US Nuclear Policy Under Biden: Prospects and Challenges

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The US had maintained its leadership role on arms control issues with the help of like-minded countries and allies before President Trump started to unravel some of the key arrangements that were negotiated by the previous Obama Administration. Trump’s abhorrence towards multilateral institutions and his eagerness to transform strategic partnerships into transactional relationships raised serious questions about the US credibility as a global leader, and its ability to develop consensus on nonproliferation related issues.

President Biden has promised to reverse these trends and has already extended New START with Russia for another five years term. At a recent Munich Security Conference he also promised to rebuild US credentials and confidence in military alliances with NATO and other strategic partners, but this seems to be an uphill task as the United States itself is more divided internally; Europe is more fragmented and uncertain about its future; UK is struggling to ascertain its position in global affairs after the Brexit; Russia is again asserting itself to be recognized as a credible nuclear rival; and most importantly, China wants to be treated as an equal, and is not likely to join US led arms control initiatives that mainly serve the western interests.

Former President Trump was blamed for reversing the earlier gains made by the previous Obama Administration, as he refused to extend the New START and abrogated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Once in office, he was also criticized for following unconventional path in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, which nevertheless did not yield any positive outcome. But, realistically speaking, all of these issues have remained controversial in Washington and have never enjoyed bipartisan support.

President Trump’s approach towards major multilateral arms control issues, such as the NPT, CTBT or the TPNWs, was no different from the previous administrations; and it is quite likely that President Biden will not have much leverage to fundamentally alter the US approach towards major arms control and disarmament arrangements, as was the case of President Obama, who gave the vision of a ‘world free of nuclear weapons’ and also won a Nobel Peace prize, but was also realistic enough when he admitted in his Prague speech of 2009 that the objective cannot be achieved in our lifetimes.

Under Biden Administration, there could be some cosmetic steps, which may appear significant as compared to the Trump era and may be projected by the D.C. based think tank community as a significant shift, but the US is unlikely to ratify CTBT or the TPNWs, or change its position on Article VI of the NPT, which has emerged as a major issue for the NPT’s credibility, and had forced majority of the NPT NNWS to negotiate a parallel arrangement in the form of TPNWs.

Notwithstanding this gloomy prediction about the future of the arms control, the extension of New START by President Biden is one positive gesture that has helped revive hopes amongst the arms control community. However, if this move is intended to maintain current US and Russian inventories for another five-year period, with no further reduction of nuclear weapons, then this hope may prove to be short-lived and could further erode the international confidence, making it difficult to maintain the sanctity of the existing treaties or negotiate new arms control arrangements.

The Future Arms Competition.          Future arms competition will not be limited to nuclear or conventional military, but most certainly would involve other disruptive technologies, such as cyber, AI, hypersonic weapons, space-based assets, etc., which could lead to what James Acton from Carnegie Endowment has described as nuclear entanglement. This new potential arms competition may not be restricted to state actors alone, since several of these technologies are being developed by non-state entities, which makes it further difficult to build a common understanding and negotiate new arms control arrangements.

At the regional level, more specifically in South Asia, some of these technologies could have serious implications for strategic stability. India’s desire to build hypersonic weapons, primarily to demonstrate its technological achievements and to be recognized at par with other global powers, is likely to affect Pakistan’s threat perception. Due to short flight time of few minutes for non-hypersonic weapons, it is not clear what additional advantages India can accrue by employing hypersonic weapons, especially once Pakistan has not indicated the desire to build a BMD shield.

Development of anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) capabilities is emerging as another challenge. While the major powers were already competing for space domination, the desire by regional powers like India may expand the competition horizontally and complicate the existing efforts to prevent militarization of space.

Implications of the US policies on South Asia.         US policy towards South Asia is not likely to see a major change under Biden Administration. There seems to be a bi-partisan consensus in US policy circles that India’s military as well as political stature needs to be enhanced as part of China containment strategy with an expectation that India will stand up to China in the future. This is a fallacy propagated and nurtured mostly by influential pro Indian lobbies in Washington.

The contours of India-US strategic partnership and US desire to create exceptions for a country that had long remained a country of concern does not indicate that the US would be willing to undo its newly built strategic partnership with India. The US efforts to bring India into the mainstream nonproliferation regime by creating exemptions in the NSG guidelines and advocating for India’s full membership, while neglecting Pakistan’s plea of a non-discriminatory approach, is reflective of the future trends. 

As of now, the Indo-Pacific strategy holds primacy for the US as it prepares for a long-term strategic competition with China. India has built its case of a key player in the evolving geo-strategic competition between US and China, and is exploiting it to modernize its military capabilities that are more likely to be used against Pakistan, and not China. This is likely to have adverse impact on strategic stability in South Asia.

By siding with India and disregarding the sensitivities of other regional countries, the US has lost its remaining credibility of a neutral broker. This has also encouraged India to disengage from Pakistan on regional arms control issues opening the possibility of misinterpretation of each other’s intent and capabilities. In the absence of a communication breakdown and the unlikelihood of a third party (i.e. US) playing a mediating role between India and Pakistan, there is a greater possibility that a potential future crisis may quickly escalate into a serious military conflict between the two nuclear armed neighbours with consequences for regional as well as global security.   

Conclusion.     The US nuclear policy under Biden may not offer prospects but could instead add more challenges for Pakistan. If the new Administration continues with its India-centric approach, it will have direct bearing on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation efforts in the region. With the US-China rivalry intensifying, there is also a likelihood that Pakistan may come under increased pressure for its close alliance with China, and it may have to once again bear the brunt of an evolving great power competition.

On nuclear arms control and nonproliferation related issues, Pakistan has always maintained indigenous and principled approach, which is not likely to change under pressure. It is therefore necessary that Pakistan continues to remain constructively engaged with all nuclear arms control and nonproliferation related initiatives, to avoid misperceptions.

Finally, if President Biden is serious in reviving confidence in the US leadership on arms control and nonproliferation issues, he may consider following the footsteps of former President Obama and could work on a leadership level summit on the pattern of Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process. This initiative, if led by US, China and Russia, and participated by all relevant parties may help revive confidence in the existing arrangements and resolve key political differences amongst the global community. As was the case for NSS, the proposed initiative has to be inclusive and non-discriminatory with a purpose to develop consensus on core issues.

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Dr Adil Sultan
About Dr Adil Sultan 38 Articles
Dr Adil Sultan is Acting Dean and Chair Department of Aerospace Sciences and Strategic Studies (DASSS) at the Air University, Islamabad. He is also the co-founder of STRAFASIA (https://strafasia.com) He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @adilsultan

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