Rationality and Nuclear Launch Authority

One of the more electorally telling advertisements in US political history was a 1964 LBJ campaign ad featuring a girl in the meadows picking away at a flower whilst an austere and mechanical voice in the background counts down to nuclear launch. LBJ’s opponent at the time, Barry Goldwater, who’s unsuccessful campaign is often seen as the harbinger of the rise of the modern conservative movement in US politics, infamously stated that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. Goldwater’s campaign, moreover, featured support from a who’s who in the pantheon of cold war era preventive war such as General Curtis Lemay.

The LBJ campaign was one of the first, certainly one of the most effective, examples of concern regarding the rationality of the or would be commander in chief being used to political effect in the nuclear age. There is some irony in this, as LBJ in 1964 was running as the peace candidate, as it were, but upon election went on to escalate the war in Vietnam, something that the Kennedy administration was dedicated to, which tells us something about political marketing and its relationship to policy.

The 2016 presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump, but also certain of his rhetoric and actions whilst in office, has again revivified concerns regarding the investiture of nuclear launch authority solely in the hands of the President of the United States and, as with 1964, a key concern focuses on the rationality of the commander in chief. Such concerns led to a fascinating debate on nuclear launch authority which had culminated in the holding of a congressional hearing on nuclear launch authority, which was held last week and available for viewing here.

I have followed this debate with interest, as well as the hearing and the commentary it has engendered. Some quite good points have been made by nuclear analysts, with which I concur. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists has a good issue brief on nuclear launch authority elsewhere in the hope that lessons might be drawn from experience outside of the United States. You can see from this issue brief that the main recommendation, pretty much tacitly argued for, is increasing the number of fingers on the trigger to encourage more rational deliberation prior to a nuclear launch. I shall return to this point, as I consider it important.

Peter Feaver, who has written of nuclear weapons security for a long time and is one of the more knowledgeable analysts outside of the weapons labs researching the topic, testified at the hearing where he made interesting remarks regarding deterrence tradeoffs, and had an important article summarising his testimony at Foreign Policy. Alex Wellerstein and Avner Cohen had an excellent essay at The Washington Post.

There’s one important aspect where Feaver and Wellerstein and Cohen disagree. The commander of US Strategic Command, General John Hyten (who also testified), had stated that he would not implement a nuclear launch order that was not legal. Unlike Feaver, Wellerstein and Cohen argue that this declaration was quite weak and essentially meaningless. I think they present very strong and compelling arguments in support of this position. The testimony of retired STRATCOM commander, General Robert Kehler, attempted to put more substance on the Hyten declaration by observing that a nuclear launch command issued by the President would be considered legal if it abided by The Law of Armed Conflict, encapsulated by a series of international treaties, which derives from the classical just war theory tradition (I subscribe to the revisionist school, but another day alas). As Wellerstein and Cohen point out the US has a weak historical record when it comes to adherence to The Law of Armed Conflict despite the bevy of military lawyers.

However, we can go further than Wellerstein and Cohen here for in 1994 the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion on the legality of the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons

It pointed out that the notions of a “threat” and “use” of force within the meaning of Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter stood together in the sense that if the use of force itself in a given case was illegal — for whatever reason — the threat to use such force would likewise be illegal…


…The Court indicated that, although the applicability to nuclear weapons of the principles and rules of humanitarian law and of the principle of neutrality was not disputed, the conclusions to be drawn from it were, on the other hand, controversial. It pointed out that, in view of the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons, the use of such weapons seemed scarcely reconcilable with respect for the requirements of the law applicable in armed conflict. The Court was led to observe that “in view of the current state of international law and of the elements of fact at its disposal, [it] cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake”. The Court added, lastly, that there was an obligation to pursue in good faith and to conclude negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control

Students of US nuclear weapons employment policy would know that US nuclear weapons are designated to be used not just for “extreme circumstances of self-defence, in which the very survival of the State would be at stake,” regarding which the Court could not be definitive notice, so therefore many of the strike plans Generals Hyten and Kehler have themselves developed, which followed upon the issuance of Presidential Guidance, are illegal thus rendering their declarations, as Wellesterin and Cohen point out, regarding legality as a break upon Presidential nuclear launch authority beside the point. The argument only makes sense when viewed as an attempt, through reassurance, to keep the status quo on nuclear launch authority.

I would like to make two points regarding the debate on nuclear launch authority, one historical and the other on rationality.

