminent threats, it could compromise the president’s ability to protect the United States and its allies.
What if, for example, intelligence gathered from North Korea indicated an imminent launch of nuclear weapons? In this case, the president might determine that eliminating North Korea’s nuclear capability is required to preserve national security. Small tactical nuclear detonations may be the best weapon to destroy North Korea’s hardened missile bunkers. Any president’s ability to make a quick decision in a rapidly changing situation would be hampered if he or she must persuade another decision-maker or decision-making body to use nuclear force.
There are further practical problems with these proposals. America developed the nuclear umbrella in order to assure peace after World War II. The nation’s declared willingness to use nuclear weapons in defense of its allies has served to deter other nuclear powers from launching nuclear or conventional attacks.
Efforts to spread out the authority to use nuclear weapons could be interpreted by others as a de facto “no first use” policy. The United States traditionally has rejected a “no first use” policy to ensure that adversaries know the nation would, if necessary, respond with nuclear weapons to stop an attack. Mandating that Congress must co-authorize a strike could muddy that response process and weaken our nuclear deterrent.
Finally, while the president has final decision-making authority, the decision-making process is not truly unilateral, as it is often portrayed in popular culture. Presidents work fully with the defense secretary, the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to understand the full ramifications of such a decision.
Any strike has to be executed by members of the military. Staff has the responsibility to ensure that, given the grave consequences, the choice is not made lightly and follows existing legal standards of necessity and proportionality.
In an effort to bring predictability to an unpredictable president, we must be hyperaware of how the president’s ability to respond to rapidly evolving threats could be unintentionally harmed in the process. A well-intended effort to bring stability via a dual authorization requirement to launch nuclear weapons could have the very real consequence of exposing the country to even greater risk.