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The Biden administration’s official strategy on nuclear arms control: Just first steps, or the whole story?

Point of View, 13.06.2023 Forschungsgebiete

The US government has offered to hold nuclear arms control talks with Russia and China “without preconditions”. Neither is likely to take up the offer. But the US government may have a different strategy, argue Liviu Horovitz and Jonas Schneider.

So far, the US administration of Joe Biden has mainly formulated goals when it comes to nuclear arms control. Now, the US government has laid out how it plans to contain the growing risks of nuclear conflict and an arms race with Russia and China. In a much-anticipated speech, Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, offered arms control talks “without preconditions”. America’s nuclear modernisation and conventional weapons would bring Moscow and Beijing to the negotiating table, Sullivan said.

These plans raise too many questions for them to be considered a definitive strategy. But if they are merely the cornerstone of a broader approach to gradually increase pressure on Moscow and Beijing, it would make perfect sense for Washington to reaffirm its willingness to talk now.

Competitive arms control becomes official policy

The US arms control policy under Biden follows a competitive logic: Deterrence and arms control are seen as two sides of the same coin. Gone are the days when maintaining one’s own nuclear arsenal was perceived merely as a necessary temporary evil, until more auspicious times allowed for further reductions on the road to nuclear disarmament.

Under Biden, enhancing deterrence is meant to allow the United States to pursue nuclear arms control from a position of strength. The current government makes it clear that it does not view arms control as a means to overcome nuclear deterrence, but as a means to limit the capabilities of its rivals Russia and China so that the United States can leverage military dominance within the geopolitical great power struggle.

No clear incentives for China and Russia

While it was a good idea to reveal this logic in order to gain support internally and from allies and partners, the question is how Biden’s team plans to win over Russia and China to its competitive approach to nuclear arms control. If agreement really means that the United States retains many of the technological and military advantages, it makes little sense for China and Russia to engage in arms control. Yet Sullivan’s solutions were hardly convincing.

Moreover, it is not clear why the offer to engage in arms control talks “without preconditions” would be sufficiently tempting to induce Moscow and Beijing to change course. The unconditional American willingness to negotiate has rarely been questioned under Biden. Russia, on the other hand, has further curbed its already limited interest in arms control in recent years. Moscow welcomed Sullivan’s “no preconditions” offer, but demanded that Washington abandon its “fundamentally hostile stance towards Russia” – meaning its support for Ukraine. China, in turn, has consistently refused to even participate in arms control discussions.

Between slim chances and long-term goals

As for the Biden administration’s plans to increase pressure on Russia and China to engage in arms control, Sullivan had surprisingly little to offer. He emphasised the ongoing modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal, but pushed back against the consensus emerging among Republicans that the United States needs to increase its nuclear arsenal to keep pace with the combined arsenals of Russia and China. The United States also does not need any new nuclear weapons, and the Biden administration will continue to abide by the limits of the New START treaty as long as Russia does the same, Sullivan said. In addition to the existing nuclear options, the administration would rely more heavily on conventional precision strike weapons, such as hypersonic missiles, to keep its nuclear rivals at bay. Space and cyber capabilities would also allow the US to retain its lead in every domain.

Whether the already priced-in US nuclear arsenal and better conventional capabilities will suffice as leverage to nudge Russia and China to the nuclear negotiating table and force them to make concessions is questionable. The Biden administration itself does not seem to believe this. According to Sullivan’s own speech, Washington expects China to emerge as a near-peer nuclear competitor in the 2030s – despite America’s vaunted advantages in the nuclear, space, and cyber domains.

Nonetheless, strategic arms control policy has rarely been characterised by transparency. It is therefore possible that Sullivan’s vagueness is a sign that the US government is pursuing a much more complex and longer-term diplomatic approach. If this is the case, the goal is not to persuade Moscow and Beijing to change course, but to lay the groundwork for a subsequent pressure strategy. Today, the administration has openly declared its willingness to negotiate “without preconditions”, thereby earning the goodwill of allies, partners, and the international community and positioning itself as a responsible actor.

This would give Washington a more solid basis for saying in a few years that it had tried everything and now had to start exerting effective pressure on Russia and China. The United States could then credibly threaten to expand its conventional and nuclear arsenals while deploying missile defences. Such a strategy would entail, for example, increased funding for the US nuclear infrastructure, a fundamental rethinking of the deployment of intermediate-range missiles, and enhanced military ties with allies in Europe and Asia.

It is too early to say whether Sullivan’s speech is based solely on optimism and hope or whether it is the tip of a strategic iceberg. From a European perspective, the latter would be the better option.