The United States is not a monarchy, but in times of nuclear crisis it sure feels like one. In his capacity as commander-in-chief, the president of the United States has sole authority over whether to launch a nuclear strike. He does not need to consult his military advisers, he does not need approval from Congress, it is his call alone. That is a risky protocol under any circumstances, but when the Oval Office is occupied by someone with the temperament of Donald Trump, it should trouble Americans of all political persuasions. This is especially true when the United States confronts an adversary whose own leader, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, seems to be itching for a fight.
The Korean conflict is escalating by the day as the two men’s macho posturing intensifies; we are fast approaching a situation like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the US and Soviet Union came perilously close to blowing each other to bits. It is imperative to immediately ratchet down tensions between the US and North Korea and above all to make sure no nuclear weapons are fired. Even a single nuclear blast would unleash “inconceivable death and destruction,” James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, told CNN last night.
To lessen the chances of catastrophe on the US side, senior leaders in Congress from both parties should immediately communicate to the White House that the president must not launch a nuclear first strike without obtaining a congressional declaration of war. Congressional leaders should also urge the president’s top military advisers—the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Adviser—to take all measures available to assure that the president does not launch a nuclear attack without the advisers’ express agreement that such an attack is unavoidable to protect the American homeland. Meanwhile, efforts to engage in diplomatic dialogue with North Korea—aided by its sponsor state and neighbor, China, which doesn’t want nuclear war either—must redouble.
Whoever might start it, everyone loses in a nuclear war. It is by no means clear that Donald Trump understands this core truth of the nuclear era. Until he does, we need to get his finger off the nuclear button, or at least broaden the circle of officials with the authority to make that awesome decision. We need to demand dialogue rather than escalation. Public servants with inside influence should be sending this message loudly and clearly to the White House, and so should ordinary citizens. Now is the time for marches in the streets urging no nuclear war, and especially no first strike.
Leave politics and ideology aside for the moment; this is not a partisan plea. It is not a call to lower America’s guard against potential nuclear attack by North Korea, which is an undeniably dangerous and nasty regime. But North Korea now has the capacity to strike the US mainland with a nuclear weapon, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency and independent analysts, and that changes everything. The United States must proceed with steadiness and resolve but also reason and prudence. Alas, the current commander-in-chief demonstrates none of these qualities. Common sense dictates that a president with Donald Trump’s volatile temperament and erratic judgment should not be empowered to single-handedly start a nuclear war.