Donald Trump and Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority: The More Things Change…


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt fromPolicy Roundtable: Nuclear First-Use and Presidential Authorityfrom our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable. 


Many brave barrels of ink and intrepid pixels have gone to their fate to advance a better understanding of nuclear weapons. However, prior to 2016, few of these seriously grappled with the implications of a figure like Donald Trump in the Oval Office. His arrival has precipitated a reexamination of long-settled questions in nuclear analysis — most importantly the president having the sole authority to launch a nuclear weapon. Although such reconsideration of common wisdom is always welcome, the increasingly popular answer to the question of presidential nuclear authority is not: that the United States should adopt a policy requiring authorization from multiple actors to fire nuclear weapons. In fact, multiple authorization remains a bad idea, even if the alternative places formal control of America’s fate in hands of uncertain stability.

The debate over how to authorize the use of nuclear weapons is one facet of the “always/never” problem that was identified by Peter Feaver: States want high assurance that nuclear weapons will always be used when directed and that they will never be used otherwise. The problem is that there tends to be a tradeoff between “always” and “never.” Measures that add safeguards against accidental or unauthorized use tend to reduce operational efficacy in situations where speed and tight control are crucial, while command-and-control arrangements that prioritize flexibility and speed tend to be more vulnerable to abuse and/or mishaps.

The balance between “always” and “never” can be set in a number of different ways, and states can reasonably make adjustments depending on the circumstances. For instance, warfighting doctrines (either for a damage-limiting first strike or for battlefield use) are more operationally challenging, often depending on speed, coordination, and adaptability. By contrast, doctrines emphasizing retaliatory punishment do not necessarily depend on a quick response, though credibility may be more fundamental for deterrence. Likewise, in peacetime, the need to prioritize successful nuclear operations would appear to be less than during a crisis or war, while the threat of unauthorized use is also lower. The key policy question is, under what circumstances, if any, is making changes to the authority to launch nuclear weapons a good way to push the balance toward “never?”

Several recent articles argue that such circumstances were created with Trump’s election. Whether referring to the president explicitly or not, they all express the fear of an unstable or irrational actor launching a nuclear war. These arguments for multiple authorization come in several flavors. More restrictive arguments aim to require the explicit approval of other constitutional actors — either the Supreme Court or a majority of a specially constituted congressional committee — or the uniformed military. Less restrictive arguments suggest that the president should be compelled to consult with other civilian and military actors, time and circumstances permitting, without actually giving them veto power.

How Effective Are Legal Restrictions?

One problem with arguments like these is that the most effective restrictions on an irrational president’s nuclear authority are informal, not legal, and by and large already exist. In the case of a bolt-from-the-blue peacetime attack, resistance from the armed forces — perhaps even vigorous resistance — can probably be expected regardless of the legal situation. Jeffrey Lewis and Bruno Tertrais note that “captains of US SSBNs [ballistic missile submarines] are expected to make communications contact in the event of [an] unexpected launch order that seems out of place or character,” citing one former captain who is on record saying “that, in the event of a peacetime launch, he would insist on confirmation and a justification.” Similarly, at the height of the Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon was drinking heavily and talking bombastically about nuclear weapons, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger famously gave orders that military commanders needed to double check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing any order for a nuclear launch. Personally, I think a bolt-from-the-blue attack order is more likely to precipitate a soft coup than it is actual nuclear use. In such a case, the constitutional fallout is likely to be significant and thus it ought to be the focus of our attention.

At the same time, during a crisis or conventional war, legal requirements are not likely to stop a determined president, rational or otherwise. For instance, President Dwight Eisenhower noted in public that, regardless of Congress’ formal power to declare war, any president who didn’t act with alacrity to order a nuclear attack when needed to protect the American people “should be hanged.” He privately reassured members of Congress that “in the event of a real emergency,” he “would not come to Congress, but” would “go ahead” and act on his own. Even when America was at peace, Eisenhower circumvented the legal restrictions of the Atomic Energy Act, which forbade sharing custody of nuclear weapons with American allies. He set up a system where American controls over nuclear weapons in Europe were extremely loose. As Eisenhower put it, “we are willing to give, to all intents and purposes, control of the weapons. We retain titular possession only.” Congressional reports howled with outrage, but the policy was not changed until a new administration decided to change it. Eisenhower was an exceptional president in many ways, but not with regard to legal restrictions and foreign policy.

In any event, requiring a president to consult with other actors prior to launching a nuclear weapon, as envisioned by less restrictive proposals, will probably take place anyway in the form of the chain of command pushing back during peacetime, as described above. More restrictive proposals for checking presidential nuclear authority would need to be aimed at very difficult, and rare, cases: situations where a determined but irrational president wants to launch a nuclear strike and is unsuccessfully opposed by military and perhaps other civilian authorities, likely during a war or crisis. The only way to stop nuclear use under these circumstances is to require multiple authorizations, with each party possessing an effective veto. This is the kind of command arrangement that was pursued by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and is still in place in Russia today.



Tilting Too Far Toward “Never”

However, this leads to a second problem, which is that proposals for multiple authorizations tilt the dial much too far toward “never” at the expense of “always.” The costs of such an approach should not be dismissed as fanciful, as there are many signs that the world could be headed for increased nuclear competition. Keir Lieber and Daryl Press point out that technological change has made nuclear arsenals more vulnerable than ever before. I argue that these technical trends, along with unstable beliefs about mutually assured destruction and domestic hurdles to arms control, have heightened the global risks of peacetime nuclear competition. Similarly, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review highlights the increasing emphasis that American adversaries are placing on their nuclear forces. Analysts like Brad Roberts have made similar observations. Even states with historically stable nuclear force postures, like India, are moving toward counter-force competition. If these trends persist, requiring multiple levels of authorization could be costly during war and crises, as well as peacetime.

