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Arms Control in an Unstable World

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Jason Sibert
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By Jason Sibert

The Joe Biden administration is facing the fallout of the Democratic Party's loss in the Virginia governor's race.

The talking heads that make up the media landscape are spewing verbiage about what this means for the 2022 midterms and the future of our politics. However, and from an international relations standpoint, our country has not addressed the pressures mounting against the cause of arms control, as some in the arms control community are worried that Biden will go back on his campaign promise to reign in our nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear weapons are a security concern for more than one reason. Both the United States, and its geopolitical foes like Russia and China, have nuclear weapons just like many smaller powers. Of course, we've been treated to the horrors that a nuclear war between nation-states would bring in various movies, news reports, and documentaries over the years. However, and less well understood, there are also dangers in the mere security of the weapons themselves. A false intelligence report on the firing of a nuclear weapon could set off a war not related to tensions between nations. Former Bill Clinton Administration Secretary of Defense William Perry experienced such a situation when he served in the Defense Department under former President Jimmy Carter. The false alarm could have set off a nuclear war between the U.S. and its foe the Soviet Union. Despite Biden's statements in the campaign, hawks at the Pentagon have won the early arguments. Some of the president's allies are worried about his past promises on limiting the use of nuclear weapons.

It must be added that the geopolitical tensions in the world haven't fared well for those who favor arms control as a method of security. China is enlarging its arsenal and Russia is modernizing its arsenal. The Pentagon recently stated in a report that China is on the path to increase its nuclear warhead capacity to 1,000 warheads. The report said that China wants a triad like the U.S. that can deliver missiles from land, air, or sea. Biden renewed the New START Treaty with Russia early in his administration. In a continuation of sorts, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently stated the U.S. should be less ambiguous about when it might use nuclear weapons.

For now, the Pentagon's more hawkish stance on nuclear arms is winning out, said a former Defense Department official in Bryan Bender's story "Pentagon Bearing Down on Biden to Shelve Nuclear Reforms." He said the diplomacy minded State Department has been overshadowed by the Pentagon in recent meetings.

Biden supported a no first use policy when running for president, stating that there wasn't a scenario where our country would be the first to use nuclear weapons. Proponents state that adopting a no first use policy would reduce tensions and dial down the arms race. Opponents say this would empower our adversaries.

Many of Biden's fellow Democrats are complaining about the lack of details from his administration on the nuclear review process. Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Nuclear Posture Review (the government's posture on nuclear arms) must reflect the president's desire to reduce the use of nuclear weapons in our national strategy. Markey also questioned Biden on why Leonor Tomero was removed from her position running the nuclear review. Tomero, a longtime nuclear policy official, promised legislation to adopt a no first use policy. The president is relying on a host of career military and civilian nuclear experts, many of whom were involved in the 2018 review during the Trump administration, which also recommended the development of several new types of nuclear weapons, several current and former officials said.

Senator Markey asked his questions after several fellow Democrats said they were concerned that Biden was funding all the nuclear programs backed by Trump. The senator also said he was concerned that the president might not follow through on his promise to reduce nuclear arms.

"(The)Pentagon's lack of answers to date about the Nuclear Posture Review leave me concerned the policy review will prioritize the old assumptions of the military-industrial complex at the expense of diverse voices seeking to reduce nuclear risks," Markey said in Bender's story.

In an environment like this, it's going to be difficult to adopt a no first use policy, and many in the arms control community like Arms Control Association President Darryl Kimball are worried that the president won't receive a balanced view of methods of security (arms control vs. arms races). Success in an area like this will depend on an informed public pushing our leaders where they need to be. However, arms control is a subject that doesn't engage many voters, regardless of how important it may be. It might be up to the public to pressure those who make the laws in our democratic republic to respond.

Jason Sibert is the Lead Writer for the Peace Economy Project.

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Jason Sibert worked for the Suburban Journals in the St. Louis area as a staff writer for a decade. His work has been published in a variety of publications since then and he is currently the executive director of the Peace Economy Project.
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