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Commentary | 11 January 2023

The one-person monopoly of nuclear launches

Image of Tarja Cronberg

Tarja Cronberg |Former Member of the European Parliament, Distinguished Associate Fellow at SIPRI

Arms Control Deterrence Military Doctrine Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Risk Reduction WMDs Global Security ELN

The international discussion on nuclear weapons, during the war in Ukraine, has focused on one question: Will Putin use nuclear weapons? The thought that nuclear weapons might be used in the Ukraine war is no longer an abstract fear. A nuclear war may be closer than ever. In this new reality there is a risk seldom talked about, but which is built into our command and control systems: one person is able to decide the fate of the earth. The fundamental question for the nuclear order is not about whether or not Putin, or any other president or dictator, might rely on nuclear weapons as the last choice. The question to be posed is: Do we really want to maintain a nuclear order, where one person is formally able to decide the fate of us all?

Do we really want to maintain a nuclear order, where one person is formally able to decide the fate of us all? Tarja Cronberg

Traditionally there has been a nuclear “taboo”: nuclear weapons could be threatened but not used.  They were only for deterrence, to prevent a nuclear attack, not to be used to win a war. The famous Reagan-Gorbachev statement made clear that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. There was also empirical evidence. The weapons have not been used after Hiroshima, although there were over 70,000 nuclear weapons during the Cold War. It is easy to argue that nuclear deterrence has guaranteed peace and prosperity for more than 70 years. Nevertheless, there was always a small exception to this near-total trust in deterrence.

A worst-case scenario was based on a dictator in a country hostile to the US that secretly managed to access a nuclear capability. In Western scenario thinking, a man of this kind, facing the loss of his power base and potentially even his life, might explode a nuclear weapon or at least some nuclear device. States like Iraq or North Korea were convincing illustrations. Personalistic dictators in hostile states were – and are – a risk group, in a world, where nuclear technology has become more easily available and the necessary know-how may be bought through both open and secret channels. The fear of crazy dictators or “mad mullahs” has also dominated the policies and efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Today we are moving to a new phase of this threat scenario. The focus is still on a no-future leader fearing not only his loss of power but also his life. But he is no longer necessarily imagined to be a leader of a hostile country with a clandestine nuclear program. Instead, the focus is shifting to a superpower leader currently waging a war and with thousands of known nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. The Russian war on Ukraine has re-exposed the world´s vulnerability to one person´s power in a nuclear weapon state. Experts on both nuclear weapons and Russian nuclear policies have produced article after article speculating on whether President Putin will in the end use a nuclear weapon or not.

The Russian war on Ukraine has re-exposed the world´s vulnerability to one person´s power in a nuclear weapon state. Tarja Cronberg

Sound cost-benefit analyses indicate that Putin would only lose by using nuclear weapons in an effort to pressure Ukraine to a negotiating table on Russian terms. Not only China and India but also the Asian and African states, that today do not actively support Ukraine, could turn their back on Russia. Russia could become a pariah of the international community, much like North Korea. The problem is that we cannot fully trust these assessments. The true reality is that we cannot know. The situation reflects the fundamental fallacy built into the nuclear order. In the end it is one person´s decision, and he may not be in a mentally sound state of mind.

The first step into this new future was already taken in the US during the Trump presidency. During the presidential campaign, Hilary Clinton posed the question, whether Trump could be trusted with nuclear weapons. In the US, it is solely the president who can order a launch of the nuclear arsenal. The result was a legislative initiative that the president would only be able to do this if Congress had declared war on the targeted country. However, in Congress there was a bipartisan agreement that there should be no restrictions on the president’s right to order a nuclear launch, and the initiative went nowhere. A former National Security Council staffer and Duke political science professor Peter Feaver noted in his Senate testimony that such changes “could have unintended and dangerous consequences, perhaps leading adversaries and allies to question the United States’ ability to respond quickly during a crisis.”