In the event of a war, the time needed to surmount a congressional or Supreme Court veto could spell doom in instances where a first strike might be justified, such as an attempt to preempt a North Korean nuclear force about to fire. Moreover, additional veto concerns of any sort make retaliatory missions much more challenging, since they increase the demands on the secure communications capabilities and continuity of government procedures necessary to ride out an attack. During a crisis, adding veto power beyond the president could encourage American adversaries to take more nuclear risks in the belief that Washington will have a relatively lower risk tolerance. The result could be more nuclear crises with worse outcomes. In the end, almost the entire value of nuclear weapons comes from the (at least implicit) threat to use them. Standing up before the world and ostentatiously making them more difficult to use during a crisis sends exactly the wrong signal.

A complex system requiring multiple authorizations could impose peacetime costs as well. The experience of the Soviets is instructive here. In the later part of the Cold War, Soviet military officers and civilian analysts alike were deeply pessimistic about the survivability of the Soviet nuclear command system. In part, this was a technical problem, but these worries were also caused by political decisions about Soviet command and control, including the multiple actors needed to authorize a launch. The command system necessitated buying heavily redundant nuclear forces and early warning capabilities to compensate for decapitation risks. It also caused a ferocious civil-military upheaval, with the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the U.S.S.R. pressing strongly for greater ability to launch on warning. Chief of the General Staff Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov was eventually removed in response, at least in part, to this controversy.

Importantly, Soviet command arrangements did not go unnoticed in Washington. When the CIA learned of the Soviet multiple authorization system in 1977, National Security Adviser Zbignew Brzezinski flagged the issue for President Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski noted that a Soviet decision to retaliate was not “the choice…of a single individual.” Instead, it was “probably a three-man collegial decision.” Brzezinski concluded that consequently “it might be very difficult for the USSR to ‘launch from under attack’ unless the three men are kept constantly in touch — no separate vacations.” The Carter administration’s interest in Soviet command and control was part of a broader learning process that indicated that Soviet nuclear forces were much more vulnerable than policymakers had initially anticipated. In conjunction with other changes in the intelligence picture, these discoveries led to a more aggressive American nuclear posture during Carter’s last three years in office.

Domestic Considerations

A third problem with command and control based on multiple authorizations is its effects on domestic politics. Though some analysts claim to use Trump only as a foil to highlight structural risks that would exist in any administration, one cannot help but notice that there was a conspicuous dearth of interest in presidential control of nuclear weapons during the Barack Obama years. Whatever one thinks of Trump, it seems like a bad idea to change long-standing defense structures in response to displeasure with the current Oval Office occupant, however justified. Such a move would set a bad precedent, worsen political polarization, and be perceived as highly partisan.

Some would defend the motives behind instituting a multiple authorization protocol as a reconstitution of congressional authority in national security matters. Congress is, after all, granted the sole power to declare war under Article I of the Constitution. One would think that Obama’s robust defense of presidential prerogatives over the use of force and Congress’ craven abdication on most national security issues of significance would have cured analysts of this particular anachronism. It has the air of special pleading about it — one doubts that any analysts calling to restore congressional dignity are really prepared to embrace a thorough-going originalist approach to the constitution, or even the kind of foreign policy that a legislature could manage.

There is much to be said against the new understanding of the constitution that arose, largely without amendment, in the 20th century. But one of its great virtues is that is has provided a viable political order under modern conditions, including a global foreign policy, as well as a massive technological revolution in warfare. Together, these conditions increase the need for making speedy decisions about nuclear war while making those decisions largely immune to legislative oversight. For good or for ill, both Congress and the executive recognized this fact during the Cold War. Attempting to close our eyes to it now seems unwise. The romantic in me would like to enhance congressional authority in foreign policy, and much else besides. The realist in me, however, has learned to stop worrying and to love leviathan, who, as Hobbes promised us, at least provides the most promising route to survival.

Moreover, I would argue that the president is optimally situated to provide domestic legitimacy to nuclear decision-making, insofar as such legitimacy is possible at all. The president owes his authority to victory in a nation-wide election, conducted according to the procedures mandated by the Constitution. No other elected official who might be included in the chain of command can claim as much, while the mandate of civilian appointments like the secretary of defense or the Supreme Court justices is even more tenuous. And, of course, military officers have no democratic mandate at all, their many other virtues notwithstanding. If democracy is to have the high national value it is generally accorded, surely decisions of national survival should be made by the one office elected by the majority of the entire nation.

In the end, nuclear weapons force policymakers to face uncomfortable truths. No sane person wants to see these weapons used. But for America to be able to effectively deter its enemies, it must be prepared to use its arsenal in extreme circumstances and use it with speed and certainty. Eisenhower, again, put it best: In nuclear operations, “the United States would be applying a force so terrible that one simply could not be meticulous as to the methods by which this force was brought to bear.” America’s national interests and, indeed, its survival, require a clear chain of command headed by the only individual who has a democratic and constitutional claim to speak for the entire nation: the president. Even if that president is Donald Trump.



Brendan Rittenhouse Green is assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.


Image: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead