Without bold actions, President Biden will signal to the American public and the international community that the U.S. is not committed to pursuing peace and a path toward complete disarmament of nuclear weapons.
In the Biden administration’s June 2021 announcement that it was planning on conducting a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the administration said that President Biden and his administration were planning to “examine how the United States can take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy.” So far, it’s not working out that way.
Just to review, the NPR is a document that outlines the government’s plans for the U.S. nuclear arsenal during that president’s term (or terms). This way, the public and the broader international community can understand the president’s goals for U.S. nuclear weapons policy.
President Barack Obama made waves in 2009 when he said, “I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” He stated that the US has a unique responsibility to rid the world of these horrific weapons, being the only nuclear power to have ever used these weapons in war. He brought hope that the U.S. could start and lead such an effort. His NPR explicitly reduced the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy.
President Trump’s election into office swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. His NPR increased the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy, and fed the insidious Great Power competition between the U.S., Russia, and China that is growing today. And now, it appears that President Biden may be continuing in the same direction as President Trump.
President Biden has followed through on some campaign promises surrounding nuclear arms control and disarmament, but he hasn’t done nearly enough. Yes, he extended New START. Yes, he declassified up-to-date information on the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. These are both very important steps in engaging diplomatically with Russia and illustrating a level of transparency that was not present in the Trump administration.
However, President Biden has not rejoined the Iran Deal, something he promised to do once in office. He has not whispered a word about a No First Use (NFU) Policy (a policy stating that a country will not use nuclear weapons first), something he publicly supported both in 2017 and in 2019 during the presidential campaign.
To top it off, he proposed a military budget for 2022 that was higher than the hawkish Trump administration. Biden’s 2022 budget kept new nuclear weapons systems added by the Trump administration and pushed forward with the astronomical $1.7 trillion nuclear weapons modernization plan. The result is we are continuing down a path to a new Cold War, this time with many more nuclear-weapon states to worry about. And to top that off, Leonor Tomero, the Biden administration official in charge of drafting the NPR and a voice of reason within an increasingly hawkish and weapon-oriented Department of Defense, was ousted in a seemingly petty manner. Some—including Democratic Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey—believe this was purely because Tomero had the audacity to challenge the status quo and push for a more progressive NPR.
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It hardly feels like President Biden is following through on his commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. If anything, it feels like he is continuing with a defense strategy and overall foreign policy—as Washington Post Columnist Fareed Zakaria argues—started by the Trump administration with no significant policy changes to show for himself.
How could Biden convince me that he's actually serious about changing nuclear policy? For instance, following through on his campaign promises and implementing a No First Use policy. Or, Biden can also listen to the demands of over 300 local and state officials across 41 states calling for Biden to implement five bold actions outlined in the Back from the Brink campaign- which includes halting the $1.7 trillion nuclear weapons modernization plan to replace the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Further, President Biden can make the NPR process more transparent and open to American citizens. There is absolutely no reason that this process should be shrouded in such secrecy that the people who pay the taxes that then pay for these horrific weapons have no idea it even exists. If Americans are paying for these weapons, we deserve to be privy to the process that determines how the President will utilize them throughout their term.
These are just a few options Biden can and should consider as his administration continues to work on the NPR. Without bold actions like these, President Biden will be signaling to the American public and the international community—both allies and adversaries—that the U.S. is not actually committed to pursuing peace and a path toward complete disarmament of nuclear weapons.
We all deserve a safer world without living under the existential threat of ending human civilization as we know it. President Biden has the opportunity to bring us closer to that future through his NPR. Now is the time to take bold action.
Jasmine Owens is the Lead Organizer and Policy Coordinator for the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Program at Physicians for Social Responsibility. You can follow her on Twitter @j_owens004