The Cable

Lawmakers Introduce Bill Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons

"Congress must act to preserve global stability," said a congressman behind the bill.


Lawmakers introduced a bill in both houses of Congress Tuesday that would prevent the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war. A policy that was long debated — but never seriously pursued — during the Obama administration has now become anything other than abstract after the election of Donald Trump.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced legislation meant to pry the nuclear football out of the president’s hands.

“Nuclear war poses the gravest risk to human survival. Yet, President Trump has suggested that he would consider launching nuclear attacks against terrorists,” Markey said in a statement. “Unfortunately, by maintaining the option of using nuclear weapons first in a conflict, U.S. policy provides him with that power. In a crisis with another nuclear-armed country, this policy drastically increases the risk of unintended nuclear escalation.”

Over the course of her campaign against President Trump, Hillary Clinton repeatedly warned that “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” It would seem Markey and Lieu agree.

Lieu, who has a paper sign reading, “Alternative Fact Free Zone” outside his office, took aim at Trump’s ignorance. “It is a frightening reality that the U.S. now has a Commander-in-Chief who has demonstrated ignorance of the nuclear triad, stated his desire to be ‘unpredictable’ with nuclear weapons, and as President-elect was making sweeping statements about U.S. nuclear policy over Twitter. Congress must act to preserve global stability by restricting the circumstances under which the U.S. would be the first nation to use a nuclear weapon.”

The bill is backed by global disarmament groups and some former U.S. officials like William Perry, former secretary of defense. But it’s still to be seen if the Republican majority House or Senate would support a bill that could be seen to undermine a Republican president, particularly given that some have already pushed to authorize more presidential military force in the form of new AUMFs.

This isn’t the first mention of such legislation — the idea of it has been mentioned on and off for years, advocated by groups such as the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. At a January event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said he is “confident we can deter and defend ourselves and our allies against non-nuclear threats through other means,” adding that he “strongly believes” that “deterring and if necessary retaliating against a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

But it’s no longer academic. During the campaign, Trump made clear he had no idea what nuclear weapons the United States has, but flippantly suggested using them on the battlefield. He urged U.S. allies in Asia like Japan and South Korea to build their own nukes, reversing decades of U.S. policy. In December, Trump declared, “Let it be an arms race” with Russia. And while some read this as an invitation for Russia to team up with the United States against emerging nuclear powers, there is little chance that that could in turn lead to symmetrical nuclear disarmament, which Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov has already dismissed as “totally unacceptable.”

As unacceptable, as Markey and Lieu argued with their new legislation, as the sudden risk of nuclear annihilation that has in recent months settled over the globe.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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