President Joe Biden has decided against making a major change to US nuclear weapons policy following pressure from European and Asian allies not to undermine their security amid the nuclear threat from Russia and China.
After a months-long review that had sparked anxiety from France to Japan, Biden this week decided on a declaratory policy that the “fundamental purpose” of nuclear weapons was to deter, or respond to, a nuclear attack on the US or its allies, according to three people familiar with the decision.
US allies last year expressed concern following speculation that Biden might declare that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons was to prevent or respond to a nuclear attack. They said such a change — which Biden supported before becoming president — would weaken the extended deterrence that the US provides to allies around the world with its nuclear umbrella. Critics also argued the potential shift would embolden Russia.
One senior US official said the allies’ views played a big role in influencing Biden. She said the president had strong views on nuclear risk reduction and might have been considering a larger change in declaratory policy but that he received a lot of input from allied capitals that resulted in the outcome, which was also influenced by the threat from Moscow and growing concerns about China’s expanding nuclear arsenal.
The outcome will be outlined in the administration’s “Nuclear Posture Review”, which is designed to determine what kind of nuclear weapons the US should have and provide guidance about scenarios for possible use.
The NPR will also say that the US would only use nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances” — echoing language that was included in nuclear reviews conducted by both the Obama and Trump administrations. But the Trump administration arguably lowered the threshold for possible use by saying that “extreme circumstances” could include a non-nuclear attack.
The US official said Biden’s NPR maintained a lot of continuity from the policies of both Obama and Trump, but added that the president wanted to raise the threshold from where it had been set by the Trump administration.
The administration will brief allies on Friday and lawmakers on Monday, according to several people familiar with the plans. One person familiar with the situation said Biden informed G7 leaders in Brussels on Thursday.
The review comes as the US becomes increasingly concerned about China’s rapid nuclear weapons expansion. Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, told the Financial Times during a visit to Australia that China was making a “very steep increase” in its nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon projects that China will quadruple its nuclear warhead arsenal to more than 1,000 weapons by the end of the decade.
“That exponential growth, at a speed that I think no one was prepared for, is just destabilising to the region,” Aquilino said in an interview in Canberra.
US policy on the situations under which nuclear weapons would be used has been intentionally vague for decades to keep adversaries guessing. The US official said the NPR would contain a level of strategic ambiguity.
Arms control advocates wanted Biden to shift to a “no first use” policy or “sole purpose” formulation that they argued would reduce the risk of nuclear war. But critics countered that providing more clarity about when the US would use nuclear weapons would just embolden adversaries.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said Biden had largely kept existing nuclear posture intact. He said the Obama and Trump administrations had used language about the “fundamental role” of nuclear weapons in their posture reviews.
“If this is the biggest change in the Nuclear Posture Review, I want my tax money back,” Lewis said. “The phrase reflects a longstanding, bipartisan tradition of trying to have it both ways. US officials want to give the impression that our nuclear weapons are for deterrence while also holding open the option of using them first.”
But Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear policy expert at the Atlantic Council, said the decision on the circumstances in which the US would use nuclear weapons would still concern allies, particularly as Russia was making nuclear threats against Nato while continuing its invasion of Ukraine.
“It essentially says that America’s nuclear weapons might not be on the table to deter a Russian or Chinese conventional [non-nuclear] attack. Biden is prioritising placating the progressive wing of the Democratic party over America’s allies and national security obligations,” said Kroenig.
Caitlin Talmadge, a nuclear weapons policy expert at Georgetown University, said Biden appeared to be trying to balance two competing objectives, which were “reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US strategy while simultaneously reassuring allies who depend on the US nuclear umbrella for their security”.
“This approach would be similar to that used in the Obama administration, and it would allow more reliance on nuclear weapons than some expected based on Biden’s past statements,” said Talmadge.
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