National Security Council Director Peter
recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “even
a single nuclear detonation” could “trigger an escalatory
spiral that would lead to civilization-threatening outcomes.”
days later, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced a bill
that could therefore save civilization. The entirety of the No First
Use bill reads: “It is the policy of the United States to not
use nuclear weapons first.”
risk of nuclear war is at an all-time high, according to Former U.S.
Secretary of Defense William
and expert Scott
Smith’s bill could be one of the most effective ways to
mitigate that risk. It would substantially reduce the likelihood that
either the U.S. or North Korea would start a war, whether through a
pre-meditated attack or as a result of miscalculation.
the policy would constrain the Trump administration from launching a
on North Korea — a scenario that has become a realistic
problem isn’t only that nobody
Trump from realizing his long
to use nuclear weapons. It’s also that Trump’s advisers may
now be more likely to toss him the nuclear football than to pry it
out of his hands.
administration officials — including Secretary of State Rex
CIA Director Mike
National Security Adviser H.R.
Chief of Staff John
and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford - have all
voiced support for using a preemptive strike to prevent North Korea
from developing the capacity to strike the continental U.S., even
while acknowledging the “horrific”
indicates that North Korea could attain such capabilities in early
2018, former U.S. General
predicts that we’ll be at war by summer 2018. North Korea’s
confirms that they are making rapid progress.
Ted Lieu and Sen. Edward Markey had enough foresight in January to
intended to prevent Trump from launching a pre-emptive strike.
Unfortunately, their bill had too many loopholes to be reliable —
including an exception in the event of an “imminent threat.”
the restriction becomes impotent if the Trump administration uses
“elastic definitions of the phrase ‘imminent threat,’”
as the Cato Institute’s John
Glaser puts it.
Given Trump’s propensity for stretching
it’s safe to assume that he considers definitions to be elastic
as a general rule.
bill, in contrast, allows scant wiggle room. Unless we fall down the
Orwellian rabbit hole into a world where “war is peace and
freedom is slavery,” it will be difficult to falsely claim that
North Korea dropped a nuclear bomb.
course, a U.S. pre-emptive strike isn’t the only way to start a
war — North Korea could also initiate hostilities. Smith’s
bill would reduce the likelihood of that scenario as well.
agree that Kim Jong-un would only launch a pre-emptive attack if he
believed that a U.S. offensive was imminent and unavoidable, the risk
of miscalculation remains high. Misunderstandings and computer errors
nearly led to nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union on at
least seven occasions
during the Cold War.
that U.S. and North Korea are not
even on speaking terms,
the risk of miscalculation is even higher now. Even when Cold War
tensions peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F.
Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were in direct
it would be understandable if Kim were feeling a little jumpy, given
that the U.S. has deployed all of the military
to launch an offensive over the last three months - including
armed with missiles, as well as bombers,
jets - and has been practicing
off the Korean coast.
most effective way to reduce the chances that Kim Jong-un will press
the nuclear button would therefore be to convince him that the U.S.
won’t drop the first bomb.
of Smith’s bill would likely claim that this strategy is
counterproductive because it undermines
U.S. deterrence capabilities.
However, as Senator
points out, this argument is based on Cold War realities, and doesn’t
apply to the North Korea crisis: Unlike the
North Korea doesn’t have the ability to obliterate U.S. nuclear
assets in a first strike.
is little reason to believe that the North Korea crisis will
de-escalate if we continue on our current trajectory. Sanctions
are unlikely to succeed, diplomatic
has set in, and talks have ceased. Trump will continue to spout off
threats and other dangerous
as long as he retains the ability to speak or tweet, and he may well
any serious attempts to restart diplomacy.
long as Trump is in office, therefore, the No First Use bill is our
best hope of preventing war.
survival may depend on it.
commentary was originally published by Foreign Policy In Focus