There is something singularly alarming about the prospect that the man who gave Macaulay Culkin directions in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York now has the power to curtail life on the planet as we know it. Or, as the disarmament group Global Zero neatly summarized, "Technically speaking, nuclear war is little more than a midnight covfefe away."
While Donald Trump's presidency is disheartening in myriad ways, it has this strange benefit: The system of nuclear command and control in the United States has come to the forefront of public attention after being ignored for decades.
"Who has the authority to employ nuclear weapons? In one respect, the answer is simple: the president does," said Brian McKeon, a former top official in the Defence Department in the Obama administration. Mr. McKeon was testifying before the Senate foreign relations committee on a historic day: For the first time in 41 years, the committee was studying presidential authority to use nuclear weapons.
The president alone has the authority to launch a nuclear strike (there is no red button, but instead a card of launch codes, which Bill Clinton reportedly once left inside a suit he'd sent to the cleaners.) He does not need to consult Congress. The president informs the Secretary of Defence, who relays the order down the military chain of command, where it is executed – in theory, anyway, since it hasn't been tested since 1945. The process could take mere minutes.
The control of thousands of uniquely lethal weapons is a staggering responsibility for any human, let alone one who's shown the impulse control of a nap-deprived toddler (The judgment of Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, who control two of the planet's other eight nuclear arsenals, is equally suspect.)
As Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said in the hearings, "We are concerned that the President of the United States is so unstable, so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear-weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national-security interests."
The expert witnesses, who included General Robert Kehler, former head of U.S. Strategic Command, and Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver, pushed back against that. They pointed out that any legislative changes to presidential powers would affect future presidents, who would presumably be more stable. Limiting presidential authority could have a destabilizing effect on deterrence principles. As well, the real threat of presidential abuse comes in the case of a first-strike decision – in the face of an imminent attack, his or her hand would be forced.
Except the experts couldn't agree on what constituted an "imminent" threat. Or how a launch order might be judged unlawful by the military personnel who have to carry it out (and who are obliged to disobey an illegal order). The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review 2010 says "the United States wishes to stress that it would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners." A new Nuclear Posture Review is under way, and its findings are due soon. There are reports that the wording will change around the use of weapons. These are all thorny, complex issues that deserve the careful attention of all the citizens of nuclear states, and in the umbrella states sheltering under them.
After decades of very little attention outside wonk circles, defence journals, peace activism and academia, the spotlight is finally back on nuclear strategies. Buzzfeed and Vice News covered the Senate hearings, so the word may be getting out to younger generations. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons won this year's Nobel Peace Prize, and Toronto's Setsuko Thurlow, Hiroshima survivor and disarmament activist, will be in Oslo to help receive it. Two U.S. congressmen, Democrats Ted Lieu and Edward Markey, have introduced a bill that would require the president to get a declaration of war from Congress before launching a nuclear first strike (Barack Obama reportedly considered adopting a no-first-use policy in the last year of his administration, but did not.)
The Senate committee's ranking Democratic member, Ben Cardin, noted a new sense of anxiety at town halls across Maryland: "Of late, I've been getting more and more questions about, 'Can the President really launch a nuclear attack without any control?'"
Yes, it's been a bad dream, but at least people are waking up.