The situation leaves the world in a dangerous place. The Gaddafis and the Husseins could be destroyed by military interventions and regime change before any catastrophe occurred. This is not the case for the Trumps and the Putins. As leaders of the world´s superpowers there is no external power able to intervene, although there may have been plans to kill Putin. The nuclear superpower leaders are more or less democratically elected and their removal will take place according to the laws and politics of the superpower in question. Where does this leave us?

Leaders are only human. They have individual ups and downs. They may become ill, be under inhuman pressure politically, or fear their personal survival. Ex-president Nixon during the Watergate scandal is a case in point. The House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. Once his complicity in the cover-up was made public, his political support completely eroded. Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974. During the investigations he is known to have been drinking and was often drunk at nights. Consequently, the responsibility for nuclear weapons was transferred by officials to his foreign minister Kissinger.

For the nation to be able to transfer the power under critical circumstances would seem to be a good solution, if there is an approved legal mechanism for this. To establish such a legal, national mechanism is problematic, however, especially if mental problems of a leader are involved. This would require that the president´s situation be debated in public and that independent medical tests would be carried out, which – if openly published – would erode the trust and support not only for the leader but also for the superpower.

Nor is there any international solution to the problem. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is seen as the cornerstone of the nuclear order. While the NPT treaty text does not constrain rights of the nuclear weapon states in any way, there is an undefined expectation that the P5 will behave as responsible nuclear actors. The responsibility of Russia as a nuclear power was raised at the NPT Review Conference in August by the US, France and Great Britain. However, as the NPT has no mechanism to deal with the responsibility of the nuclear states and their leaders, this did not lead to any action.

Without any solid management system to avoid a nuclear catastrophe, world survival is in the hands of the leaders of its superpowers. Although the decision- making process may involve consultations, the decision is ultimately, even in the case of Russia today, in the hands of one person. Today, given that the world is threatened by a nuclear war, there should be a serious discussion on how the risks of this “one-person nuclear command” could be avoided or at least minimised. The discussion could take at least three different directions.

Without any solid management system to avoid a nuclear catastrophe, world survival is in the hands of the leaders of its superpowers. Tarja Cronberg

A self-evident solution would be to abolish all nuclear weapons, as proposed by the states that have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force since 2021. As none of the nuclear weapon states have signed or ratified the treaty, and on the contrary, the P5 have underlined that they do not ever intend to do this, prohibition is not an immediate solution. Nevertheless, the current command system is an obvious argument against nuclear weapons.

As indicated above, national solutions have been used in crisis situations. These have been, at least the known solutions in the US, both ad hoc and illegal. The current practice seems to be that trusted official take actions that are nowhere defined and take a personal responsibility for these measures. The examples from the US include General Milley, concerned about Trump’s serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election, and Secretary of Defence James Schlesinger, worried about Nixon´s unstable behaviour. Both reportedly instituted restrictions on the president´s ability to launch nuclear weapons. It is more difficult to know who might be able to play this role in the current Russian situation. As a nuclear threat concerns not only a single country but the whole world, the question has a clear international dimension.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima there were a number of radical governance proposals transferring the responsibility to international institutions. Oppenheimer, the main nuclear scientist, proposed that the UN should create an international atomic development agency to control all fissile material. At the time, the scientist, Hans Morgenthau even proposed a world government in order to avoid the national control problems. In the past 70 years this discussion has died out. The institution that was established, the International Atomic Energy Agency, only evaluates non-compliance by non-nuclear states in relation to the NPT rules. The nuclear weapon states and their procedures are not subject to any guidelines or control.

Nevertheless, there is an urgent need for a stronger international institutional responsibility for the governance of national decisions on nuclear threats and use. Firstly, there is a need for an international transparency survey on how the nuclear weapon states have defined their first-or second strike launch responsibility. A second phase would seek to establish some international guidelines for national procedures in order to avoid ad hoc, illegal measures in a concrete crisis. So far we have been lucky, but ”luck is not a strategy” as was so ably pointed out by the Secretary-General of the United Nations at the 2022 NPT Review Conference.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Executive Office of the President of the United States.