Ask a Scientist: Will the Biden Nuclear Policy Wind Up Being the Same Old Same Old?

January 12, 2022 | 3:15 pm
Lou Oates/iStock
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

More so than most of the previous occupants of the White House, Joe Biden—a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman—is steeped in all things nuclear, and he has long embraced the common sense view that nuclear arsenals must be reduced dramatically.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, arms control advocates were heartened when Biden agreed that the US policy reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict should be reevaluated and reiterated his opposition to a new “low yield” nuclear weapon the Trump administration planned to field on submarines. Likewise, they applauded when—just a week after taking office—President Biden extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which was set to expire in early February. This treaty limits deployed nuclear warheads on each side to 1,550.

But do Biden’s campaign talking points and his quick action on New START signal that his administration will make some sorely needed changes in US nuclear policy? We will soon find out. The administration plans to release what’s called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which every administration since Bill Clinton was president has issued, early this year. The document will define what kind of nuclear weapons the United States will have, how it will use them, and how they fit in with the rest of US military and foreign policy plans.

The NPR has not changed much in 30 years, regardless of who was sitting in the Oval Office, and some would argue—including experts at UCS—that reform in light of 21st century realities is long overdue.

To get some insight into which direction the Biden administration might take on this critical issue, I contacted Eryn MacDonald, who has been an analyst with the UCS Global Security Program since 2011. MacDonald is an expert in international security, arms control and nonproliferation, US-China relations, and East Asian security, and earned a master’s degree in government from Cornell University. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

EN: First, happy new year. Let’s hope this year is better than 2021, but based on what you had to say last year on this topic, I’m worried that we may be too optimistic about making progress. You wrote a blog last June, for example, pointing out the Biden administration’s fiscal year (FY) 2022 military budget request fully funded all the nuclear weapons the Trump administration proposed—including, of all things, the new, sea-launched cruise missile Biden said he opposed—and called for spending even more on the nuclear arsenal than the previous year. What just happened in Congress last month with the military budget, and what does that bode for the NPR?

EM: The Biden administration’s FY22 budget request was disappointing to those of us who hoped he would live up to his stated opposition to new nuclear weapons. Rather than making cuts, it fully funded all programs—including, as you said, the new nuclear weapons the previous administration wanted. The budget also added money to extend the life of the massive and unnecessary B83 bomb—80 times more destructive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima—that the Obama administration had planned to retire. Biden’s first budget requested more funding for nuclear weapons programs than in the previous year and Congress essentially approved it wholesale as part of the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act, which Biden signed into law on December 27.

While the spending bill and the Nuclear Posture Review are separate processes and do different things—the NPR focuses much more on top-level policy—the failure of the Biden administration budget to reverse course on such new weapons as the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile or even eliminate low-hanging fruit such as the B83 does not bode well for the NPR’s outcome. At least, not for anyone hoping for real progress toward eliminating unnecessary nuclear weapons and instituting substantive changes in US nuclear policy to reduce the risk that these weapons would ever be used.

EN: The news media reported early last year that President Biden’s national security team supported negotiating new arms control treaties, cutting back the US nuclear arsenal, and taking a hard look at outdated military doctrine. But more recently, there have been stories about a Pentagon backlash against making any significant changes to the NPR because of Russian and Chinese nuclear buildups. Is that a credible rationale? What do you expect will happen when all the dust settles?

EM: President Biden has a long history of supporting nuclear arms control and reduction policies, and he entered office promising to carry through on his commitments in this area and tap experts who share a similar vision for his national security team. We thought that signaled there would be significant movement toward a saner, safer US nuclear policy via the Nuclear Posture Review process, which is the most obvious way for a president to direct major shifts.

It is not surprising that there would be pushback from status quo forces in the Pentagon and elsewhere against any substantial change. That has happened before, derailing attempts in more than one NPR to take anything more than incremental steps. As the Biden NPR process has unfolded, more progressive voices have been sidelined, so this NPR now seems to be consigned to the same fate.

Russian and Chinese nuclear buildups certainly have not helped, giving cover to the folks who would have resisted change in any case. But what Russia and China are doing actually make the kinds of changes we want Biden to make more important. Declaring that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons—a policy China has had since it first built nuclear weapons, ending the president’s sole authority to order a nuclear launch, and taking US nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert are all changes that could help de-escalate the budding arms race with Russia and China. None of these policy changes would undermine the US nuclear deterrent, and all of them would strengthen US security by reducing the risk of accidental or mistaken nuclear war.

At this point, the prospect for major change through the NPR process appears slim. To say that President Biden has had a lot to deal with in his first year in office is beyond an understatement, and his attention has very likely been elsewhere, despite his longstanding interest in nuclear issues. The remaining hope is that once he sees the document himself, he may reject an NPR draft that goes against his stated desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US policy and leaves out some of the policies—such as no-first-use—that he has said he supports. In that case he would have to ask for a revised draft more in keeping with his own vision.

