During his campaign for president, Joe Biden penned an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” In it, he laid out his thoughts on the most dangerous arms in the U.S. stockpile. “I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack,” the then-candidate wrote. “As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.”
The declaration gave arms control advocates hope that the president would adopt a no-first-use policy — meaning that the U.S. would commit to never initiating a nuclear conflict. Current policy allows the president to strike first in an extreme circumstance, like in response to a devastating chemical attack, which can lower the threshold for nuclear war to break out. But now, at a time when the world is closer to a nuclear exchange than ever, thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s devastating war against Ukraine, Biden has gone back on his word.
On March 29, the White House released a short summary of Biden’s upcoming strategy on nuclear forces indicating his decision: “The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”
This effectively makes the U.S. stance on nuclear employment indistinguishable from Russia’s. According to its military doctrine, Russia may use a nuclear weapon if it faces an “existential” threat — a fact of which Putin has reminded observers around the world in recent weeks as he pummels Ukraine.
Biden’s decision to keep U.S. policy so similar to Russia’s amounts to a missed opportunity to build an international coalition against nuclear conflict, disarmament advocates say.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-chair of the Nuclear Weapon and Arms Control Working Group, took to the Senate floor on March 31 to indict the policy: “Unfortunately, our American democracy and Russia’s autocracy do share one major thing in common: Both our systems give the United States and Russian presidents the godlike powers known as sole authority to end life on the planet as we know it by ordering a nuclear first strike.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported Biden’s decision to maintain first-strike authority on March 25, the president faced pressure from allies to renege on his campaign pledge. He met with European partners late last month amid apparent concerns that Russia may use a nuclear or chemical weapon as part of its war against Ukraine. (NBC reported last week that three U.S. officials admitted there is no evidence that Russia brought chemical weapons near Ukraine.)
Tom Collina, policy director at the nuclear arms control group Ploughshares Fund, argued that rolling back the strike authority could have benefited international efforts against Russia. “Putin is threatening the first use of nuclear weapons to hold Ukraine hostage and keep the US and NATO out,” he wrote to The Intercept. “This is nuclear blackmail, and its a dangerous precedent that we must oppose. Its therefore deeply disappointing that the Biden administration just missed a key opportunity to reject first use. Instead, Biden’s policy also allows first use and is essentially the same as Russia’s, and this undermines Biden’s ability to build international opposition to what Putin is doing.”
That may be the case for lawmakers of at least one ally. On April 1, dozens of members of the Progressive Caucus of Japan, a minority coalition to the left of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party fronted by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, joined American lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus to call on Biden to commit to a no-first-use policy. “A U.S. declaration stating that it would never start a nuclear war, supported by Japan, would breathe new life into international efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate the danger of nuclear war,” the letter, led by CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said. The lawmakers cited the importance of such a policy as tensions between the U.S. and China, also a nuclear power, continue to worsen. (China owns significantly fewer nuclear weapons than the U.S. or Russia, but the Defense Department says it’s engaging in a buildup.)
Other Democrats have remained quiet or indicated tacit support of the status quo. Republicans took advantage of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, last month to defend the logic of first-strike authority. When Richard said that changes to declaratory policy would harm relationships with allies, the panel’s chair, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., did not question the argument, and no other Democrats broached the subject.
Despite the dangers that nuclear weapons pose, Democrats are allowing their fear of appearing weak amid Russia’s war on Ukraine to triumph over meaningful reform that could make the world safer. “I’m certainly in favor of making it clear that the United States is not going to be the first to use nuclear weapons,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told The Intercept. “I’d have to think a little bit more about whether this is the right time or what the mechanism would be to make that policy.”
He downplayed the idea, though, that the U.S.’s strike policy is indistinguishable from Russia’s: “Russia’s policy is whatever is in Vladimir Putin’s head at the moment.”
While maintaining first-strike authority, Biden’s nuclear policy is slated to roll back certain nuclear weapon programs started under the Trump administration. According to the Wall Street Journal, he’s planning to get rid of the B83 gravity bomb, the largest in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, which was on track for retirement until the previous White House decided to keep it around. Biden’s also planning to get rid of a nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile that the Trump administration had greenlighted.
“If media reports are true, President Biden has missed an historic opportunity to reduce the role of existential nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy.”
Biden has, however, reportedly decided to stick with the Trump administration’s plan to deploy the “low-yield” W76-2 warhead on nuclear submarines. This class of weapons has lower explosive power compared with the most destructive nuclear weapons, like intercontinental ballistic missiles, potentially lowering the threshold for nuclear war.
Russia notoriously has more low-yield nuclear weapons than the U.S., which has raised concerns about their potential use in the war against Ukraine, especially if Putin believes that he has no other way to defeat the resistance. Murphy called for the U.S. to take action to prevent their proliferation worldwide.
“I think it’s time for us to lead a global conversation around the proliferation of these smaller tactical nuclear weapons, because they will ultimately allow a madman to justify using it and believing they can ultimately get away with it,” he said.
In the meantime, Biden has foregone his primary chance to rally allies around the push for a no-first-use policy. “If media reports are true, President Biden has missed an historic opportunity to reduce the role of existential nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy,” said Markey in a statement following the Wall Street Journal report. “Retaining a warfighting role for U.S. nuclear weapons is a triumph for the trillion-dollar defense industry, but it is a tragedy for everyone counting on the President to keep his campaign promise to make deterrence the sole purpose of nuclear weapons.”