President Biden knows more about nuclear weapons than most people who work for him. He spent decades wrestling with nuclear issues as a senator on the Foreign Relations Committee and then eight years as vice president. But that experience appears not to be helping him now: He is the 14th president of the nuclear age to discover just how difficult it is to manage the arsenal supposedly under his control.
In 2020, on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Biden pledged to “restore American leadership on arms control and nonproliferation as a central pillar of U.S. global leadership,” and in March 2021 his administration announced it would “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” News reports, however, suggest that Biden will fail on both counts when his administration issues its Nuclear Posture Review in the next few weeks.
These reports indicate that the review, traditionally done in a president’s first year in office, will adjust nuclear policy and programs at the margins while making no significant changes to the Pentagon’s budgets and deployments. The review may, at most, cancel one or two small weapons programs begun during the Trump administration — including a new nuclear-armed cruise missile for the Navy — retire an older warhead (the 1.2-megaton B83, introduced in 1983) and ratchet back Trump-era policies that expanded the circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used.
While the Trump administration said such weapons might be used in the event of a devastating nonnuclear attack on the United States, including a cyberattack, the current administration is expected to say they are “fundamentally” intended to deter the use of nuclear weapons by America’s foes.
That is a significant change that would bring U.S. policy back to where it was under President Barack Obama (if far from as decisive a statement as some observers were hoping for). At the same time, though, the review is expected to endorse dozens of new and existing nuclear weapons programs that will cost an estimated $634 billion over this decade — far more than many hotly contested domestic programs. (A $205 billion proposal to guarantee four weeks of parental leave nationally was cut from the Build Back Better bill — which still languishes — over complaints from Democratic moderates that the program was too expensive.)
These weapons include a new intercontinental ballistic missile ordered during President Donald Trump’s final months without examining less expensive and less dangerous alternatives. The missile program will cost $264 billion over its lifetime.
Biden is also not expected to declare that the United States will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, a long-sought goal of many people seeking to tamp down the risk of a global catastrophe.
It is not hard to fathom why Biden has not followed through on his campaign promises and his own long-held views. He is struggling with multiple crises, from inflation to the pandemic to the standoff over Ukraine. He also holds a slim congressional majority, still can’t get top officials confirmed and is besieged by critics. To make the kinds of changes in nuclear policy he favors, Biden would have had to confront an entrenched nuclear bureaucracy that has historically given little ground. Understandably, though regrettably, he appears to have punted.
Scores of experts and members of Congress, alarmed at reports signaling a weak review, have urged him to change course. Nearly 700 scientists, including 21 Nobel laureates, wrote in favor of cutting the 1,550 deployed strategic weapons in the U.S. arsenal by one-third and canceling the new ICBM program. They urged him to change the protocol that allows a president, alone, to order a nuclear strike. Fifty-six members of Congress, too, asked for more cuts in weapons. “Your forthcoming [Nuclear Posture Review] should reflect your Administration’s views, not embrace President Trump’s nuclear weapons programs,” they wrote on Jan. 26.
While Biden’s failure to challenge the nuclear status quo is not unique, the forces constraining Biden are different from those facing earlier presidents.
Whereas the U.S. nuclear posture used to be shaped by grand strategic debates involving hundreds of experts and scores of congressional hearings — and often massive public protest — nuclear policy today is driven largely by domestic political factors, including intensified lobbying by the defense industry.
Strategic considerations are not entirely absent from today’s debates. There are those who see nuclear superiority as a necessary component of U.S. global primacy, for example. That is a strategic view, if a somewhat Strangelovian one. Like those who railed against treaties with the Soviets during the Cold War, they see nuclear reductions as weakness and agreements with adversaries as concessions.
“It is very expensive and hard work to win an arms race,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said last year, reflecting this view, “but it is much better to win an arms race than to lose a war.”
Another formidable barrier to nuclear-policy reform is erected by those who cynically use security as a wedge issue in partisan politics. Being “weak on defense” has been a Democratic fear for decades. Members of Congress can therefore easily be persuaded that a vote to cut nuclear weapons or Pentagon budgets is a liability for their campaigns, even if they may privately favor reform.
The status quo is further protected by a powerful consortium of arms corporations that realize vast profits from manufacturing and maintaining these arsenals. Since the start of the Afghanistan war, Pentagon spending has totaled $14 trillion, with one-third to one-half going directly to military contractors. The annual budget is now at its highest level since World War II. Nuclear spending is soaring as the Pentagon orders new fleets of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines and missiles.
To protect their contracts, arms companies deploy a small army of lobbyists in Washington, spending $2.5 billion over the past two decades to fund an average of 700 lobbyists a year. The companies run a revolving door that shuttles officials between top policy jobs and top contractor jobs. The companies also disperse contracts to nearly every congressional district, contribute generously to lawmakers on the key committees that oversee their programs (the five major nuclear weapons contractors made $31 million in campaign contributions in 2020 alone) and flood Washington think tanks with grants to mute criticism.
The equation is further tilted by giving those most interested in continuing nuclear programs the authority to write the policy. In a Nuclear Posture Review, the Pentagon holds the pen, with only token involvement by other departments. As American University professor Sharon Weiner recently wrote: “Biden can expect the review process to offer him few real options for nuclear policy reform; these options will likely allow, at best, only narrow deviations from the status quo. The nuclear weapons establishment will limit choice by presenting everything as an interlocking set of military requirements instead of multiple options for meeting deterrence goals.”
While Biden will minimize political turbulence by just tweaking current plans, he increases the risks of disaster, because the nuclear doctrines and posture adopted in the fearsome days of the Cold War combine now to present an unacceptable risk of nuclear cataclysm. But although observers (including me) are pessimistic about where this administration’s review is headed, it’s not too late to make it better. Biden has still not approved the Pentagon’s draft. Even if he keeps some of Trump’s pet projects — a regrettable move — Biden could greatly increase security with the stroke of a presidential pen by following the advice of experts on crucial matters of nuclear policy.
He could begin by declaring that the United States will never start a nuclear war. Most Americans may assume this is already our policy. Pentagon planners seeking maximum flexibility and options, though, have never ruled it out, even as the increased accuracy and power of our conventional weapons made the first use of nuclear weapons unnecessary for military missions. Biden agrees. In one of his last speeches as vice president, he said, “Given our nonnuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary or make sense.”
Biden could also take two steps that could prevent a repeat of the nightmare scenario some feared during the Trump administration — that an unstable president could trigger Armageddon. He could declare that henceforth, another senior official will have to agree before launch orders are given. Various proposals have suggested that the second authority be the vice president, the secretary of defense or the speaker of the House. In a similar spirit, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have introduced legislation that would forbid the president to order a nuclear strike absent a declaration of war by Congress.
Biden could also announce that the United States will take weapons off hair-trigger alert, allowing more time for deliberations.
These moves would not stir up the corporate and political resistance that Biden understandably fears — at least, they would stir up less of it — but they could prevent a future president from launching a nuclear war, as President John F. Kennedy warned, “by accident or miscalculation or madness.” These actions alone, while falling short of what arms control experts hoped for, could put a Biden stamp on nuclear policy and let the world sleep a bit more easily.