That was the answer President Joe Biden gave when, as a candidate, he was asked about Donald Trump’s decision to develop and deploy two types of missiles armed with low-yield nuclear weapons. Having these makes the United States “more inclined to use them,” Biden said. Throughout his presidential campaign, Biden repeatedly endorsed the idea of a “no first use” policy, spoke favorably about disarmament, and expressed the belief that any modernization of US nuclear forces could be done for less than the $1.2 trillion that had been predicted at the time. Then last week came his Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).
In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Emma Foley explains that while Biden’s NPR “affirms the goal of a world without nuclear weapons,” it “digs in its heels and sets a course for a long future for the US nuclear arsenal.” Foley was not the only expert in the field to voice strong concerns over Biden’s NPR. Stephen Young, the Senior Washington Representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists, referred to Biden’s NPR as a “terrifying document.” Young argues that the president is not only keeping the world on a path of nuclear risk but, in fact, has increased that very risk. More importantly, the Biden administration is using both Russia and China to continue unproductive Cold War-era nuclear policies and modernize an already large US nuclear arsenal while threatening the first use of nuclear weapons in several scenarios.
What message does Biden’s NPR send to all of those countries, many from the Global South, who have rejected nuclear weapons and joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)? Do their voices not count? Are they somehow less important? Are their lives not worth the same because of their racial makeup? By not leaving room to even consider the TPNW or a No First Use policy, Biden’s NPR fails to respect those who have been advocating for a world free of nuclear weapons — and have shown their commitment by signing the TPNW.
WHAT THE NPR REALLY SAYS
Biden’s NPR is a clear move away from where much of the world is on nuclear weapons. As Alicia Sanders-Zakre, policy and research coordinator for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, points out, it is rich to argue that nuclear disarmament only works in democracies when it is “democracies like France, the UK, and the US who blatantly ignore popular support for disarmament and the TPNW, while spending billions on the weapons each year.”
Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review is a clear move away from where much of the world is on nuclear weapons.
The irony, as Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o makes clear, is that “France, the UK, and US all have a slave-owning and colonial past and, combined with nuclear weapons, are driven by the same instincts of “contempt for other lives, particularly Black lives.” This has been shown repeatedly by those who have historically been victims of nuclear testing. The United States tested nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands. The French tested its first nuclear weapon in the Sahara. The uranium used in many nuclear weapons has come from Native American lands and the once Belgian-controlled Congo. Moreover, agreeing to spend billions of dollars on nuclear weapons when so many continue to struggle with housing costs, tuition, food insecurity, and affording basic needs, speaks volumes about the country’s priorities and the lack of empathy and compassion for our own people.
Biden’s NPR, however, is not alone and just one in a series of developments that seems to be bringing the world closer to nuclear war. For example, the world watched as Trump routinely bragged about the possibility of using nuclear weapons and discussed resuming nuclear testing, among other threats to those he deemed enemies. President Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and constant threats of nuclear war, coupled with the failure of the Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to produce a consensus outcome document, has caused many to once again fear that nuclear weapons will be used in our lifetime.
TIME TO PICK THE RIGHT SIDE
There is an alternative to Biden’s NPR, Russia’s nuclear threats, and accepting that we will always live with nuclear weapons: the TPNW. Unlike the NPT, the First Meeting of States Parties for the TPNW in June 2022 did come away with a Declaration and Action Plan. States parties resolved to “move ahead with implementing all aspects of the treaty, including the positive obligations aimed at redressing the harm caused by nuclear weapons use and testing.” They also reaffirmed the complementarity of the treaty with the NPT and undertook to continue to support the NPT and all measures that can effectively contribute to nuclear disarmament. The declaration stated: “We will not rest until the last state has joined the Treaty, the last warhead has been dismantled and destroyed, and nuclear weapons have been totally eliminated from the Earth.”
The TPNW’s Action Plan also contained 50 specific actions for moving the treaty forward, including actions on universalization; victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation and assistance; scientific and technical advice in support of implementation; supporting the wider nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime; inclusion; and implementation of the treaty’s gender provisions. While all of these issues are complicated, the main difference between the TPNW and the NPT is the urgency of action.
As disarmament becomes essential, so too does support for the TPNW. While those countries in the nuclear club continue to dismiss and even call for boycotting the TPNW, we are seeing more nations begin to reexamine their previous positions. Australia has agreed to no longer oppose the TPNW as it had in the past. Germany served as an observer of the First Meeting of State Parties this summer, calling it a “major event in nuclear disarmament diplomacy.”
The United States faces a choice: Accept the old thinking that deterrence is the only way to avoid nuclear war or join the TPNW. One hopes a nuclear weapon will never be used again. The other eliminates them from the planet. I know which side I am on.
Vincent Intondi is the author of African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the the Black Freedom Movement and Saving the World From Nuclear War: The June 12, 1982 Disarmament Rally and Beyond.