Late last month, 31 members of Congress sent a letter to President Biden urging him to change long-standing policy that gives the president sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons — by limiting his own authority.
In a somewhat amusing turn of events, Fox News gadfly Sean Hannity told his viewers that the letter "must be totally humiliating for Joe Biden" because according to Hannity, it apparently reflects concerns about Biden’s “cognitive ability” since the Democrats “didn't propose this even when Donald Trump was president."
Mr. Hannity is wrong on both counts. In early 2017, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Liu (D-Calif.) introduced legislation requiring Congress to declare war and explicitly authorize the first use of nuclear weapons before the president could issue a nuclear attack order.
Even worse, the president’s judgement may be impaired, leaving them mentally unfit to issue such an order. The letter to Biden makes explicit reference to Presidents Nixon and Trump, who “exhibited behavior that caused other officials to express concern about …[their]…judgment.” During the Watergate scandal, President Nixon was drinking heavily and many advisers considered him unstable. And there were serious concerns about President Trump’s state of mind during the final weeks of his presidency, especially after the attack on the Capitol that he himself encouraged.
There is one check in this system: The military would be obligated to carry out the president’s attack order only if it was legal under the Law of Armed Conflict, which is a significant constraint. The Pentagon takes this law seriously: its 1,200-page Law of War Manual includes detailed discussions of the legality of a wide range of scenarios (the discussion of nuclear options is not public) and it employs some 2,000 military lawyers who advise commanders at all levels about the legality of plans and operations, and are even deployed in the field to weigh in on real-time operations.
Part of the problem is a second U.S. policy that allows the use of nuclear weapons not just in response to a nuclear attack — but also first in response to non-nuclear hostilities. Over the decades the United States has narrowed the circumstances under which it would consider using nuclear weapons first and reduced its list of potential targets, but it retains the option of using nuclear weapons first against three nuclear-armed nations — Russia, China, and North Korea. Such an attack would practically guarantee a nuclear counterattack in the case of Russia or China.
By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States would enhance its security — but it would also eliminate the concern about a reckless president ordering the use of nuclear weapons.
But whatever the circumstances, any use of nuclear weapons — whether first or in response to a nuclear attack — would be devastating and have severe repercussions. Giving any one person the authority to order their use is inherently risky and completely unnecessary. There are several ways to include other people in the loop whose assent would be required for the military to carry out a nuclear attack.
I along with two colleagues, have proposed a scheme that takes advantage of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which the government uses to continuously track the location of officials in the presidential line of succession and to maintain the ability to quickly and securely communicate with them. If the president dies or is incapacitated, presidential authority would seamlessly devolve to the next person in line. This capability allows the Pentagon’s War Room — which would issue the launch order to bomber and missile crews — to be confident that any order is coming from the current president. (To facilitate this transition, like the president, the vice president is accompanied at all times by an aide carrying a “nuclear football” with the information needed to approve the Pentagon’s request to use nuclear weapons.)
The FEMA system could be used to track any other officials and would allow the War Room to quickly and securely communicate with them to get their assent to or veto of a launch order.
However, there are compelling reasons to designate the next two people in the presidential line of succession for this important role. Normally these would be the vice president and speaker of the House. (The next four are the president pro tempore of the Senate, secretary of state, secretary of treasury, and secretary of defense.)
These people have the political legitimacy to take part in a decision to use nuclear weapons since they would become the commander-in-chief and assume the authority to order a nuclear attack if the officials above them were no longer in power.
These people would also provide some degree of democratic input: The top three officials in the line are elected and two are members of Congress. Unless several top officials died or were incapacitated, at least one congressional leader would need to agree with an order to use nuclear weapons. Moreover, these officials cannot be fired and replaced by the president, as cabinet secretaries could.
This veto option would be an important complement to the 25th Amendment, which can be used to remove the president from office if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet believe he or she is physically or mentally “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Yet implementing the amendment would take time, during which the president would retain the authority to order a nuclear attack.
Because these two other officials could be reached as quickly as could the president, another benefit of our scheme is that it could be used even if the United States had been attacked with nuclear weapons and the military wanted to respond quickly. Other proposals — such as the Markey-Liu bill — would only apply to the first use of nuclear weapons.
No one wants to limit their own authority, but by requiring the Pentagon to get the agreement of two other officials before it would carry out any nuclear launch order he issued, President Biden would help set a norm for future presidents. Similarly, the military and policymakers prefer to “keep all the options on the table.” But the United States and the world would be safer if President Biden took some options off the table by adopting a policy that the United States would not use nuclear weapons first. As President Biden said in 2016, when he was vice-president, “it is hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary or make sense.”
By making these two policy changes, President Biden would also demonstrate to the rest of the world that he is committed to reducing the U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons and the risk of nuclear use.
Lisbeth Gronlund is a Research Affiliate in the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.She has worked on technical and policy issues related to nuclear weapons, missile defenses, and space weapons for over three decades. She spent most of that time—from 1992 to 2020—at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, where she was a Senior Scientist and, beginning in 2002, also the Co-director of the program.Believing that a sound democracy requires independent and well-informed critique of government policy, she has devoted her career to using her scientific background to (1) analyze US nuclear weapons and missile defense programs, counter false government claims and propose alternative plans; (2) provide information to members of Congress, the public and media; and (3) increase the scientific knowledge base relevant to these issues. Accordingly, she has written about technical and policy issues for both lay and expert readers and given talks about these issues to both lay and expert audiences.She holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University, and is a fellow of the American Physics Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.