Nuclear Weapons: What Is Biden Expecting and What Can Be Expected from Him?

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Nuclear Weapons: What Is Biden Expecting and What Can Be Expected from Him?

By Marc Finaud, Head of Arms Proliferation’ at the GCSP

The new president of the United States will have a busy agenda, but as far as nuclear arms control is concerned, he is likely to take measures fairly quickly that would significantly reverse the policy followed by his predecessor (described as "four years of nuclear madness"), while remaining faithful to the main bipartisan guidelines in this area.

As soon as he is inaugurated on 20 January 2021, President Biden will be faced with many priorities (health and economic crises, the reunification of US society, the climate crisis, etc.). As usual, during the election campaign the question of foreign and defence policy was scarcely addressed. However, several key decisions will soon be required at the White House in the areas of arms control and nuclear weapons in general.

1) The extension of the New START Treaty with Russia: This treaty expires in February 2021. In an eleventh-hour attempt the Trump administration had hoped to exchange an agreement with Moscow on a one-year extension of the treaty for an enlargement of the talks to include China, the "new Russian weapons", and a verifiable freeze on the number of nuclear warheads pending the negotiation of a new treaty. Russia had rejected these demands. Biden has always made it clear that he was prepared to extend New START for five years without preconditions and begin negotiations on a new agreement to reduce offensive weapons. It is unlikely, however, that he will accept Russia's request to put on the table the US defensive systems whose necessity he has reaffirmed in accordance with the bipartisan position of the Democrats and Republicans.

2) The Iran Nuclear Deal: Biden castigated Trump's decision to withdraw from the 2015 P5+1 agreement with Iran reached by the Obama administration. He promised to adhere to it again "if Iran returns to full compliance with the agreement". However, the main consequence of the US withdrawal was the reimposition of "maximum" sanctions against Iran. Biden is ready to cancel immediately those that prevent Tehran from effectively fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and the travel ban on nationals of some Muslim countries. However, he wishes to renegotiate the agreement to include the Iranian missile programme and the Islamic Republic’s external activities. In any case, his approach has the merit of being based on dialogue and negotiation "in consultation with the European allies".

3) The denuclearisation of North Korea: Biden made no secret of his disapproval of Trump's policy of "photo-ops" summits, which have yielded no progress towards North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. He should therefore resume negotiations, either bilateral or multilateral, that could lead to an end to the state of war with North Korea and the lifting of sanctions in exchange for the gradual dismantling of that country’s nuclear arsenal.

4) US defence doctrine: Once he has put the relevant teams in place and given them time to consider the issue of US defence doctrine, the new president will publish his "Nuclear Posture Review" that will likely move away from Trump's of 2018 and return to a doctrine closer to Obama's of 2010. In particular, Biden has pushed through in the Democratic Party programme the no-first-use posture that Obama failed to get the Pentagon to accept. Nuclear weapons should therefore only be used to deter or respond to a nuclear attack, but under no circumstances should they be used for a first strike. Such an initiative, if accepted, and if Biden succeeds in convincing the other nuclear powers to join it, would help reduce the risk of nuclear war considerably. Democratic Party legislators are also calling for the president's power to launch a nuclear attack to be shared with Congress, rather than just be the president’s decision alone. Such legislation could be passed by the House of Representatives, but would likely be rejected by the Senate.

5) The modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal: Biden will have to decide, in preparation for the budget he will present in March 2021, whether or not to implement the projects that  Trump launched as part of the $1.2 trillion 30-year US nuclear weapons modernisation programme previously approved by the Obama administration. Biden has already expressed his opposition to the introduction of the so-called "low-yield" nuclear warhead to equip cruise missiles launched from submarines because it constitutes an incentive to nuclear war. It is not certain, however, that he will put an end to the $264 billion intercontinental land-based missile replacement programme, as several organisations have requested, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists. Likewise, the Biden administration will remain sensitive to the influence of the military-industrial lobby, part of which financed Biden’s campaign, and will continue to support the testing of an anti-missile defence system that scientists consider to be ineffective and useless.

6) The ban on nuclear testing: Here again Biden had castigated Trump for considering ending the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, which would have risked setting a bad example to other non-parties to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Like his Democratic predecessors, he advocates US ratification of the CTBT signed in 1996. However, this remains dependent on the Senate, which would likely continue to oppose such a move.

7) Tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe: Biden did not comment on this subject, but it is to be expected that he will show more respect for NATO allies without abandoning his demand for an increase in allied military spending towards the target of 2% of GDP. He knows that within NATO the countries most afraid of Russia (Poland, the Baltic states) are insisting on maintaining and modernising the 150-250 US nuclear gravity bombs deployed in among Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. On the other hand, the debate on their reduction or withdrawal has begun in several of these countries. Perhaps Biden will advocate including them in a new negotiation with Russia to obtain the dismantling of its many more numerous tactical nuclear weapons.

8) The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW): Here there will be no surprises: Biden remains committed to nuclear deterrence, albeit within the stricter limits  discussed above. He will therefore continue the bipartisan policy of rejecting the TPNW, perhaps in a less aggressive manner, e.g. renouncing the pressure that Trump exerted to block its entry into force, which the threatened states have ignored.

Marc Finaud is Head of Arms Proliferation at the GCSP, a member of the Bureau of Initiatives for Nuclear Disarmament (IDN) and author of the book The Nuclear Weapon: Let’s Eliminate It Before It Eliminates Us

Marc Finaud is a former French diplomat who was seconded to the GCSP from 2004 to 2013 and is now a staff member. At the GCSP, Mr Finaud leads activities related to Arms Proliferation.