Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Congress, Experts Question Trump’s Nuke Authority


What: Public forum on constitutionality of presidential first use of nuclear weapons
Where: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (Science Center Hall C)
When: Saturday, November 4, 2017

Contact: Prof. Elaine Scarry, Harvard University --  m 617-519-9735,
   or    Cole Harrison, Mass Peace Action -– m 617-466-9274,
   or    Prof. Jonathan King, MIT -– m 617 803 8683,

Congress, Experts Question Trump’s Nuke Authority
Long-held Doctrine May Be Unconstitutional

As President Donald Trump travels to China and other Asian countries, where his first priority will be negotiations over handling of the confrontation with North Korea over threats of nuclear strikes, a crescendo of voices in the US is questioning the constitutional authority of the US president to conduct a nuclear first strike.

On Saturday, November 4, at Harvard University, Congressman Jim McGovern (co-sponsor of “H.R.669 - Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017”) will join former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former missile launch officer Bruce Blair, constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman, and other experts for a public forum on “Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?”

“This event is intended to bring together the range of voices that will be required to rein in the nuclear threat – members of Congress, defense experts, legal scholars, philosophers, activists … and the general public,” said Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, conference co-chair and author of Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom.

The conference takes place Saturday, November 4, 2017 (9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.) at Harvard University, Science Center Hall C, Cambridge, MA, and is co-sponsored by Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center,  Harvard’s Office of the Dean of Arts and Humanities, and MassPeaceAction Education Fund.


Full conference program at:

H.R.669 - Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017:

S.200 - Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017:

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Summer to Remember

Anise swallowtail -- one of our northern California beauties.

Last Friday I went to the Cancer Center here in Berkeley for my scheduled chemotherapy infusion. My oncologist said, "I've been reviewing your scans; I think it's time to move off this chemotherapy course -- from here on, we'll just be giving you periodic maintenance infusions."

That was an unexpected piece of good news. Within minutes we were in the car, headed home, and a friend texted another piece of news: "ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!"

*     *     *

It's taken me a few days to adjust to the new reality. Since my lymphoma diagnosis on June 17, I've spent more and more time dealing with the effects of chemotherapy, and less and less time writing. I've been trying to keep up with events, but in recent weeks it became a bit of a blur. Now it seems the first order of business is to get a clear picture of what has developed in the past 3+ months . . . .


I was still spending time on my computer every day as of July 7, when 100+ countries at the UN agreed on a global nuclear weapons ban treaty text.

When the UN General Assembly re-convened on September 20, formal signing of the treaty began. More than 50 countries have signed so far.

Ratification by 50 countries is required for the treaty to enter into force. In late August, I wrote about how the ongoing process of signing and ratification lifts the nuclear ban treaty into the forefront of the global political discourse. Now, with progress on the signings and ratification, and the Nobel Peace Prize award to ICAN, it's a good time to update that estimate!

US restrictions on presidential first use of nuclear weapons

When my cancer diagnosis came in June, there were 37 co-sponsors on HR669 "Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017." As of today there are 57 co-sponsors.

During the last few months, a conference has been organized to take place in Cambridge on November 4 to address the question, "Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons:  Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?"  (This all-day conference has a fabulous lineup, and is free and open to the public. See the link for more info and registration info.)

Trump and Nuclear Diplomacy by Tweet

On August 12, I wrote, "Now along comes Donald Trump, who has sole authority to order a nuclear first strike and is tossing out threats left and right against North Korea. People are waking up. Nuclear war is not an abstraction. It is a real possibility, and it is in the hands (right now) of a single person," and events since then have only served to lend weight to that assertion.

The situation becomes even more urgent as Trump prepares to visit Asia in early November. One thing I'll be doing in the next few days is reviewing and recapping developments over the last several months. I'll be sharing a chronology on this blog.

*     *     *

The summer of 2017 had a great deal about it that must be remembered. Some of my memories of this time will, of course, be very personal to me. But I think everyone will remember it as a time when the global conversation on nuclear weapons underwent a fundamental shift -- one that promises a move away from the unilateral domination of a few nuclear weapons states and toward a truly peace-oriented global community.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Who Has Been "Begging for War"?

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley says North Korea's tests of increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons and missiles amounts to "begging for war."

So THAT'S what testing increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons and missiles is! Thank you for the clarification, Ambassador Haley.

Is that what the US and the other nuclear weapons states have been doing for the past 70 years? Perhaps now we have some inkling of how we have been viewed by the rest of the world as we have brandished weapon after weapon after weapon . . . ?

