Will U.S. Congress Legally Restrain a Nuclear World War III?

By Shanta Roy

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) – U.S. President Donald Trump's highly erratic behavior on nuclear weapons – and his public threats to "totally destroy" North Korea – have triggered a strong political backlash from anti-nuclear and anti-war activists.

"A central problem is that Donald Trump seems ignorant about what nuclear weapons really are, and the humanitarian catastrophe that would be unleashed if he fired even one at North Korea – or anywhere," said Dr. Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, a founding co-Chair of the International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the 2017 Nobel Peace Laureate.  [P 23]  | JAPANESE TEXT VERSON PDF

As tensions continue to rise, two legislators, Senators, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Ted Lieu of California, both Democrats, are promoting a bill that would prevent the president from launching a first nuclear strike – one not in response to a nuclear attack – without a declaration of war by Congress.

The proposed legislation, introduced early this year, is currently gaining traction following Trump’s hard hitting statements recently, including before the UN General Assembly in September, when he threateningly said: "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea."

Over the last several months, Trump has also said if North Korea threatens the U.S., it will "face fire and fury like the world has never seen." He also tweeted that the U.S. nuclear arsenal "is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before."

Senator Bob Corker, a Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on October 8 that Trump’s reckless behavior could set the nation "on the path to World War III." What was left unsaid was – if there was such a war it may go nuclear.

Meanwhile, Trump has vehemently denied a news report on a U.S. TV network that he had called for a 10-fold increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal, at a July meeting of the National Security Council.

The U.S. currently holds about 4,000 warheads, reduced from a peak of some 30,000 in the 1960s, according to the Pentagon.

As the New York Times pointed out in its editorial on October 12, Trump during his presidential campaign "wondered why America had nuclear weapons if it didn’t use them."

Dr. Johnson told IDN that both Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un are like drunken teenagers playing "chicken" with fast cars, posturing for their followers as they both drive off a cliff.  

Asked about the proposed legislation, she said: "In this situation, it would of course be helpful for the U.S. Congress to remove the keys with this new legislation, if they are able to get a bipartisan majority."  

Although it will be a hard sell in a Republican-dominated Congress, there are visible signs that many Republicans are openly opposing Trump on several laws, including barring him from unilaterally lifting sanctions on Russia.

However useful such a political constraint may be, said Dr. Johnson, it’s a fragile and temporary safety measure in a situation where the United States still keeps thousands of weapons actively on alert.

She pointed out that Trump is also bent on undermining a range of international nuclear disarmament and security agreements designed to get rid of nuclear weapons and prevent them being acquired or ever used again.  

First, the U.S. has dismissed the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by 122 states on July 7, and now Trump is doing his best to destroy the confidence-building nuclear deal with Iran, thereby playing into the hands of hardliners who would like Iran to develop nuclear capabilities as North Korea has done, she added. 

Asked about the pending legislation, Dr. M.V. Ramana, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, told IDN: "I think this is an important effort not so much because of the likelihood of its being passed but because it could represent the opening of a conversation about putting limits on the power of any U.S. President, not just Donald Trump, to launch one or more nuclear weapons with catastrophic impacts."

The ability to control such extreme destructive power should never rest with any single individual, and this is one of the chief ways in which nuclear weapons are undemocratic, said Professor Ramana, author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India.

The proposed legislation H.R. 669 and S. 200, is titled Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017.

Congressman Lieu was quoted as saying: "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 (made) 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."

"Our Founders created a system of checks and balances, and it is essential for that standard to be applied to the potentially civilization-ending threat of nuclear war. I am proud to introduce the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 with Sen. Markey to realign our nation’s nuclear weapons launch policy with the Constitution and work towards a safer world."

Senator Markey said: "Nuclear war poses the gravest risk to human survival. Yet, President Trump has suggested that he would consider launching nuclear attacks against terrorists. 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."

"Neither President Trump, nor any other president, should be allowed to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack. By restricting the first use of nuclear weapons, this legislation enshrines that simple principle into law," he added.

At a press conference in Boston on August 14, 2017 Markey told reporters: "No president should have the power to launch a nuclear first strike without congressional approval. Such a strike would be immoral, disproportionate and would expose the U.S. to the threat of devastating nuclear retaliation that could endanger the survival of the American people and human civilization."

Dr. Johnson said: "In his ignorance, Trump seems to think that nuclear weapons are an exciting big weapon for wielding American power and showing off his personal machismo, while also possessing a magical property called deterrence that makes him irresistible and invincible."

She said threatening to use them is supposed to deter, but deterrence isn't magic. It's a form of defence that only works when there is clear communication and no risk of miscalculation, mistakes or political or technical error.  

"But he's not alone in those illusions about nuclear deterrence, which have been used to justify nine countries still amassing 15,000 nuclear weapons. That is why for the past decade ICAN has mobilised governments and civil society to achieve the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty by showing the dangers inherent in deploying nuclear weapons for deterrence and the appalling humanitarian and planet threatening consequences if these abhorrent WMD are ever used in war." 

The fundamental message, she declared, is that there can be no safe hands for these unsafe weapons of mass annihilation. The Treaty now bans them.  

"Deploying and threatening to use them should be treated as illegal, in effect as preparations to commit a war crime and crime against humanity. The treaty removes any illusion of status or value, so the U.S., North Korea, Russia and all the other nuclear-armed countries need to get on board and start eradicating the weapons in their arsenals and communicating more effectively to solve the security challenges we all face." [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 October 2017]

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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