Imagine it’s mid 2021 and Elizabeth Warren has been elected President of the United States. Shortly after taking office, President Warren announces a policy of “No First Use,” declaring that no matter what, the United States will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in war. Unfortunately, a short time later, some sinister foreign power — take your pick, Russia, China, Iran or North Korea — unleashes every cyber-war weapon in their arsenal, hitting power grids, air traffic control, Internet access, the stock markets, banks, water and sewage system controls, the works. Or picture an electromagnetic-pulse weapon going off in the middle of Manhattan or just outside O’Hare International Airport, or chemical or biological weapons being released in Los Angeles or Miami.
A significant swathe of the country is crippled, and recovery will take months or years. America’s intelligence agencies and allies find incontrovertible evidence leading back to Moscow, or Beijing, Tehran or Pyongyang. In other words, picture some really bad scenario of death and destruction on American soil directed by a foreign power that does not involve nuclear weapons.
Would a Warren administration still honor its declared no-first-use policy? After all, the adversary has not used nuclear weapons yet.
Warren’s proposed policy is a solution in search of a problem. Our current policy amounts to “no first use, probably, unless you really mess with us, and we’ll decide when we think you’re really messing with us.” For all of the current problems in our government, we’re not even contemplating using nuclear weapons against anyone, and whatever else hostile regimes are doing, they haven’t done anything to even put that option on the table.
If President Trump was threatening to nuke other countries three times a week, formalizing this policy change, or requiring congressional approval of a nuclear strike would make sense. As of this moment, the only lawmaker who has recently discussed an American first-use nuclear strike against a target is Congressman Eric Swalwell, who speculated about nuking his own constituents during a gun-control debate. (I could meet Warren halfway and support a no-first-use policy regarding the use of the U.S. nuclear arsenal against American citizens.)
If there was a good chance that President Trump was going to order a nuclear strike on some country for no good reason, this policy change would make sense. But this is the president who’s eager to play footsie with Kim Jong-un, who nods along to Vladimir Putin’s nonsensical claims at joint press conferences, who’s publicly expressing confidence in Xi Jinping during the clashes in Hong Kong, and who made a big show of calling off a military strike against Iran at the last minute. Despite all the bellicose rhetoric, Trump clearly wants to avoid a military conflict.