Originally published in Breaking Defense.
OPINION: With razor-thin majorities in Congress, it is no surprise that the Biden administration has had to set strict priorities for its legislative agenda. The administration’s focus on pandemic relief, infrastructure, voting rights and climate leaves little room to negotiate on other pressing issues. The good news is there’s one top-tier issue on which President Biden can make significant progress without arm-twisting legislators: reducing the risk of nuclear war.
The Biden team sees the crucial need to address nuclear threats, and has already taken major steps: it extended the 2010 arms control treaty with Russia, New START, and agreed to talks on additional reductions; it is negotiating in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear deal to keep Iran away from the bomb; and it has begun a comprehensive review of US nuclear policy, called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).
Notably, none of these steps requires congressional approval, at least not yet. Instead, in areas where Hill support is needed now, the administration has gone out of its way to avoid fights. For example, Biden’s Pentagon budget supports all the new and unnecessary nuclear weapons proposed by the Trump administration. Biden is sending a clear message: he will take on nuclear issues only as long as they do not undermine his top legislative priorities.
This approach fails to recognize that preventing nuclear war is not just another political issue. Nuclear weapons are the only threat humanity faces that could end civilization as we know it in a day (climate change will take much longer, though with the same potential impact). Spending billions of dollars on new weapons the United States doesn’t need, like the new $264 billion intercontinental ballistic missile, will only feed an arms race with Russia and China — even if it helps win votes for a bipartisan infrastructure deal. Better roads will not be of much help if the world slides into nuclear catastrophe.
Yet even under President Biden’s constrained approach, he can set far-reaching nuclear weapons policies using his extensive executive authority. Presidents enjoy greater control over nuclear policy than almost any other area of government — and Biden should use it.
For example, as part of the NPR process, the President can make good on his pledge to limit the role of nuclear weapons. As vice president, Biden said: “I strongly believe we [the United States] have made enough progress that deterring — and if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal.”
Such a “sole purpose” declaration would be a welcome and important shift away from current policy that allows nuclear weapons to be used to deter other types of lesser threats, such as biological or conventional attacks. US conventional superiority can be used in these cases. In particular, Biden should end the Trump policy of threatening the use of nuclear weapons in response to cyberattacks. As damaging as cyber strikes can be, threatening to retaliate with nukes increases the risk of nuclear war, weakens deterrence, and would violate international law in nearly all scenarios.
Biden should make it harder to use the most devastating weapons ever created. A sole purpose policy would limit nuclear weapons to one job only: preventing their use by others.
Such a policy should include two other important elements: that the United States will not use its nuclear weapons in a preemptive strike (before an adversary launches a suspected attack) or on warning of attack (before a reported attack arrives). These launches would dangerously increase the risk of starting nuclear war by mistake in response to bad intelligence or a false alarm. The United States has made both types of mistakes before and could do so again.
Skeptics state that a US sole purpose policy would undermine the confidence of allies in extended deterrence. But extended deterrence is not based on meeting all threats with nuclear war. The United States should deter conventional attacks with conventional weapons and nuclear attacks with nuclear weapons. The Biden administration can find ways to reassure allies without giving them veto power over US policy.
A second concern of critics is that the United States could not make sole purpose credible as adversaries and allies alike would not trust such a declaratory policy. Critics have a point, which is why to show that it practices what it preaches, the United States would have to make doctrinal and operational changes. These including adopting a less threatening nuclear posture, eliminating first-strike postures, preemptive capabilities, and other destabilizing warfighting strategies. This would signal restraint in alert levels of deployed systems, targeting, and launch-on-warning.
Joe Biden, as a senator, vice president and presidential candidate, has consistently promoted a more limited role for nuclear weapons. Now that he has the power of the presidency, he must follow through—and he can without undermining his crucial congressional agenda. Now is the time for bold action, and Biden has the chance to create a lasting legacy on nuclear matters.
Tom Z. Collina is director of policy at Ploughshares Fund. He is co-author of The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump. Doreen Horschig, PhD is the current Roger L. Hale Fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. She studies nuclear policy, specifically norms contestation, public opinion, and counter-proliferation.