EN: Let’s talk about the ramifications of the United States adopting a no-first-use policy, which would have the United States pledge to never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict or declare their “sole purpose” is to deter, or retaliate against, a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. According to some press reports, the prospect of such a policy makes some US allies nervous, like Britain, France, and Japan. What would be the benefit of this policy? What are the chances that the new NPR will include one?

EM: During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden expressed clear support for a no-first-use policy, but it is not a new position for him. He addressed the issue near the end of his last term as vice president, stating that “the president and I strongly believe we have made enough progress that deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal.”

Some may quibble with the difference between declaring “sole purpose” and “no first use,” but the result in either case would be an immediate reduction in the possibility of a nuclear war. It would lower the risk of miscalculation in the event of a crisis with another nuclear-armed state, because it would lessen their incentive to try to preempt the United States from using nuclear weapons. It would also reduce the risk associated with the US president’s sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons by removing the option for any president to order a launch first.

Concern about US allies’ reaction is apparently what prevented the Obama administration from declaring a no-first-use policy a decade ago. But such concerns are likely overblown. In Japan, for instance, my colleagues Gregory Kulacki, Jennifer Knox, and Miyako Kurosaki found that while there may be a minority of hardliners within the government opposed to a US no-first-use declaration, a majority of the general population is in favor of the United States taking such a step.

In a 2020 column in Foreign Affairs, Biden reiterated his support for a sole purpose declaration, adding that as “president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the US military and US allies.” The Biden administration should do as he promised and reassure Japan and our European allies that the United States remains committed to their security and that first use of nuclear weapons is not a necessary—or realistic—part of upholding that commitment.  

EN: Last February, more than 30 House Democrats sent a letter to the White House asking President Biden to renounce the president’s sole authority to order a nuclear launch, arguing that no single individual should have that power. UCS has been advocating for the end to this policy for years. Does Biden have the ability to make this change? What are the prospects?

EM: President Biden absolutely has the ability—and authority—to make this change, and it would go a long way toward making us all safer. Just last year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley was so concerned about President Trump’s stability, especially after the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, that he made plans to intervene if the president gave the order to launch nuclear weapons. Milley reportedly told senior officers that although the president could give such an order, Milley also needed to be involved.

In fact, Milley had no real authority to insert himself into this process, regardless of any understanding he may have reached with those officers. But while stories like this one make the dangers of sole authority glaringly obvious, they can also distract from the fact that it is a problem even when there are no serious concerns about a president’s mental state.

There have been attempts to end sole authority through legislation, and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and California Rep. Ted Lieu last year reintroduced a bill prohibiting the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. But this approach would be unusual. Normally, US nuclear policy is set by the president, so Biden is the one who could most straightforwardly make a change, simply by declaring that he wants to end the policy and instructing the Pentagon to adjust its procedures accordingly. UCS experts, as well as others, have suggested multiple ways that this could be done quickly and easily using existing communications systems.

It is still unclear whether Biden will take this step. So far, there does not seem to be much of an appetite in his administration for rocking the boat, but ending sole authority might be less controversial than some other policy changes, and would be an easy way to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

EN: Last month, nearly 700 scientists and engineers, including 21 Nobel laureates, made news when they called on President Biden to use the NPR to declare a no-first-use policy and cut the US nuclear arsenal by a third. Their open letter also asked the president to cancel plans to replace the current ICBM fleet. That letter came on the heels of a similar letter from local, county and state officials. What kind of an impact can letters like these have?

EM: Advocacy on nuclear policy issues can sometimes be frustrating. Apart from occasional headline-grabbing moments, such as a North Korean nuclear test or a US president vowing “fire and fury” in response to North Korean threats, nuclear weapons are not top-of-mind for most people these days. Many also believe that they are not qualified to have an opinion on nuclear issues because they are not experts, even though decisions that political and military leaders make about nuclear weapons have the potential to impact the lives of every person on the planet.  

In reality, pressure from specific groups, such as scientists, as well as the general public have historically been key to making progress in reducing the nuclear threat. The recent letter is just the latest example of scientists using their technical expertise as a springboard to speak out against nuclear weapons—a movement that began with some of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb. The Union of Concerned Scientists itself was born out of that legacy of scientists who were deeply invested in ending the nuclear threat.  

The letter you mentioned from more than 300 local and state level officials was the result of ongoing hard work by my colleagues at UCS, the Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other groups that organized the Back from the Brink campaign. The campaign now has a supporter base of nearly 400 organizations, more than 300 state and local elected officials, 55 municipalities, and six state legislatures, all working to prevent nuclear war and make nuclear abolition a reality.

Bringing in voices outside of the usual suspects is a necessary first step to shift the dialogue about nuclear weapons from its entrenched focus on such traditional topics as deterrence and military security to a broader perspective that prioritizes a more human-centered definition of security. Expanding the conversation also could encourage a wider recognition of the true costs of nuclear weapons, not only the potential human and environmental devastation resulting from their use, but also the fact that they divert billions of dollars that could otherwise be used for healthcare, education, housing, and other basic human needs.