Every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy has secured nuclear risk reduction and arms control agreements with the exception of Donald Trump. As President Reagan put it: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In addition to the risks of nuclear war, the extraordinary costs of nuclear arms races crowd out investments in domestic sources of national strength, like education and healthcare.
Efforts to curtail the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) began following World War I under the League of Nations with the 1925 Geneva Protocol, in which signatories agreed to prohibit the use of chemical and biological weapons during war. In 1970, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force, prohibiting non-nuclear-weapon-states from acquiring nuclear weapons and calling for the eventual disarmament of those countries already in possession of them. Today, South Sudan, India, Israel, and Pakistan are the only nations that have not signed on to the agreement, while North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003.
of Americans support alternative policy options to the GBSD program of record, according to a ReThink Media national survey.
The United States established itself as a global leader on nuclear arms control and disarmament issues by engaging in nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union. Toward the end of the Cold War, these negotiations led to the signing of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) in 1994. The INF Treaty was the first of its kind to eliminate an entire class of weapons. Under the agreement, the United States and the Soviet Union destroyed 2,692 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles. START I resulted in significant reductions in strategic weapons, including deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and accountable warheads. These treaties are credited with helping to end the Cold War. The progress of these agreements’ quantitative outcomes were essential steps in stabilizing U.S.-Soviet political relations.
The United States renewed its commitment to arms control in 2010 when President Obama signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. Under the terms of the agreement, both nations agreed to cap deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs at 1,550, an approximate 74-percent reduction from the limit allowed by START I. The inspections regime to verify compliance with the New START provides intelligence that would otherwise be unattainable.
Together with the international community, the United States also helped to create and support a network of organizations for nuclear, chemical, and biological nonproliferation and arms control programs, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Biological Weapons Convention International Support Unit, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization.
Pursuing the nonproliferation of WMD has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for nearly a century. American leadership on these challenges has been consistent across parties and administrations, fostering otherwise unlikely security for the global community. Under the Trump administration, however, the nation’s commitment to these issues was called into question due to President Trump’s abandonment of many arms control and nonproliferation agreements and acceleration of costly and unnecessary nuclear weapons programs.
President Trump walked away from the INF Treaty and failed to extend New START, the sole remaining U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control agreement. Additionally, the Trump administration deployed dangerous “low yield” nuclear weapons and considered resuming nuclear testing, which would have been a radical departure from nearly three decades of U.S nuclear policy. Taken together, President Trump’s record significantly increased nuclear risks and set back decades of U.S. leadership on nuclear nonproliferation and arms control.
Notably, one of President Biden’s first acts as president was to extend New START for the full five years allowed in the treaty. This swift action was a strong signal that the United States takes its responsibility as a nuclear power seriously and that it has a unique obligation to lead efforts to keep the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals in check. President Biden not only must undo the damage the Trump administration did to U.S. nonproliferation and arms control credibility on the international stage, he must also reverse his predecessor’s effort to expand the capability of and spending on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. President Trump’s policies governing U.S. nuclear weapons strategy called into question the United States’ commitment to Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls on nuclear weapons states to pursue good faith efforts towards nuclear disarmament.
On May 28, 2021, the much-anticipated President’s FY22 budget was released. President Biden’s nuclear weapons budget contained either flat funding or increases to every nuclear weapons program of record. While these funding levels were surprising given the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance called to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,” the expected Nuclear Posture Review is another chance for the Biden-Harris administration to change the trajectory of the U.S. nuclear weapons policy. The Nuclear Posture Review would also allow the Biden administration to clarify its position on fulfilling a campaign promise of a “No First Use” nuclear policy, as press reports indicate that the administration is likely to fail to keep that commitment.
“Over the last ten years, New START has advanced our national security and effectively constrained Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. Extending New START is clearly in our nation’s best interest.”— Sen. Chris Van Hollen & Sen. Todd Young Joint Statement on U.S.-Russia New START Extension
In July 2021, President Biden met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, where they reiterated the Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that “a nuclear war must never be won and must never be fought” and started a Strategic Stability Dialogue on arms control and nuclear risk reduction. In January 2022, the U.K., France, and China joined the U.S. and Russia in recognizing that fact that nuclear war was unthinkable and must be avoided. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the following month severely hampered discussions on arms control.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the Biden administration cut off the Strategic Stability Dialogue. President Biden and Undersecretary of State Bonnie Jenkins have repeatedly said the U.S. would be open to resuming arms control talks with Russia. President Putin’s reckless actions during the invasion of Ukraine – from bombing nuclear power plants to making irresponsible nuclear threats – only underscore the need for the world’s two largest nuclear powers to return to the negotiating table eventually.
Relations between the U.S. and Russia are at an all-time low. Yet even during this nadir, crucial risk reduction measures are in place. For example, Russia still notified the U.S. ahead of a routine ICBM test. No comparable risk reduction architecture exists with China. The Biden administration has broached the possibility of greater arms control dialogue with China, but much work remains to be done.
As the January 6th Committee hearings have made clear, the peaceful transfer of power was severely imperiled during the 2020-21 presidential transition. President Trump was erratic, violent, and perhaps treasonous. Indeed, countries at the time feared what would happen if President Trump ordered a nuclear strike – a concern echoed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The events of that period emphasize the need for greater accountability for U.S. nuclear authorization, with pressure mounting on the Biden administration to restrict a rogue president’s ability to unilaterally launch a nuclear war.
The Trump administration adopted a number of dangerous nuclear positions and increased nuclear risk in his four years in office. President Biden moved quickly to restore some U.S. arms control and nonproliferation credibility, but there is still more to do.
We’re asking Members of Congress to take proactive steps to reduce global nuclear risks and excess nuclear weapons. Call your representatives today at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to take action. Here are a few specific things you can ask:
Global Zero, June 2022Priorities Regarding the New and Emerging Challenges to International Security
Bonnie Jenkins, May 2022Fact Sheet: Nuclear Sea-Launched Cruise Missiles Are Wasteful
Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Updated May 2022Alternatives to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent
Federation of American Scientists, February 2021The “Consensual Straitjacket”: Four Decades of Women in Nuclear Security
New America Foundation, March 2019