The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The threat of nuclear conflict is high. We need a new commitment to de-escalation.

A 2019 test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Staff Sgt. J.T. Armstrong/U.S. Air Force/AP)
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Jon B. Wolfsthal is senior adviser at Global Zero, former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council and former special adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden.

“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” That statement, which President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev issued in 1985, helped end the Cold War. It meant something because until then, both countries believed the other was ready and almost willing to destroy the other with its large nuclear arsenal. They backed up their words by reducing their armories and banning their most dangerous weapons.

Almost 40 years later, the risk of a nuclear conflict erupting between the United States and Russia, and increasingly between the United States and China, is dangerously high. Without concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, the United States could end up in a nuclear war it says must not be fought.

Tensions over Ukraine or Taiwan could get out of hand quickly, with uncertain outcomes. Just this past week, Russia made veiled threats of deploying more battlefield nuclear weapons in and around Ukraine. Worse, the United States, Russia and China are all rapidly modernizing or expanding their nuclear and missile capabilities, as are Britain, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

It is understandable that the international community welcomed the Jan. 3 statement by the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council collectively known as the P-5, that adopted the historic 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev statement for the first time. But despite their stated rejection of nuclear war in reality, the United States and Russia exercise daily for such war, and both invest heavily in nuclear weaponry.

The United States continues to target high-value Russian and Chinese military targets — nuclear and otherwise — the destruction of which, U.S. leaders believe, would produce “favorable” outcomes. Russia does the same to U.S.- and European-based targets. The goal: to control the battlefield and to create an outcome that political and military leaders can, inconceivably, consider a “victory.” If that is not a nuclear war, what is?

When it comes to nuclear weapons, the United States should be precise about its intentions. Declaratory policy can be a powerful tool in reducing nuclear risks. It is conventional wisdom that America stopped a Soviet invasion of Western Europe by declaring that it was prepared to use nuclear weapons in response to such an attack. The same can work in reverse. Adopting a more limited role for nuclear weapons can reduce the concern that a country might cross the nuclear threshold early in a conflict. Clarity on this stance, backed by changes on operations and forces to make it credible, can reduce the risks of nuclear preemption.

The Biden administration is preparing its own Nuclear Posture Review, which will lay out President Biden’s policies. As a senator, vice president and presidential candidate, Biden indicated that he might be ready to accept a more restrictive set of nuclear policies, including adopting a clear statement that the sole mission for U.S. nuclear forces is to deter and, if necessary, respond to a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. The Nuclear Posture Review would be just the place for issuing this overdue statement of clarity. But U.S. statements must be credible, which means also implementing changes to force structures, targeting and procurement.

Saying that Washington opposes nuclear war-fighting while pursuing more than $1.2 trillion over the next three decades in nuclear modernization — including new missiles, submarines, stealth bombers and hard-to-track cruise missiles — damages America’s credibility. Moscow’s own modernization, and signs that China is increasingly seeking some form of nuclear parity with Russia and the United States, further undermine the value of the P-5′s feel-good statement. Though that statement was a step in the right direction, the words remain hollow and even dangerous if not followed by concrete actions.

Being specific about when nations would use nuclear weapons is one way to ease, if not eliminate, the pressure. But more must also be done to reduce the risk of clashes that could escalate to nuclear conflict. For example, members of the P-5 and the other nuclear-weapon states should adopt and implement proven risk-management tools to deal with the new challenges in space, cyberspace, missile and air defenses, and conventional weapons that are becoming more accurate, fast-moving and stealthy.

High-level strategic stability discussions should also seek concrete moves to prove that nuclear war-fighting is not part of the plan for members of the P-5. This can include taking weapons off alert status, cutting back modernization programs, pursuing binding reductions of nuclear forces and adopting observable norms on other weapons that threaten to undermine stability.

The danger of escalation to nuclear war remains all too real. Rejecting nuclear war-fighting in all of its forms should be a minimum approach for Biden. Failure to do so would only worsen the ongoing arms race among the United States, Russia and China.

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