WASHINGTON (AP) – Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House almost a year ago seemed to usher in a historic shift towards reducing US reliance on nuclear weapons and possibly shrinking their numbers. Even an American âNo First Useâ promise – a promise never to be the first to use a nuclear weapon again – seemed possible.
Then China happened – revelations about its expanding nuclear force and talks about a possible war with Taiwan.
And then what happened to Russia – signs that it might prepare to invade Ukraine.
Now, major changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy seem much less likely, and while Biden may insist on certain adjustments, the momentum towards a historic departure from the policies of the Trump administration appears to have stalled.
The outlook will be clearer when the Biden government completes its so-called nuclear attitude review – an internal review of the number, types, and purposes of weapons in the nuclear arsenal, as well as the guidelines governing their potential use. The results could be published as early as January.
The biggest unknown is how forcefully Biden will answer these questions, based on the White House calculations on political risk. During his years as Vice President, Biden spoke about new directions in nuclear policy. But heightened concerns about China and Russia appear to heighten the political clout of Republicans who seek to portray such change as a gift to nuclear opponents.
Russia became the focus of Biden’s attention after President Vladimir Putin dispatched an estimated 100,000 soldiers to positions near the Ukrainian border in recent weeks, demanding US security guarantees. Biden and Putin held a telephone discussion on Ukraine Thursday, and senior American and Russian officials are due to have more in-depth talks in Geneva from January 9-10.
Tom Z. Collina, policy director at the Plowshares Fund, a nuclear disarmament advocate, says the China and Russia issues complicate Biden’s nuclear review policy, but should not prevent him from taking action to reduce nuclear hazards .
“We don’t want a new nuclear arms race with both nations and the only way to prevent this is with diplomacy,” said Collina. “We need to remember the most important lesson we learned in the Cold War with Russia – the only way to win an arms race is not to run.”
In March, in what the White House called an interim national security guideline, Biden said China and Russia had “changed the distribution of power around the world.”
“Both Beijing and Moscow have invested heavily in efforts to review US strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world,” the guideline reads. Biden pledged to counter this with measures to strengthen the United States domestically, repair its alliances abroad, and strengthen the role of diplomacy. Nuclear weapons were only mentioned briefly.
“We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,” says the guide, without giving any details, while at the same time ensuring a safe and reliable US nuclear force and looking for options for arms control.
Since then, concerns about China and Russia have only grown. Private satellite imagery last summer showed China is building large numbers of new underground silos for nuclear missiles, and in November a Pentagon report said China could quadruple its nuclear stocks by 2030.
“Because of what China did, it really changed the complexion of this review,” said Robert Soofer, who was the Pentagon’s top nuclear policy official during the Trump administration and who led a nuclear review in 2018.
“Rather than being a review examining reducing the role of nuclear weapons and even eliminating part of the triad, they have now been forced to basically stay on course and determine how they can be marginally optimized.”
In June, ahead of the recent build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine, Pentagon political leader Colin Kahl said that the outlook for US nuclear policy was driven not only by China’s nuclear ambitions, but also by US âreal concernsâ -Allies in Europe through Russia are shaped by defense and nuclear policy.
“And so Russia is obviously the closest wolf to the shed when it comes to the nuclear issue, but China’s desire to increase its nuclear arsenal quantitatively and qualitatively is close behind,” Kahl told the Carnegie Foundation on 23rd international peace.
Kahl did not preview the outcome of the policy review, but said it should fit into a broader defense strategy, which is also due to be released in early 2022.
The Pentagon has not publicly discussed details of the nuclear review, but the government seems likely to be maintaining the existing contours of the nuclear forces – the traditional âtriadâ of sea, air and land arms that critics have described as exaggerated. It could also include more than $ 1 trillion worth of modernization on this force, initiated by the Obama administration and continued by Trump.
It is unclear whether Biden will approve a material change to the so-called “Declaration Policy” that defines the purpose of nuclear weapons and the circumstances in which they could be used.
The Obama administration, with Biden as vice president, declared in 2010 that it would “consider the use of nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” It did not define “extreme circumstances”.
Eight years later, the Trump administration reiterated the Obama policy, but became more concrete. âExtreme circumstances could include major non-nuclear strategic attacks. Significant non-nuclear strategic attacks include, but are not limited to, attacks on the US, allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on US or allied nuclear forces, their command and control capabilities, or their alerting and capabilities Attack assessment. “
Some believed that Biden would take a different direction as president, following his own advice on a “no first use” promise. In a January 2017 speech, he said, “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of the threats we face today, it is difficult to imagine a plausible scenario in which the United States’ first use of nuclear weapons would be necessary or useful.”
However, some argue that China and Russia changed “today’s threats” this year and may have kept Biden on a cautious path.