(The video above is a 3 minute version of all nuclear detonations since 1945. I invite you to watch the unrelenting sequence of thousands of nuclear detonations by the US and other nuclear powers unfold in the original 14 minute version, if you have the stomach for it.)

"I think that North Korea has basically slapped everyone in the face in the international community that has asked them to stop," Haley said. Yes, well . . . .

What, then, is the opposite of this way of "begging for war"? Perhaps becoming a party to the UN #nuclearban? Perhaps that is what countries "insisting on peace" are doing?

Related posts

Korea: A History of Living Under Nuclear Terror

Nuclear Weapons Abolition: What Will Be Different After September 20?

USA: Bringing a Trumpian Posture to the Nuclear Ban Talks. (Bankruptcy.)

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

#Nuclearban: How Will China Play Its Hand?

From the moment the global nuclear ban treaty initiative first
got under way, it was clear that China's role would be pivotal.

I wrote yesterday to begin a conversation about possible ways that the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons may come to dominate the global discourse in the months ahead.

An extremely important question is how China will engage with this new development. People frequently assume that China is a country trying to catch up with and surpass the United States, and so China's behavior in the world must necessarily be a near version of how the US behaves. However, a growing school of thought has begun to notice that the best way to understand what China might do is to ask, "What could China do that in one fell swoop would put them three steps ahead of the US?"

China declined to participate in the negotiations on the nuclear ban treaty. Observing that decision, I began to realize that China's involvement in the process could at the right moment carry enormous weight, and would certainly be calculated to maximize the benefit to China. (See "China DOES Have a Role in the Nuclear Ban Movement.")

It's important to remember that China played an important role in defining a post-World War II world in which the countries of Asia, Latin America, and Africa need not be dominated by the US, Europe, and Russia (then the Soviet Union) -- despite the threat posed by the latter countries' nuclear weapons. Yes, China has nuclear weapons. But a quick review of the size of China's nuclear force suggests that, unlike the US and Russia, China does not believe that strength comes from having nuclear weapons. So where does China seek strength?

I propose a thought experiment: Imagine that China deems the advent of a global treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons (with 50 or more signatory nations), together with the resulting impact on the global security discourse, to offer an advantageous moment to make a bold move. Imagine, further, that China declares its intention to accede to the nuclear ban treaty, together with a definitive timeline -- say 5 years -- for dismantling its nuclear arsenal. What might be some of the possible outcomes of such a move?

First, in the general sense of "global leadership," it would be a stunning complement to the role now being accorded to China in the global effort to address global warming (particularly in light of US abandonment of the Paris Accord).

Second, in the realm of "optionality," it would give China enormous control over its ability to tell its story to the world over the coming five (or however many) years. China would have obtained the option to volunteer progress reports in the years ahead on its work toward fulfilling its unprecedented promise.

Third, it could have particular benefit for China's relations with other countries that support the nuclear ban. For instance:

* China's relations with other countries bordering the South China Sea are vitally important. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia were among the sponsors of the nuclear ban treaty initiative when it was first put forward in October, 2017, and have been strong supporters throughout the process.

* Supporting the nuclear ban would be a way of building bridges with the countries of Latin America -- including original ban sponsors (and Pacific neighbors) Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. In fact, Latin America has a 50-year history of working toward a global nuclear ban.

* And, of course, it has long been apparent that China is busily building relations with countries throughout Africa. Nearly every country in Africa is a supporter of the nuclear ban.

Fourth, there is the potential for shaking loose other "holdouts":

* Australia has opposed the ban, but is a vital trade partner with China. And 75% of the public in Australia support the ban.

* China has been moving progressively toward playing the principal role in negotiating some kind of grand bargain to denuclearize/demilitarize the Korean peninsula.

Finally, in the long run, there will be a solution to the countries that refuse to come to the table: India and Pakistan, the US and Russia. While it may be difficult today to imagine that it will be China that will one day play the "honest broker" and host such talks . . . it is not difficult to imagine people saying "this wouldn't have been possible without China."

Of course, everything outlined above is hypothetical. But I believe it illustrates an important point: the impending nuclear ban treaty carries enormous potential consequences for many countries -- China being just one example -- and the more people delve into the risks, opportunities, and possibilities involved, the more global excitement there will be about the treaty.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Nuclear Weapons Abolition: What Will Be Different After September 20?

