The First 100 Days and Nuclear Weapons Policy

setting the right priorities for the next four years

by Tom Z. Collina, Director of Policy

Ploughshares Fund welcomes the Biden administration. Many nuclear policy issues were left unresolved at the end of the Obama administration, and President Trump only added to the list. The first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency will be crucial for making early announcements and setting the right priorities for the next four years. 

Here are the top nuclear policy challenges we hope the new administration will address right off the bat:

  1. Sole Authority and No First Use. It should now be clear to all that giving one person the unilateral authority to order the first use of nuclear weapons with no checks or balances from Congress is a really bad idea. The experience of having an unhinged President Trump in the White House was so unnerving that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for reassurance that there were safeguards to prevent an “unstable president from … accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike."

Unfortunately, there are no reliable safeguards. Under current policy, the president has the sole authority to start nuclear war. If such an order was given by the president, senior military leaders might try to intervene. Indeed, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger tried a similar move to prevent President Nixon, who was drinking heavily as he faced impeachment, from abusing his powers. But such a move by the military would be illegal and we cannot count on it to work.

Ploughshares is asking President Biden to announce that he will end the policy of sole authority in two reinforcing ways: 1) The United States would never start a nuclear war and would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in response to a confirmed nuclear attack (aka, No First Use); 2) An order to use nuclear weapons first must be approved by both the executive and legislative branches of government. We are working with the Biden team as well as members of Congress who have sponsored related legislation.

  1. New START. Now that the Biden administration has successfully reached agreement with Russia to extend the New START treaty for five years, the next question is how the two nations can further reduce their massive nuclear arsenals. Under New START, both sides can still deploy up to 1,550 warheads, enough to destroy the world many times. We propose that the Biden team explore another round of bilateral talks with the goal of reducing US and Russian nuclear forces by at least half.
  1. Iran Deal. The Iran nuclear agreement is hanging by a thread. The deal negotiated by the US, world powers and Iran in 2015 successfully and verifiably constrained Iran’s nuclear program. Although Iran was in full compliance, confirmed by US intelligence and international inspectors, President Trump abrogated the agreement in 2018 and reimposed unilateral sanctions, prompting Iran to breach some of its limits. Iran’s breaches are relatively minor and reversible so far, meaning a return to compliance could be accomplished in a few months.

Restoring the Iran nuclear agreement is in America’s interests. This deal remains the only proven, verifiable path to blocking Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon. America’s most urgent interest in the region is to get Iran’s nuclear program back under control, and re-entry is the only path to immediately re-imposing maximum and verifiable restrictions and on Iran’s nuclear program. President Biden has committed to bringing the US back into compliance and should act quickly to make good on this promise, as the longer the United States waits the more Iran will seek to increase its leverage by expanding its nuclear activities.

  1. New Nuclear Weapons. While in office, the Trump administration added to already excessive plans to rebuild the US nuclear arsenal, expected to cost up to $2 trillion over three decades. The Biden team should shift much of this money to address higher priority issues, such as reversing the pandemic, slowing global warming, and fighting racial injustice. The main place to look for savings is the $260 billion program to build a new intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. This weapon is not needed for deterrence and increases the risk we will blunder into nuclear war by mistake. The Biden administration should pause this program until it conducts a full review of US nuclear policy.

The past four years have seen nuclear threats grow and expand. But now there is hope. The Biden administration can significantly reduce the risk of nuclear war if it acts quickly and takes advantage of this window of opportunity.

Photo: A US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress aircraft takes off from Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, May 12, 2019. Nichelle Anderson /US Air Force