Michael KreponBiden’s Immediate Agenda Items

Quote of the week:

“It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue and defiled by your practice of every vice.
Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government. Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.
Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?
Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?…
In the name of God, go!”
— Oliver Cromwell dismissing the Rump Parliament, 1653 (with thanks to Greg Govan)

The incoming Biden administration has its hands full. Domestic circumstances are dire, partisanship remains fierce, and the world is a fractious place. With but one exception — New START, which is about to expire — rivals that possess nuclear weapons lack guardrails to stabilize their competition.

The geometry of nuclear rivalry consists primarily of two interlocking triangular competitions. One triangle consists of the United States, Russia and China; the other triangle is China, India and Pakistan. The unequal sides of triangular competitions do not lend themselves to numerical constraints.

We’re in trouble because of the near-systemic absence of effective mechanisms to tamp down nuclear-tinged competitions. Diplomacy has been replaced by land grabs (China and Russia), overreaching (the United States, Russia and China), treaty shedding (the United States and Russia), and clashes over contested borders (China-India and India-Pakistan).

In these circumstances, modest patch-ups can only help, which is one of several reasons for the incoming Biden administration to reject Donald Trump’s lawless exit from the Open Skies Treaty and to rejoin and revitalize it. This would present Moscow with the choice of helping to repair the treaty or replacing the United States as the treaty outlier. There is no comparable multilateral framework for Asia, where creative diplomacy backed up by an increased U.S. naval presence will be required.

Two nuclear-related issues demand Biden’s immediate attention. One is extending New START, which expires sixteen days after Biden takes the oath of office. Putin has dropped conditions for an extension and has said he is willing to accept one. If he means what he now says, a five-year extension is the easiest decision Biden faces. Those who argue for a shorter extension on the grounds that it would provide leverage have no relevant experience or aptitude for success in this field. It will take a long time to negotiate something better, as both critics of New START and seekers of deep cuts and other ambitious outcomes demand. It could take a lengthy period of time just to update New START’s provisions, now ten years old, even without seeking deeper cuts.

As long as nuclear excess exists – and how could anyone argue otherwise when the U.S. nuclear stockpile sits slightly below 6,000 warheads and the Russian stockpile is estimated to be slightly above – reductions are called for. One interesting way to proceed might be to employ cooperative and yet not excessively intrusive monitoring techniques to count the dismantlement of warheads that Washington and Moscow already acknowledge to be in excess of their requirements.

An agreement on warhead dismantling would break important new ground and set standards for cooperative monitoring for wider application in the future. Cooperative monitoring of warhead reductions would also reaffirm U.S. and Russian commitment to the bargain struck in the Nonproliferation Treaty between possessors and abstainers – a bargain that has been called into question during the Trump years.

Reductions of excess warheads are not a substitute for reducing nuclear force levels, but they become more essential if reductions in force levels remain hard to achieve. Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all wanted deeper cuts than the diplomatic traffic would bear. Carter was immediately rebuffed by the Kremlin but did manage to secure modest reductions in SALT II. This treaty faced serious trouble in the Senate before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan killed prospects for ratification. Clinton tried very belatedly to secure deeper cuts but didn’t have a negotiating partner in a faltering Boris Yeltsin. Obama was willing to go one-third lower than New START’s ceilings, but Vladimir Putin was not.

Constraints on achieving deeper cuts haven’t gone away. Many Republicans can be expected to resist them, arguing that China must now be included. Putin may not be enthusiastic either, especially after the Pentagon has demonstrated that it can intercept missiles like those constrained under New START with upgraded interceptors originally designed for missiles of lesser range. The Kremlin has long suspected that such upgrades were possible, and now has proof with the recent SM-3 Block IIA intercept. This is good news for dealing with North Korea’s missiles, and bad news for those who seek far deeper cuts in a follow-on treaty to New START.

Previous Democratic administrations have been reluctant to reduce strategic forces unilaterally, as this would invite harsh criticism and make treaty ratification harder. Instead, Carter, Clinton and Obama sought parallel reductions in treaty form. Since treaties require the consent of two-thirds of the Senate, the traditional means of securing Republican support has been through increased spending on weapon systems that might not otherwise have gained the White House’s support. Even then, Republican votes in favor of treaties have been increasingly hard to come by.

The incoming Biden administration is likely to face a dilemma about how best to proceed after extending New START. If it seeks modest reductions in a follow-on treaty, it might encounter resistance from Putin and calls for constraints on missile defenses that Biden will find unacceptable. Biden might also be unwilling to spend exorbitant sums on nuclear forces that haven’t been used in warfare for three-quarters of a century. If he decides to unilaterally restructure and/or reduce the Triad of bombers, submarine- and land-based missiles, he could forfeit Republican support for a treaty. At the same time, there are no guarantees in a partisan-ridden Washington that upwards of twenty Republican Senators would support a new treaty, even if Biden gave them everything they demanded.

The other pressing nuclear policy dilemma facing Biden is Iran which, after Trump’s exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has been growing its stocks of enriched uranium. One reason for doing so is to seek leverage in bargaining over sanctions relief. The alternative explanation, favored by those who believe that any deal with Tehran is a snare and a delusion, is that Iran seeks to acquire nuclear weapons as quickly as the traffic will allow. If Tehran were dead set on this course in the past, it would not have agreed to the JCPOA’s 15-year-long verifiable hiatus negotiated during the Obama administration.

The incoming administration will have difficulty putting the Iran nuclear deal back together again. Whatever Team Biden decides, it won’t have time for a long breather. The reasons for Tehran’s prior agreement to constraints haven’t gone away, but there will be the usual disagreements over whether Tehran has decided to pursue leverage or bomb making. Tehran can expect that progress on enrichment will be countered by political assassinations and sabotage. Diplomacy will be a hard slog, and bombing runs will always remain an option.

Another national election looms in Iran. The last one opened the door for deal making. This one may not. It’s also worth recalling that the Obama administration faced majorities in both houses of Congress opposed to the Iran nuclear deal, cheered on by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The deal survived only by means of a filibuster in the Senate. After Trump’s exit, Biden’s options with Iran are even narrower than Obama’s.


  1. Sandra Savine (History)

    Loved the Cromwell quote. Brilliant, simply brilliant

  2. jeannick (History)

    relation between states are broader than just the nuclear field
    to claim a rosy outlook on nuclear agreement while the sanctions warfare rage
    is a bit like Australia wanting peachy economic ties with Beijing
    while cheering the “China as enemy of mankind” Washington crew

    treaties are not stand alone items , they are part of a process and must accord with it

  3. John Hallam (History)

    There is an entire nuclear risk reduction agenda which is of existential importance, including de-alerting, No First Use, mutual mil-to-mil information sharing, and avoidance of provocative military excercises that Biden should embrace. New START extension is merely something he needs to do within 16 days. Avoidance of global thermonuclear war is however a wider agenda than just that.

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