The headlines are filled with stories on the rising geopolitical tensions between the United States, Russia, and China.
The issue of nuclear arms is caught up in these tensions. In terms of cost, America's budget for nuclear arms is already twice what it was than during the Cold War. President Joe Biden will soon deliver his administration's Nuclear Posture Review. NPR's detail the necessity of maintaining a credible nuclear threat that could retaliate against an adversary's nuclear first strike. Further, they propose new designs for nuclear bombs and the bombers to deliver them, new nuclear-tipped missiles, and the submarines to launch them, and new Inter-Continental Missiles to carry newly fashioned nuclear warheads to their destination.
Biden's predecessor, President Donald Trump, offered a scary NPR in 2018. Trump's 2018 NPR called for a vast modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, creating new classes of nuclear weapons that require new untested technologies at a cost of trillions of dollars over the next three decades. The ambitions and cost estimates offered by the National Nuclear Security Agency were graded by the General Accountability Office as unrealistic. Many arms control experts considered Trump's nuclear weapons plan provocative and destabilizing.
On a more encouraging note, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit in Vienna in June and issued a joint declaration that "a nuclear war cannot but won, and must never be fought," quoting Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former President Ronald Reagan from the 1980's. For years, our nuclear policy has revolved around the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or the idea that if our country and our adversaries have a certain number of nuclear weapons then neither side will use them, as all sides are aware of their destructive nature.
In his story "Biden Nuclear Posture Review Must Examine Ballistic Missile Defense," writer Mark Muhich recommended an alternative policy called Mutually Assured Survival. This policy, taken from the Back from the Brink movement, possesses five tenants - pursue verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide, renounce first use of nuclear weapons, end sole authority of the president to launch nuclear weapons, end the Hair Trigger Alert for U.S. Intercontinental ballistic missile fleet, and cancel Enhanced Nuclear Weapons programs. Organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sierra Club, American Friends Service Committee, Pax Christi, and The U.S. Conference of Mayors have endorsed Back from the Brink.
Perhaps Biden appointees to the NPR could recommend an alternative path, one designed to prevent nuclear conflagration. We should emphasize the importance of diplomatically negotiated treaties with our adversaries to reduce the existential risk posed by a possible nuclear war.
Some, like Trump, speak of the dangers of China's nuclear arsenal. However, China's nuclear arsenal of 350 nuclear weapons is dwarfed by the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, 5,500 and 6,500 nuclear weapons. China professes a No First Use of nuclear weapons and has separated its nuclear warheads from the missiles that deliver them, to avoid any chance of accidental launch and ensuing retaliation. Muchich recommends that the Biden administration adopt these policies to cool tensions with the Chinese. He also rejects the idea that nuclear arms should be a matter that concerns military experts. People like Bonnie Jenkins, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, should be afforded an equal voice in the writing of Biden's NPR.
One of the key conflicts in our relationship with China and Russia is our pursuit of National Missile Defense Systems. China and Russia have said time and again that these systems stabilize their countries. Muchich stated how their policy is a reaction to our policy: "adversaries of the U.S. have concluded that U.S. regional missile defense systems will eventually integrate into a world-wide ballistic missile defense network that could neutralize their nuclear deterrence and embolden the U.S. to launch a nuclear first strike. In a joint 2013 statement Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping warned, 'Unilateral unlimited strengthening of missile defense harms strategic stability and international security.'"
Biden promised to reduce the reliance of our country on nuclear weapons and to adopt a No First Use policy on using them. I guess we'll find out if the president is a man of his word when we observe his NPR.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.