Could an ill-tempered tweet lead to nuclear war? A new bill in the US Senate aims to make it less likely.
A new bill introduced in the Senate of the United States aims to establish a policy of no-first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. At first glance, the bill dated January 30, 2019 seems to be a long overdue attempt to constrain the powers of President Trump, who in his unbridled bid to make America great again, has succeeded in ratcheting up an extraordinary list of foreign policy disasters.
One view is that this bill represents an alienated administration keen on mitigating the worst effects of a mercurial President, not averse to trading nuclear threats, praising adversaries and snubbing long-time allies. Given Trump’s track record, getting his finger far away from the red button and under the watch of those with cooler heads seems a good idea.
The list of disasters is impressive. The Trump administration’s backtracking on the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 dealt a serious blow to efforts at nuclear non-proliferation, with Iran seriously considering withdrawal from the NPT treaty as a diplomatic response. Trump’s aggressive language, name calling and nuclear threats prior to meeting with Kim Jong-Un at a summit in Singapore in June 2018 were the stuff of nightmare. Recent tensions with South Korea over a cost-sharing dispute increase the uncertainty for the Korean peninsula. The US insistence that South Korea pay 50% more towards the cost of its security has been received by Seoul as a “unilateral demand” for $1.2 billion towards upkeep of security infrastructure, including the presence of American troops in South Korea and US strategic bombers with nuclear weapons, based in Guam. The Transatlantic Alliance, long considered the bedrock of American foreign policy, seems a shadow of its former self, with a similar spat over the paying of bills.
Policy advocates of more constraints on the President’s power to launch a nuclear attack, such as research scholar Bruce Blair, point out a sobering fact. With existing systems, the US President has about 6 minutes in which to decide that the US is being attacked, and to launch a retaliatory “second strike”. The resultant mutually-assured-destruction is the basic premise for deterrence. Blair argues that for much of the Cold War, concerns were voiced about militaries using nuclear weapons without the authorisation of the civilian leadership. The rationality of the leadership itself was not the object of concern. This has now changed.
Another view on this bill is that it is part of an emerging trend towards multilateral convergence on NFU as a pragmatic approach to nuclear weapons in a globalised world. Once we set aside a sharp focus on domestic US politics, this bill dovetails into other international initiatives that have attempted to mitigate the worst effects of nuclear weapons.
In a 2012 speech at Vienna, the Chinese delegation working towards review of the NPT treaty advocated for a Treaty of Mutual No-First Use to be adopted by nuclear-weapons states. China itself has adopted an NFU stance since it first tested nuclear weapons in October 1964. Russian adoption of NFU has been more variable, as US-USSR/Russia-NATO dynamics remain the central basis for the classic deterrence theory that emerged from the Cold War. India maintains a declared NFU posture with certain exceptions.
Civil society organisations and movements that have advanced abolitionist agendas such as Global Zero and the Nobel prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) also have a role to play in shifting perceptions away from first-use. At the end of the day however, it is only states that can move the needle.
With two important treaties, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), likely to lapse next month and in 2021 respectively, the need for exercising restraint has never been greater. Both these treaties are relics of a bipolar world, and their successors will have to contend with contemporary multipolarity. The successor to the INF treaty, for example must necessarily include constraints on Chinese missile forces, in addition to Russian and US missiles. The successor treaty to New START must also consider advances in military technologies such as hypersonic missile systems, multiple-independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV)s and unmanned aerial aehicles (UAV)s.
These advances have been made by several countries to varying degrees. This will have significant impact on nuclear weapons delivery and by extension, on future considerations of nuclear deterrence. The lapsing of these two bilateral treaties seems assured. What will have to be instituted in its place, and to what end, and by whom, is an open question.
Periods of international flux are moments of concern. No state will want to constrain and disadvantage itself at this moment by limiting its future options. However, changes in relative power lead to increased chance for conflict, especially in the absence of good leadership. The introduction of this bill is a welcome course correction at a moment when states are not doing a very good job of managing the worst effects of geostrategic competition. At the very least, the bill should signal that no one wants a world where a poorly worded tweet leads to a nuclear exchange.