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

The global treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons will be available for countries to sign when the UN General Assembly begins its session September 20. The treaty enters into force 90 days after 50 countries have signed it.

The treaty text was drafted during a three week conference in June and July. One hundred and twenty-two (122) countries who participated in the special conference voted in favor of the text. (There was one vote against and one abstention.)

Some personal predictions:

* Fifty (and probably many more) nations will rapidly sign the treaty on September 20, or very shortly after. (I base this on the extremely strong support from the many participating countries in the drafting conference, including public statements and social media updates from their delegations.)

* There will be a strong impetus to reach the fifty nation threshold by September 26 - the fourth International Day for Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

* There will also be a motivation to reach the fifty nation threshold at the latest by October 3. That would mean that the 2018 would be ushered in with the treaty entering into force on January 1. (Ninety days from October 3 is January 1.) 

The momentum is already building as individual states affirm their intent to sign the treaty as soon as it becomes available.

So here is a question for all of us to think about: how will it change the global conversation when a treaty is affirmed by so many countries from all over the world? What will it feel like to know the clock is ticking down to nuclear weapons abolition . . . instead of worrying that the clock is ticking down to nuclear war? What will be different about the way people talk about the behavior of the states that still stubbornly hold on to nuclear weapons (and threaten each other with them)? In what light will it cast the countries that rely on the "nuclear umbrella" of countries like the US?

I've written about the important conference that will take place in Cambridge on November 4, which will focus on US nuclear weapons. What might be different about those deliberations if the participants know that, within days, a global nuclear weapons ban treaty will be entering into force?

Related post

#Nuclearban: How Will China Play Its Hand?

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Time to Call the Question: Is Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons Constitutional?

Trump: If N Korea keeps threatening, will be met with 'fire'."

Adam Liptak wrote in the New York Times several days ago that law schools are preparing to delve into numerous Constitutional questions that have been brought to a head by the Trump presidency, not the least of which is:

"Must Congress authorize a nuclear strike against North Korea?"

(See "New on This Fall’s Law School Syllabus: Trump.")

Case in point: a conference taking place in Cambridge on November 4 will address the question, "Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons:  Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?"  The affiliations of the speakers -- including Yale Law School, Georgetown University Law Center, University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, MIT -- tend to affirm Liptak's suggestion that this is a question that is being taken up in law schools and on campuses nationwide.

Also speaking at the Cambridge conference will be Massachusetts member of Congress Jim McGovern, a co-sponsor of HR669 "Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017." Central to HR669 are the principles that . . .

"The Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war";

"By any definition of war, a first-use nuclear strike from the United States would constitute a major act of war"; and

"A first-use nuclear strike conducted absent a declaration of war by Congress would violate the Constitution."

Of course, breathing life into HR669's steely logic requires the participation of actual members of Congress, and in turn by the life-and-blood people they represent. It is worth noting that HR 669 now has forty-seven (47) co-sponsors in the House, including representatives from . . .

New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
Rhode Island

Food for thought: how many law schools and universities will avail themselves of the opportunity to invite their member of Congress to participate in a discussion of this vital question? As the list above indicates, "Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons:  Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?" has now become the question people are asking everywhere.

Related posts:

Nuclear Weapons: People Power Over Trump Power

"Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom" by Elaine Scarry

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Donald Trump: The Great Clarifier

Ever since nuclear weapons were first invented and the United States used them against Japan, ordinary citizens have been subjected to an unrelenting campaign of obfuscation and confusion about their true nature and what's at stake. If any of us stopped long enough to think about nuclear weapons, we realized that everything possible must be done to get rid of them, and to make sure no one is every able to cause them to be used. But our ability to think has been challenged by a smokescreen of state propaganda: the state needs them, the state has everything under control, the state will take care of it. (Just feel lucky you're a citizen of such a big, strong state.)

Now along comes Donald Trump, who has sole authority to order a nuclear first strike and is tossing out threats left and right against North Korea.

People are waking up. Nuclear war is not an abstraction. It is a real possibility, and it is in the hands (right now) of a single person.

There are now forty-four (44) co-sponsors on Rep. Ted Lieu's House bill to rein in presidential first use of nuclear weapons. (And nine (9) co-sponsors on the corresponding bill in the Senate sponsored by Ed Markey.) Now is the time to demand a tidal wave of support for this bill, and get the unilateral authority over these weapons out of the hands of a single person.

Please use this script to call and get YOUR representative on that list!