As we mark the centenary of the United States’ entry into World War I, I recall the words of a participant in the Versailles Treaty, which ended that conflict. “This isn’t a treaty of peace,” the American diplomat William Bullitt declared. “I can see at least 11 wars in it.” The world once again seems to be preparing for war: a wider conflict in Syria, greater friction with Russia and possible military action on the Korean Peninsula.
In the event of war, the president of the United States has unrestricted powers to use nuclear weapons first. Concerns about the absence of checks and balances on the first use of nuclear weapons have spiked because of Donald J. Trump’s bellicose temperament and shallow understanding of nuclear flash points. These concerns have led some on Capitol Hill to introduce legislation that would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.
The intention is understandable, but this remedy is unworkable and unachievable. No president in the modern era has accepted the absolute requirement of congressional consent on war-making powers. Moreover, any scenario for the first use of nuclear weapons implies great urgency because, over time, America’s conventional military advantages would presumably suffice.
A congressional debate authorizing first use would have to be very hurried, and this process could speed up hostile actions rather than slow them down. And when the executive branch has occasionally sought support for war-making powers, Congress has seen fit to provide that backing, rather than deny it.
A far more realistic check on the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States can be found, oddly enough, in the case of a Soviet diesel submarine that was depth-charged to the surface during the most harrowing days of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
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Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in the New York Times on April 13, 2017.