Two key Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday that would ensure the U.S. does not fire nuclear weapons first in a potential future war.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 presidential hopeful and Senate Armed Services Committee member, offered a bill — “The No First Use Act” — to establish in law that it is the policy of the United States not to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict.
Though previous administrations have resisted such moves, and the GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to take up the legislation, the players are notable. As chairman, Smith may elevate the issue by inserting the language into the annual defense policy bill, and Warren’s potential candidacy means the issue could reach the wider public on a future presidential debate stage.
Because the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review states the U.S. reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” such as attacks on the U.S., its allies and its nuclear infrastructure, some lawmakers have criticized that policy as over-broad.
“Our current nuclear strategy is not just outdated—it is dangerous,” Smith and Warren said in a joint statement. “By making clear that deterrence is the sole purpose of our arsenal, this bill would reduce the chances of a nuclear miscalculation and help us maintain our moral and diplomatic leadership in the world.”
Both lawmakers have previously advocated for military restraint and signaled in recent weeks that such a move was coming. Warren, called for a “no first use” nuclear weapons policy in a speech last month, and Smith did likewise in November, in a speech to the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear weapons group.
One of the arguments against President Barack Obama adopting such a policy when he considered in 2016 was that declaring it could undermine allies’ confidence in U.S. commitment to their defense—and spur them to pursue their own nuclear weapons. Removing the threat of nuclear escalation could embolden countries like North Korea, China, or Russia, who might believe that they could overwhelm U.S. allies before the U.S. could respond, the thinking goes.