No First Use and the Myth of ‘Tying the President’s Hands’

By Abigail Stowe-Thurston, Program Coordinator, No First Use

In a recent interaction at a campaign event (which you can watch in full below), 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Congressman John Delaney discussed his position on adopting a nuclear No First Use policy. “I can’t imagine when you would ever use a nuclear weapon as a first strike,” he said. He then ruminated about a possible alien war and other poorly sketched-out scenarios, before ultimately saying that he would not want to “tie the president’s hands.”

“Tying the president’s hands” sounds like a bad thing, but moderating executive power is neither new nor inherently negative. In addition to the checks and balances fundamental to the U.S. Constitution, additional restrictions have been placed on the executive branch over time by the legislature and by Presidents themselves.

Executive and legislative efforts to prohibit the use of torture after President Obama took office are instructive when thinking about nuclear weapons policy. On his second day in office in 2009, Obama signed an executive order to reverse Bush-era allowances for so-called “enhanced interrogation,” requiring interrogations to follow the methods specified in the Army Field Manual. While Congress limited the effects of President Obama’s executive orders intended to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, it did solidify the President’s ban on torture in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. One could say that banning certain methods of interrogation ties the president’s hands, but it serves U.S. national security interests. It also gives the United States the moral high ground when dealing with broader human rights issues around the world.

John Delaney and other 2020 candidates should consider the issue of adopting a nuclear No First Use policy (NFU) through a similar lens. While removing the nuclear first use option could be viewed as “tying the President’s hands,” the explicit policy to prevent them from starting a nuclear war can actually make America safer.

Delaney was right when he said that it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which being the first to use a nuclear weapon would be necessary. The probability that the United States finds itself in a position where it has no choice but to use nuclear weapons first is far lower than the probability that ambiguity about U.S. intentions leads to an accident or miscalculation. Even if no country on earth wants to wage a nuclear war, an accident or miscalculation could cause one anyway.

Maintaining a declaratory policy that is ambiguous about when the United States would use nuclear weapons could dangerously exacerbate crises. The United States does not need to start a nuclear war, so its policies should reflect this fact.

Learn more about No First Use policy, including why the United States shouldn’t start a nuclear war, FAQs and more myths and realities.