Historically, as Wellerstein and Cohen point out, a similar hearing on nuclear launch authority was held in the 1970s during the Nixon administration and again, as now, the public debate focused upon the rationality of the President. The catalyst for that debate was the public airing of Nixon’s infamous “mad man theory,” revealed by Halderman, and the Nixon “mad man alert”. As we know nothing really came of those hearings, and compared to Nixon Trump is a veritable universal Turing machine. The recent debate on nuclear launch authority leaves one with the impression that nuclear launch authority has always been solely invested in the President, however there exists evidence suggesting that President Eisenhower predelegated nuclear launch authority down the chain of command. That historical facet was over looked in much of the recent commentary.

Furthermore, nuclear launch authority has been a key facet of the “imperial presidency” that came with the post war advent of “the national security state,” the rise of which has been expertly narrated by Michael Hogan. The cold war era, on the back of a national security pretext, led to a greater concentration and centralisation of political power in the executive. Nuclear weapons played an important role in this process, as it encouraged the development of an elite theory of nuclear guardianship. Arguments against democracy usually take the form of an elite theory.

The point regarding rationality that I seek leave to make was also widely neglected. In a previous post on nuclear matters and Trump’s proclivity for twitter I made the point that “the Donald fits deterrence to a T.” That’s because the working force of US nuclear deterrence has, for quite an extended time now, had a sought of irrational rational basis to it. Daniel Ellseberg, when he worked in the mainstream as a rational choice theory based nuclear strategist, argued that the cultivation of an aura of irrationality serves to reinforce deterrence so is rational, which tells us something about rational choice theory. Thomas Schelling argued on something somewhat similar with his game theory derived “threat that leaves something to chance” in his classic The Strategy of Conflict. In a meeting of the Ford administration National Security Council Brent Scowcroft stated that calculated acts of irrationality are rational, and we have of course Essentials of Post Cold War Deterrence, which is STRATCOM document reporting on a major study conducted in the early 1990s on nuclear deterrence. It states,

It hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially “out of control” can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a pat of the national persona we project to all adversaries

Mandating more hands on the nuclear trigger may well foster greater deliberation, so thereby is more rational, however that undermines the irrational working force of deterrence, and so when critics argue that current nuclear launch authority procedures can be dangerously irrational *they* miss the point for that is, partly, why they are as they are. I have not seen this point made in commentary. It must be stressed that in this context we are not just speaking of the use of nuclear weapons but also, critically, the threat of their use. The Nixon mad man nuclear alert was a threat of nuclear use for political ends, backed up by a President cultivating an aura of irrationality. That is to say the element of irrationality is not something exclusive to the deterrence of a nuclear first strike upon the United States but is critical for the compellence role that nuclear weapons play in US grand strategy, and that aspect was completely neglected in commentary. Nuclear weapons are perceived as having political utility. The US has on occasion manipulated the alert status of its strategic nuclear forces for strategic and diplomatic effect and if the theory of rational irrationality holds a President potentially “out of control” invested with sole authority to launch nuclear weapons is all for the good.

I suspect that the debate and hearing on nuclear launch authority won’t lead to much, as it seems to me largely conducted for domestic political effect.

Amid this debate a small paper was published on twitter and nuclear crisis dynamics. I think this paper over states its theses, and is based on a misreading of Trump’s twitter campaigns. So far as I can see for Trump twitter is a means to keep in touch with much of his base in a way unmediated by the traditional press, and functions as a mechanism for providing them with a constant diet of sugar fixes to keep them diverted from many of the horrid policies both his administration and Congress are enacting. That said, there was one good point made in the paper regarding the role that platforms such as twitter might have encouraging the proliferation of commitment traps. I agree with that point, however, I don’t see how that is intrinsic to social media. That is a point that generalises across the board.

Finally, I conclude with an observation regarding democracy. Critics of the current sole investment of nuclear launch authority in the hands of the President argue that it is inimical to democracy. They are surely right to say so, and as stated before the debate has the potential to reveal the curious relationship that exists between nuclear weapons and democracy. A tacit position is adopted by the critics, notice. One of the traditional arguments for democracy is that it is a relatively rational form of governance contra elite theory which holds it to be irrational. There seems to be something to the way many equal participants process information that makes democracy relatively more rational than other forms of decision making, and that argument tacitly underpins the critique many make of current US nuclear launch procedure. More heads in the nuclear loop leads to more deliberative, read rational, decision making. Now if that argument were applied to information processing in the context of the production, allocation and distribution of goods and services what conclusion about the rational basis of economic organisation would we reach?

I submit not Hayekian ones. As usual, for another day perhaps.