Biden can make history on nuclear arms reductions

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States in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will meet for the first time June 21-23, 2022, in Vienna.

In April 2009, just a few months after taking office, then-President Obama gave a speech in Prague, where he said the following:

“[A]s a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” 

The speech was widely praised and was the principal reason Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

But talking about eliminating nuclear weapons and getting the job done are two very different things. To be fair, Obama didn’t claim it would be easy, saying “this goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime.”

President Obama did have two signature achievements on nuclear weapons policy — the conclusion of the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia and the multilateral deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). New START cut deployed U.S. and Russian warheads by one-third and preserved and expanded a rigorous verification regime that injects a measure of predictability in nuclear relations between Washington and Moscow. The Iran deal headed off a potential war between Washington and Tehran and put enforceable limits on Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon. Both were significant accomplishments that made the world a safer place. 

But domestic and international politics and a lack of sustained attention to the issue conspired to make New START the last step towards nuclear disarmament of the Obama era. There was no follow-on agreement to New START, and no effort to rethink the massive nuclear modernization plans being pursued by the Pentagon and the Department of Energy, which were actually reaffirmed and expanded by the Obama administration as part of the price of winning Republican support for Senate ratification of New START. 

Meanwhile, President Trump did everything in his power to erase the Obama nuclear legacy and attack arms control more generally, abandoning the Iran deal, withdrawing from a longstanding agreement on intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe and adding new warheads and weapons systems to the Pentagon’s already massive, three-decade-long nuclear modernization plan, which could cost up to $2 trillion.

As a candidate and now as president, Joe Biden has embraced the Obama legacy by renewing the New START treaty with Russia and promising to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. Time is of the essence on the Iran deal. The administration must seize on recent, promising signs of progress to reenter the deal as quickly as possible, before domestic politics in the U.S. and Iran make it much more difficult to do so.

One the broader nuclear front, Biden has pledged to “head off costly arms races and reestablish our credibility as a leader in arms control.”

Rescuing the best aspects of Obama’s nuclear policies is a worthy undertaking, but President Biden can and must go further. A good place to start would be by revisiting the Pentagon’s costly and unnecessary nuclear weapons modernization plan. As part of that effort, he should cancel the plan to spend $264 billion to develop, build and operate a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

Canceling the new ICBM would be good politics as well as good policy. A poll carried out by ReThink Media on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists found that 60 percent of Americans favored either forgoing the development of a new ICBM, eliminating ICBMs or eliminating all nuclear weapons. 

As former Secretary of Defense William Perry has noted, ICBMs are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because the president would have just a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm. Bearing this in mind, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) are co-sponsoring a bill – the “Investing in Cures Before Missiles (ICBM) Act” – that would take funds slated for the new ICBM and invest them instead in efforts to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine. 

The arguments against ICBMs are underscored in a blueprint for a “deterrence-only” nuclear strategy developed by the organization Global Zero, which persuasively makes the case for a revamped nuclear arsenal that eliminates ICBMs and relies on smaller numbers of nuclear-armed submarines than are currently deployed, along with a reserve force of nuclear-armed bombers.

Adopting this approach would have a stabilizing effect and could set the stage for further measures aimed at achieving the ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether, as required under the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in January of this year after it was ratified by 54 nations, but none of the major nuclear powers, yet. Canceling the new ICBM project would be a good place to start towards the goal of creating the nuclear-free world that Barack Obama endorsed and Joe Biden could help advance.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

Tags Arms control Barack Obama Donald Trump Ed Markey Intercontinental ballistic missile Iran Iran Nuclear Deal Iran–United States relations Joe Biden New START Nuclear disarmament Nuclear program of Iran Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Ro Khanna

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