On the campaign trail, U.S. President Joe Biden said the “sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack” and vowed to “put that belief into practice.”
But amid growing tensions with Russia as it wages a deadly war on Ukraine, the president has reportedly abandoned that campaign promise, opting instead to leave in place a policy embraced by his predecessors that allows for the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear warfare—including conventional, chemical, biological, and cyber-related attacks.
“U.S. officials want to give the impression that our nuclear weapons are for deterrence while also holding open the option of using them first.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Biden’s “new decision, made earlier this week under pressure from allies, holds that the ‘fundamental role’ of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be to deter nuclear attacks”—a subtle but significant shift from his campaign stance.
“North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have been particularly nervous about shifting to a ‘sole purpose’ doctrine,” the Journal noted, “fearing it could weaken deterrence against a conventional Russian attack on the alliance.”
Nuclear disarmament advocates and experts expressed alarm at Biden’s choice to ditch his campaign pledge, arguing the move keeps the U.S. wedded to a dangerous “first-use” nuclear posture.
“Instead of distancing himself from the nuclear coercion and brinkmanship of thugs like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [former U.S. President Donald] Trump, Biden is following their lead,” Derek Johnson, managing partner at the advocacy group Global Zero, wrote on Twitter. “There’s no plausible scenario in which a nuclear first strike by the U.S. makes any sense whatsoever. We need smarter strategies.”
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, similarly argued in a statement Friday that if reporting on Biden’s position change is accurate, he “will have missed a crucial opportunity to move the world back from the nuclear brink.”
“Putin’s deadly war against Ukraine, his nuclear saber-rattling, and Russia’s policy that reserves the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with NATO underscore even more clearly how extremely dangerous it is for nuclear-armed states to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear threats—and it reinforces why it is necessary to move rapidly away from dangerous Cold War-era thinking about nuclear weapons,” Kimball added.
Faced with an opportunity to distinguish the US from Russia’s nuclear threats, the Biden administration will instead continue to reserve the right to start a nuclear war https://t.co/cSghsaAao2— John Carl Baker (@johncarlbaker) March 25, 2022
Biden’s decision on the United States’ nuclear posture, which has yet to be announced publicly, comes amid growing fears that Russia’s assault on Ukraine could descend into nuclear disaster if immediate action isn’t taken to deescalate tensions.
When Putin announced he was ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, he threatened any country that attempts to interfere with consequences “never seen” in history and openly referenced his nation’s stockpile of nuclear arms.
Earlier this week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to rule out a first use of nuclear weapons by Russian forces, but said Moscow would only consider deploying nukes if it faced an “existential threat.”
In recent days, as Common Dreams reported, experts and peace activists have warned against suggestions that so-called “tactical” nukes—possessed in large quantities by both Russia and the U.S.—could be a less destructive alternative to the kinds of bombs American forces dropped on Japan during World War II.
Shannon Bugos, a senior policy analyst at the Arms Control Association, noted in a statement Friday that “it would take just a few hundred U.S. or Russian strategic nuclear weapons to destroy each other’s military capacity, kill hundreds of millions of innocent people, and produce a planetary climate catastrophe.”
“Maintaining ambiguity about using nuclear weapons first is dangerous, illogical, and unnecessary.”
“Maintaining ambiguity about using nuclear weapons first,” Bugos added, “is dangerous, illogical, and unnecessary.”
According to the Journal, Biden’s nuclear policy move “follows an extensive Nuclear Posture Review, in which administration officials examined U.S. nuclear strategy and programs.”
“U.S. officials said the administration’s review is also expected to lead to cuts in two nuclear systems that were embraced by the Trump administration. If Congress agrees, this would mean canceling the program to develop a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile and retiring the B83 thermonuclear bomb,” the Journal reported. “The review, however, supports the extensive modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad of land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and bombers, which is projected to cost over $1 trillion.”
Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told the Financial Times that the “fundamental role” designation that the Biden administration has reportedly decided to embrace for the U.S. nuclear arsenal “reflects a longstanding, bipartisan tradition of trying to have it both ways.”
“U.S. officials,” argued Lewis, “want to give the impression that our nuclear weapons are for deterrence while also holding open the option of using them first.”
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