Biden’s Nuclear Arms Control Policy: Revival or Collaps

International treaties establish universal norms to limit the development and spread of nuclear weapons, technologies, and related materials. Existing non-proliferation and arms control norms are being frequently weakened due to the violation of various arms control and non-proliferation values and treaties. The Trump administration also withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action- JCPOA) in May 2018.  The United States (US) also officially withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF) in August 2019 and announced to suspend its compliance to the Open Skies Treaty (OST) in May 2020. Additionally, in late May 2020, reports of Trump administration’s proposal regarding nuclear testing resumption have emerged.  The US stated two critical reasons for pulling out of these treaties: Russia’s violations and Iran’s non-compliance. The Trump administration believed that China is not a member of these treaties, so these arrangements are outdated.

Since the inception of the nuclear weapons, the efforts of arms control have been projected as a key aspect of the US National Security Strategy to maintain international peace and security. Despite starving for arms control, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the arms control treaties and nuclear agreements highlight two trends. First, arms control norms are compromised due to national security priorities. Second, the formerly mentioned goal that highlights “America First” policy also undermines objectives of arms control. However, Biden administration is expected to emphasise on arms control and non-proliferation goals. Thus, it is significant to study the impact of Trump’s decisions on arms control and non-proliferation norms framework and examine the prospects of arms control structure during the Biden Administration.

Security and Deterrence Dynamics

Breakdown of arms control treaties and nuclear agreements have the potential to trigger anarchy and instability in various regions including Asia-Pacific, and the dynamics of the South Asian region-aimed China-India-Pakistan security trilemma. The recent developments may further limit the cooperation among states while complicating US-China ties through competition and military tension in the Pacific region.  The collapse of INF allows the US to develop or deploy land-based intermediate-range missiles in the US areas (island of Diego Garcia and Guam) or its allies’ territories in the Asia-Pacific region. Such a move, in turn, will increase the military competition between China and the US in the Asia-Pacific.

Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Norms

Washington’s decisions to withdraw from the INF, OST and JCPOA, and the proposal to resume nuclear testing are viewed as a serious setback to global efforts for arms control and non-proliferation. Michael Krepon argues, “Without this treaty, America’s friends and allies will feel less comfortable and vital controls over nuclear arms would be loosened.” Existing non-proliferation and arms control norms are being violated through selective applications due to the competition among major powers. Also, the past trends signal that national security objectives come before arms control and non-proliferation norms. Thus, arms control and non-proliferation were not the cornerstones of the state’s objective as it was projected. This is why major powers are more focused on the modernisation of their forces to establish superiority over the adversaries. If the states continue to pursue state-centric policies, then the risk of nuclear arms race will increase between Russia-China-US. It is likely that the emerging trends of flexible arms control norms will also impact global security dynamics. It will encourage other states to enhance their strategic forces that already share competitive strategic ties and seek modernisation of their strategic forces due to their security concerns.

Biden Administration’s Arms Control Priorities

The new Biden administration showed a firm commitment to the arms control norms, expressed the desire to rejoin JCPOA and extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START): a nuclear arms control treaty agreed upon by the US and Russia. Additionally, the Biden administration might seek to pursue a significant agenda on various arms control related issues.

Biden administration showed a firm commitment to the arms control norms, expressed the desire to rejoin JCPOA and extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)

While highlighting the arms control in terms of the US interests, President Biden vowed to extend the New START that would have otherwise expired on February 05, 2021. In his words, “pursue an extension of the New START, an anchor of strategic stability between the US and Russia and use that as a foundation for new arms control arrangements.” Russia also welcomed President Biden’s efforts to extend the New START. On January 20, 2021, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters “Russia and its president are in favour of preserving this agreement…If our American colleagues will in fact demonstrate a political will to preserve this pact by extending it, this can only be welcomed.” However, the Trump administration has remained hesitant to accept Russia’s offer to extend the treaty for another five years, while mentioning China being a non-party as one reason behind Trump’s refusal. Suspension of the treaty will be a significant setback to arms control goals and would allow the US and Russia to enhance their nuclear arsenals. It is significant to note that the US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin “agreed in principle” to further extend the New START. Yet, analysts are of the view that the Asia-Pacific strategy to contain China might influence Biden’s security behaviour and arms control choices. From America’s lens, China’s increasing military capabilities due to its conventionally armed land-based missiles; and the growing concerns of the US regarding China’s participation in various arms control treaties might influence Biden’s arms control strategy. Consequently, the US will also remain concerned regarding the presumed “secret low yield testing” by China and Russia.

Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election has increased the prospects to restore the JCPOA. While citing Iran’s compliance to the deal as a key condition, President Joe Biden said that “Tehran must return to strict compliance with the deal. If it does so, I would rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it…” Iran also gave a positive signal to comply with the deal while emphasising to lift sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran. Iran also reinforced that “very clear that we will not renegotiate the JCPOA”. The Biden administration should take rapid measures to resume a nuclear deal with Iran before the issue becomes more complex.  Thus, with the restoration of JCPOA while accommodating Iran’s position, the US interests and views of its allies presents a complicated Rubik’s Cube of diplomacy or negotiations.

Conclusion

The collapse of INF, OST, JCPOA, and challenges to the extension of New START has raised alarms for advocates of arms control norms. It is time to formulate new arms control architecture; comprising all the nuclear-weapon states (including the Non-NPT nuclear weapons states) as the previous framework seems inadequate to meet the new realities and emerging challenges.

Additionally, the selective application of arms control norms is the biggest challenge to the existing Arms Control framework. Though the US President Biden shows his commitments to revive and strengthen the arms control norms, the revival of OST and JCPOA seems challenging. The primary factors that are likely to impact the Biden administration’s new structure of arms control may comprise continued modernisation of strategic weapons by nuclear-weapon states, US-Russia hostility, and growing tensions between US-China aimed Asia-Pacific strategy of the US. This underscores that despite the administration change, the broader policy objective of the US will remain the same on the nuclear arms control.

Asma Khalid

Asma Khalid

Asma Khalid is a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is also a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center.

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