National Review

Deterrence Has Kept the US and the World Safe. Will President Biden Abandon It?

Senior Fellow and Director, Keystone Defense Initiative
US President Joe Biden delivers a brief update of the ongoing negotiations over the debt limit in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on May 17, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images)

The confluence of the rise of revanchist Xi’s Communist China and its strategic nuclear breakout underscores what has been dubbed the decade of danger. The G-7 Summit in Hiroshima was an opportunity for the United States to warn about the growing nuclear dangers and the need to strengthen deterrence. Although in a prepared statement President Biden referred to the aspiration of a world without nuclear weapons, he did not announce changes to U.S. deterrence or disarmament initiatives.

The G-7 “Vision on Nuclear Disarmament” offered a mixed bag of idealist aspiration and clear-eyed realism. It stated a hope for an ideal world without nuclear weapons but added this qualifier: “with undiminished security for all.” That means that as long as nuclear threats remain, so will the allies require weapons for deterrence and defense. The statement went on to condemn the dangerous Russian threats before and throughout Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine and then ended with a dangerously naïve call for a global effort to transform the world. The hard work of statecraft, diplomacy, and bending steel to deter and to win a war if deterrence fails will be left to men and women, and if only they were angels the global transforming would be at hand.

The peace the Allies won, ending with America dropping the nuclear bombs on the imperialists in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is now threatened by two major nuclear powers increasingly collaborating and at least one rogue state.

Russia’s war on Ukraine is backlit with Putin’s continued nuclear threats directed at NATO. Russia retains the largest nuclear forces on the planet and has refused to permit the nuclear weapons it would theoretically deploy in Europe from being restrained by treaty — not that it abides by treaties. China is moving at breakneck pace to expand its nuclear arsenal as it increases reckless military maneuvers in international waters while refusing transparency or military dialogue. North Korea continues to test missiles at a record-breaking rate, thereby improving the delivery systems for its illicit nuclear weapons, and Iran is on the cusp of going nuclear.

Joe Biden’s history on arms control and hard power does not inspire confidence that he’s fit for the moment. Biden has spent his public life opposing efforts to strengthen strategic deterrence and instead used his political positions on powerful congressional committees and as vice president to push for more arms-control measures even when it clearly meant disproportionately restricting the United States.

As a senator he pushed for ratification of Bill Clinton’s Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, though the Senate has long and wisely refused to do it. Reports show he pushed Obama to revive it when he was his vice president. The United States has unilaterally chosen to refrain from explosive testing but reserves the right to do so if needed. The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency did more than hint that the Russians do test, even while they deny it.

Biden also opposed Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Cold War–era Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty even though Bush did it so that the United States could begin the initial development and deployment of homeland missile defense. Biden sided with the arguments made by President Reagan’s critics who insisted that if the United States built up defenses, it would provoke enemies and cause an arms race; to them, American vulnerability to enemy missiles is better.

Biden was one of two candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary (the other was Senator Elizabeth Warren) who broke from Obama’s affirmation of maintaining strategic ambiguity in the U.S. declaratory policy and vowed to adopt a no-first-use policy if he became president.

Biden opposed Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which was hamstringing the United States and aiding Russia.

After years of Russian violations, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. NATO embraced the U.S. decision to withdraw. Then just weeks before Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, in the hopes of offering something to please Russia, Biden’s deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, called the possibility of reengaging with Russia on the INF Treaty “something worth considering,” prompting congressional leaders to strongly oppose the move. This was just another move fitting a pattern in Biden’s history showing how eager he is to make concessions on hard power in the hopes of securing arms-control deals.

When he became president, Biden immediately extended the New START Treaty with Russia, requiring no conditions. In doing so, he tossed out the work of Trump officials to get concessions from the Russians to constrain their theater-range nuclear weapons, which outnumber those of the United States.

But the Russians didn’t comply with New START’s verification rules and offered pandemic risks as pretext. Russian went on to announce that it would not be returning to compliance. It “suspended” the agreement on February 21, 2023, citing as the new pretext U.S. support for Ukraine. The treaty is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

It is within this context that, back in Washington, when the G-7 meeting was under way, Senators Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Jim Risch (R., Idaho) began a critical effort to head off potentially dangerous and naïve disarmament initiatives.

To lead the country toward policies that should continue to earn the bipartisan support of Congress, the senators introduced a bill that would recognize Russia to be in material breach of the New START Treaty and that would take steps to strengthen the deterrence options of the U.S., especially its nuclear forces. The bill would also prohibit unilateral reductions in U.S. nuclear forces and would block funding for U.S. efforts to unilaterally adhere to New START.

Further, the legislation would forbid funding for implementing a follow-on agreement to New START unless Russia and China met strict requirements. A treaty that accounted only for Russia and that capped the United States without taking into account the deterrence requirements for both nations simultaneously would jeopardize the effectiveness of deterrence and risk deterrence failure.

Despite Biden’s profound error in extending New START without condition, he did go back on his campaign commitment to adopt a no-first-use declaratory policy, and he has supported maintaining the nation’s bipartisan commitment to modernize the nuclear-deterrence force. But he opposed the last administration’s recommendation, which is also backed by the U.S. military and Congress, to add the sea-launch cruise missile to the force in an effort to bolster deterrence against Russian theater nuclear use.

Given Biden’s mixed record as president, his deep and long-standing ideological commitment to lofty disarmament aims, and his opposition to strengthening deterrence, the country is not out of the woods for avoiding a calamitous policy error quite yet.

There is still time for the Biden administration to attempt to do what the senators warn against. National-security adviser Jake Sullivan will address the Arms Control Association next week, and that has many wondering whether the White House concluded that the G-7 wasn’t the place to break news and decided to leave it to a domestic audience more friendly to U.S. disarmament initiatives. Some possibilities for what Sullivan will propose include a so-called nuclear freeze, or a commitment, in the name of “setting an example for responsible nuclear actors,” not to increase the number of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Foreclosing the possibility of adding new U.S. nuclear weapons would open the door for a radical departure from decades of U.S. nuclear strategy. One such radical departure has already been floated by those who are worried that the threats might require the United States to adapt its nuclear forces in ways that demand more resources. To avoid spending more money to increase security, one departure from decades of nuclear-deterrence strategy would be to abandon the U.S. commitment to abide by the laws of war and forswear targeting cities. Since the Cold War, strategists have concluded that the most credible means of deterring our adversaries is to hold at risk what they value most, such as the enemy regime, its strategic weapons, and its modes of population control. Even claiming to embrace such immoral posturing as intentionally targeting cities, hardly what the PRC or the Russian Federation or North Korea value most, risks rupturing the credibility of our deterrence.

U.S. strategic deterrence remains the keystone of U.S. defense. The decade of danger will be a challenging one to navigate, but buyers beware of those who promise peace through disarmament or on the cheap.

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