The United States holds one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, has an advanced civil nuclear program, and plays a leading role in global nuclear diplomacy. US nuclear policy has a direct impact on international security, and Washington’s choices in the nuclear field have far-reaching consequences.
What then should the Biden administration prioritize when it comes to US nuclear policy? Inkstick asked Heather Williams, Vipin Narang, Beatrice Finh, and Togzhan Kassenova for their recommendations. They emphasized the need for effective diplomacy and multilateral engagement, nuanced rhetoric on nuclear matters, and changes in the US nuclear program.
Check out their detailed recommendations below:
Heather Williams, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Listen to Allies: Allies should be a main priority for all US nuclear policies going forward. The Biden administration has stated one of its top foreign policy priorities is rebuilding credibility with allies. Allies are not a monolith, but many have expressed concern about further nuclear reductions, arms control, or changes in the US nuclear posture. The administration will have to balance any arms control efforts with allies’ interests and concerns. This can be done through regular consultation with capitals, engaging allies in the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative, and building relationships at both the working and senior levels in the new administration.
- Prepare for the NPT Review Conference (RevCon): This happens every five years and was meant to happen in 2020, but the delay to August 2021 presents an important opportunity for the Biden administration to articulate its commitment to arms control and multilateralism. It should also immediately engage with NATO allies to discuss NATO’s nuclear mission, among other things, and prepare to present a united position on nuclear deterrence and disarmament at the RevCon.
- Start work on a New START follow-on: The Biden administration should immediately engage with Moscow to work toward a framework agreement for a future arms control agreement with Russia. This might include warhead reductions, non-strategic nuclear weapons, or hypersonic missiles. Many of these will present unique verification challenges and will take time to negotiate, so work should begin immediately on identifying areas of shared interest. Additionally, the administration should strongly encourage Russia (and China) to participate in the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV) to promote shared understandings of verification activities.
Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Remove W76-2 SLBM from Deployment: The deployed W76-2 is a new low-yield submarine launched nuclear weapon emplaced alongside multiple high yield weapons on the same type of missile on the same submarine. It creates a so-called “discrimination problem” which is more than just an adversary’s inability to determine if an incoming warhead is high or low yield — it is in fact a deterrence problem because the discrimination problem renders the W76-2 completely unusable.
- Prioritize Arms Control and Nonproliferation Agreements: Now that New START received a clean five year extension, work toward additional agreements to limit Russian tactical nuclear weapons deployments and review possibilities for further strategic nuclear caps, or deterrence at even lower numbers to further reduce systemic nuclear risks. The Biden administration should also return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) immediately, while focusing on strengthening and lengthening the agreement in follow-on negotiations. The window for a clean return to the JCPOA is closing with presidential elections in Iran looming in June.
- Improve Messaging: The Biden administration should not use the phrase “denuclearization of North Korea,” which was coined by the Trump administration and one of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s favorite phrases — and which Kim Jong Un never agreed to. Instead, the administration should focus on reducing nuclear risks in North Korea, such as slowing its vertical proliferation, and deterring and disincentivizing North Korea from selling its wares abroad. More importantly, President Biden’s team should devise an approach that better reflects these necessary actions. Even if the rhetorical end goal remains “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” every day that passes without an agreement to limit North Korea’s growing arsenal is a day Kim Jong Un has to expand and improve it.
Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
- Join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW): As the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty to be concluded in over two decades, the TPNW is a significant milestone in efforts to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons, and should be viewed and welcomed as an opportunity to make concrete progress on solving one of the most devastating threats to global security today. The treaty, which bans nuclear weapons, entered into force on January 22, 2021 and has the support of the majority of the world’s nations. It makes all activities related to nuclear weapons illegal under international law and requires states that have joined to provide assistance to victims of nuclear weapon use and testing and to remediate contaminated environments. It will advance the norm against nuclear weapons, chipping away at the legitimacy that a couple dozen states still ascribe to them. President Biden can sign the TPNW and submit it to the Senate for ratification, establishing himself as a progressive moral leader and increasing pressure on getting all nuclear armed states to the negotiating table.
- Redivert Spending on Nuclear Weapons: The TPNW bans its states-parties from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. While the United States is not legally bound to adhere to these prohibitions since it hasn’t joined the treaty (yet), it should take steps to stop engaging in activities that have now been outlawed under international law. As a first order of business, the Biden administration should stop developing and producing new nuclear weapons systems and re-divert the billions of dollars the United States is projected to waste each year of his presidency on new weapons of mass destruction to address security issues Americans face including climate change, racial injustice, and the ongoing COVID–19 pandemic.
- Negotiate Further Reductions of Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles: The world might be relieved that President Donald Trump no longer controls one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, but the risk of nuclear weapons use with catastrophic humanitarian consequences remains as long as nuclear weapons exist. With emerging technologies and an increasing complex and unpredictable international security situation, the risk of nuclear weapons use will only increase over time. In the first five days of his administration, Biden agreed with Russian President Vladmir Putin to extend New START, maintaining the 2010 agreed caps on their arsenals. Now the Biden administration needs to use the coming four years to negotiate and implement further and deeper cuts in global nuclear stockpiles to ensure the world is safer at the end of this term. Every nuclear weapon eliminated is one that cannot unleash the scale of human suffering unseen since the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and would be a step closer to protecting the United States and the world from possible catastrophe.
Togzhan Kassenova, Senior Fellow, Center for Policy Research, University at Albany, State University of New York
- Repair the Diplomatic Damage: Words matter. Over the last four years, US nuclear diplomacy took a major hit. In addition to walking out of treaties and agreements, it was the arrogant and condescending tone often employed by senior nuclear officials in speaking and writing that damaged US standing on the global nuclear scene. President Biden’s picks for top State Department positions provide optimism that US nuclear diplomacy will revert to a professional and respectful manner of engaging other countries on nuclear matters.
- Ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT): A global ban on nuclear tests will serve US national security and contribute to international security. Helping to bring the ban into force is also the right thing to do for moral reasons — entire communities in different parts of the world are still paying the price for the nuclear tests conducted by nuclear powers. Over the decades, President Biden has shown support for the CTBT. For example, when he was a senator, Biden encouraged fellow lawmakers to ratify the CTBT. As vice president in the Obama administration, he made the case for the CTBT ratification. Now, as president, he can use his standing to promote the ratification of this important treaty by the US Congress.
- Convert US Naval Reactors to Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU): The United States runs its nuclear submarines on highly-enriched uranium (HEU). By switching its fleet to LEU, the United States will help its own cause of promoting HEU minimization worldwide. Less HEU in the world also lowers the risk that it can be stolen and used in a nuclear terrorist act.
Check out more in the series:
After the Apocalypse: Cybersecurity
After the Apocalypse: Climate Crisis
After the Apocalypse: US Grand Strategy