When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, many observers noted that, terrifyingly, he would soon be the sole person in charge of determining whether or not to use the U.S.’s vast nuclear weapons capability. He would have the power to end life on Earth in a matter of minutes.
As Barack Obama and Joe Biden were preparing to hand the nuclear codes over, the outgoing vice president warned against any preemptive use of the terrible weapons: “Given our non-nuclear 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,” Biden said in January 2017. Biden added that he and Obama had “made a commitment to create the conditions by which the sole purpose of nuclear weapons would be to deter others from launching a nuclear attack.”
Despite Biden’s encouraging remarks that the United States likely wouldn’t employ the “first use” of nuclear weapons, Trump was inheriting a nuclear weapons apparatus with far more continuity than rupture from previous administrations. The United States had not, in fact, adopted an explicit “no first use” policy during the Obama administration, despite relentless lobbying from nonproliferation experts. And, as he did with so many aspects of the U.S. national security state, Trump took the existing nuclear powers and authorities and expanded them to enrich weapons contractors and satisfy the reactionary requirement of maintaining U.S. global military hegemony.
Four U.S. presidents have issued reports known as a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), dating back to the Clinton White House in 1993. The Trump administration’s NPR was typically bellicose. Contrary to Biden’s urging in 2017 that the “sole use” of nuclear weapons should be in response to a nuclear attack, Trump’s review significantly widened the aperture for their use. That report, whose author is still unknown, referenced using nuclear weapons to deter “non-nuclear aggression,” a phrase widely understood at the time to include cyber, chemical and biological attacks.
President Joe Biden’s administration is now in the final stages of completing his own Nuclear Posture Review, scheduled to be finished early this year. For nonproliferation experts and anti-nuclear war activists, the signs are not promising. In September, Leonor Tomero, a Biden appointee tasked with overseeing the review, was forced out of her job in what was described as a bureaucratic reorganization but was widely understood to be a power grab by the national security state. Prior to her sacking, Tomero was trying to bring official U.S. nuclear policy in line with Biden’s previously stated “sole purpose” philosophy. Biden’s National Security Council had previously issued two documents to provide guidance on the White House’s nuclear priorities, neither of which adopted a “sole purpose” policy.
Even more worrying was Biden’s first defense budget, which signaled the administration would continue Trump’s two new nuclear weapons programs: a sea-launched ballistic missile and the creation of low-yield nuclear warheads. There are rumors among nonproliferation activists that the administration may ultimately scrap those programs when it releases its review, but the sense among experts is that those programs are low-hanging fruit. The overall reliance on nuclear weapons is not expected to change in any meaningful way, despite 55 Democratic members of Congress calling on Biden to adopt a “no first use” policy and to stop the deployment of Trump’s two new nuclear weapons systems.
Joseph Cirincione, a fellow at the Quincy Institute and longtime nonproliferation expert, offered a blistering assessment of the Biden nuclear policy so far: “It is not a rational response to external threats but is driven primarily by domestic factors including a hubristic strategy of nuclear supremacy, partisan politics, and entrenched arms lobbies with formidable influence in the Pentagon and Congress,” Cirincione wrote earlier this month.
Part of the U.S. nuclear posture is called a declaratory formulation — that is, a public statement signaling both to allies and adversaries when the government might use nuclear weapons. Ever since President Truman became the first and only head of state to drop a nuclear bomb — two, in his case — the U.S. declaratory position has been deliberately ambiguous. Hawks say that strategic ambiguity keeps potential enemies on their toes, and provides comfort for allies like Japan who rely on U.S. nuclear deterrent capability. Nonproliferation and peace activists argue that strategic ambiguity is not necessary and is indeed counterproductive in lowering the likelihood of nuclear war.
Although Biden is not expected to adopt a “no first use” or “sole purpose” standard in his forthcoming NPR, the benefits of doing so could be enormous. “Announcing that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies and partners […] would clearly signal a policy course change and renewed U.S. global leadership toward reduced reliance on nuclear weapons,” writes Steve Andreasen of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
China is the only country that has a clear, caveat-free “no first use” policy, which the country initially declared in 1964 and has since repeatedly publicly reaffirmed.
The Biden administration is at risk of going in the opposite direction. “Instead of sole purpose, the Pentagon bureaucracy wants Biden to go back 12 years to Obama’s 2010 review and adopt weak language that would allow the use of nuclear weapons in multiple scenarios, including cyberattacks,” warns Tom Collina, policy director at the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation organization.
The simmering conflict on the border between Ukraine and Russia is almost certainly exerting domestic political pressure on Biden to take a more hawkish, Cold War-era stance on nuclear weapons. Ironically, the conflict in Eastern Europe is exactly the type of situation that shows the absurdity of even the implicit threat of nuclear weapons. There is substantial risk that either the U.S. or Russia could misinterpret the others’ moves, resulting in escalatory tit-for-tat retaliation that would be disastrous with conventional weapons, but truly catastrophic with nuclear weapons.
Still, far too many national security state officials and their associated think tanks believe a nuclear war can be won. The Pentagon and its private sector partners have a massive financial incentive not only to retain the U.S.’s current posture, but to increase the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons. Biden could change that if he wanted to. Whether he’ll listen to his own words from 2017 remains to be seen.