The Hill

How the National Security Team Affects Nuclear Weapons Policy

Senior Fellow

With a new administration about to take the reins of power, one has been reminded how critical a team will be. A mostly mainstream set of cabinet picks suggests the policies of Joe Biden will continue those under Barack Obama. What have these nominated officials learned from how the world has changed in the last four years? The Senate will soon have to evaluate what hundreds of nominees think of these issues and more.

The president alone can employ nuclear weapons. So how his team views controls on the most dangerous weapons as well as the American nuclear weapons posture will demand attention from the Senate. Given its duties of nominations and treaty ratification, the Senate must consider whether the views of national security officials will best serve the interests of the United States and its allies. These are what should be asked.

Since the New Start Treaty was ratified in 2010, Russia has developed and fielded dozens of nuclear weapons, and much of the growth in its nuclear force has taken place outside the limits of this deal. If Russia will obtain an extension for the New Start Treaty that limits over 90 percent of American nuclear forces, what incentive does it hold to sit down to talk limits on the 55 percent of its nuclear weapons not under arms control?

The last four presidents initiated nuclear posture reviews early with their time in office to evaluate threats and to ensure the Defense Department, the State Department, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the intelligence community were involved in recommending how critical American nuclear forces should be shaped and sized against the risks to be deterred. Is there any reason the next administration would consider changes for the American nuclear posture without the pivotal process inclusive of the many relevant civilian and military leaders?

The Pentagon and the Congressional Budget Office have been clear that at its peak, the modernization of the American nuclear deterrent will not exceed 6 percent of the defense budget. But many disarmament experts also argued that the United States cannot afford 6 percent of the defense budget, despite a view of civilian and military leaders across the last few administrations that it is the highest priority for the Pentagon. So can the United States afford 6 percent of the defense budget for it?

Russia and China, which have ballistic missile defense systems, have said that American missile defenses should be on the table in order to achieve future arms control reduction deals. Dating back to Ronald Reagan, most presidents have been publicly unwilling to agree to limits on these purely defensive systems to trade for an offensive weapons reduction. So should limits on American missile defenses, access to their designs, or capability information be on the table to get a nuclear reduction deal?

Several international lawyers and activists have argued that the Senate, in giving advice and consent for treaty ratification, has given consent on an indefinite basis. Due to the framework with advice and consent under the Constitution, such theory would also evidently apply for the confirmation of nominees. Is there any reason a future administration could not merely perhaps reappoint John Bolton as ambassador or Dick Cheney as defense secretary to those roles, and rejoin the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan without returning to the Senate for approval of these actions?

Biden has promised to unify the country. Yet he is being pulled between the traditional national security center of the moderates in his party and the progressive base that seeks a retrenchment of power, a reduction of the defense budget, and unilateral disarmament of the American nuclear deterrent. With hundreds of administration jobs to fill, it is unclear which tribe will prevail. It has been said that a president deserves deference to select the people who will serve him while he is in office. However, there are reasons the Constitution mandates the Senate to consent.

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