At my town halls and meetings across Maryland, people are increasingly asking me, “Is President Trump really going to start a nuclear war with North Korea? Can he do that? Are there any checks upon the president to prevent him from starting a nuclear war?”
The American people’s fears on this issue are understandably fueled by the dangerous way President Donald Trump has spoken about nuclear weapons and the ongoing crisis with North Korea.
For example, in August, President Trump said “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Many people believe the president is threatening the use of nuclear weapons — and, based upon a recent hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is clear that in most circumstances our nation’s nuclear command and control system places few checks on his power.
That system as it is set up today provides the president with the sole authority to use nuclear weapons. Under a very wide range of scenarios, the commander in chief does not need the approval of either his military advisers or Congress in order to launch a nuclear strike.
To wrap our heads around this today, it is important to understand how the system came into existence as the result of three factors.
The first was the particular threat of the Cold War. For decades, the United States faced a nuclear-armed adversary in the Soviet Union with a large and capable nuclear force. America settled upon a strategy of mutually assured destruction, which, to achieve deterrence and safety for ourselves and our allies, placed distinctive demands on our nuclear warfighting capabilities.
The second factor is the laws of physics. An intercontinental ballistic missile launched from Russia has around a 30-minute flight time to the U.S. To retaliate before our nuclear arsenal is destroyed, the president must react quickly, with an incredibly small window to identify the weapon, assess options, decide what to do, and, if necessary, launch our nuclear forces. Understandably, there would not be time to convene a special session of Congress or have lengthy meetings with military officials.
The Cold War may be long behind us, but such a scenario, based upon the need to deter a massive nuclear attack with nearly no warning time, remains the driving force behind the nuclear command and control system even today.
The final factor rests with the fact that nuclear weapons, ever since their development, have always been considered unique – unlike any other weapon and with the civilians in the White House in charge of their use, not the military. The president, as both our highest elected civilian official and commander in chief under the Constitution, would therefore play a unique role with these unique weapons.
Today, however, we face a different question than the one we faced during the Cold War.
The most likely attack against our country is not a massive surprise nuclear attack by Russia or China, but an escalating conflict with a smaller nuclear adversary like North Korea. In a more limited or targeted attack circumstance, where the danger is still high but we would not face the same “use them or lose them” pressure we faced during the Cold War, it is possible and would be wise for the president to consult Congress before the profound decision to use nuclear weapons.
The bottom line is that authority for use of nuclear weapons should reflect the current realities of nuclear power. The current structures, however, leave the U.S. open to potentially catastrophic decision-making.
I would like to be able to tell Marylanders and the American people we have a system in place that prevents an impulsive and irrational decision from launching a nuclear weapon. The Senate hearing was the first on this important topic in more than 40 years, and I believe Congress must continue exploring how we might better safeguard our country and the world from the unthinkable.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin is the senior U.S. senator from Maryland and the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.