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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
United States

Nonproliferation Experts Warn Biden on Urgent Need for U.S. Reentry into Iran Nuclear Deal

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For Immediate Release:  January 14, 2021

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kelsey Davenport, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 102.

(Washington, D.C.)—As Iran continues to threaten to take further steps in retaliation for Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a group of more than 70 former government officials and leading nuclear nonproliferation experts issued a joint statement today on why "returning the United States to compliance with its JCPOA obligations alongside Iran must be an urgent priority" for the incoming Biden administration.

President Trump withdrew the JCPOA in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions that had been waived as part of the agreement. Iran remained in compliance through May 2019, but since then it has retaliated through calibrated violations of the agreement to pressure the remaining JCPOA parties to meet their commitments.

The experts group writes that "[f]ailure to return to compliance with the nuclear deal increases the likelihood that the JCPOA will collapse," and that there exists only "a short window of opportunity following inauguration day for coordinated diplomatic action to fully restore the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s breaches of the deal are concerning. They also appear to be calibrated responses designed to pressure the remaining JCPOA parties to meet their commitments to deliver on the sanctions relief agreed to in the accord."

The experts note that Iran's "uranium stockpile remains far below the pre-JCPOA levels, and Iran continues to cooperate with the more intrusive verification measures put in place by the accord. Almost all the violations reported to date are reversible."

"Restoration of the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions and its economic benefits for Iran stands the best chance of blocking Iran’s potential pathways to nuclear weapons, providing incentive and encouragement not to do so, and creating space for further diplomacy,” the experts conclude.

"We strongly urge the incoming Biden administration to end the Trump administration’s failed policy of JCPOA withdrawal that has resulted in Iran advancing its nuclear program and undermined global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. We urge all JCPOA parties to meet their respective obligations under the terms of the agreement and all states to support full implementation of the accord,” the experts write.

Signatories of the letter include former IAEA Director-General Hans Blix, two former special representatives to the president of the United States on nonproliferation, and several former high-level officials from the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the State Department, among other agencies.

The full text of the statement and list of signatories is available online.

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Signatories of the letter include a former IAEA director-general, two former special representatives to the president of the United States on nonproliferation, and several former high-level officials from the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the State Department, among other agencies.

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Biden’s First Challenge: Extend New START


January/February 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Until the Trump era, every U.S. president since John Kennedy has successfully concluded at least one agreement with the Soviet Union, or later Russia, to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons to the United States and the world.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) and then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (2nd R) meet on March 10, 2011 with their delegations in Moscow. (Photo: Alexy Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images)President Donald Trump did not. He and his team failed to resolve a dispute over Russian noncompliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and bungled talks to extend the last remaining U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is due to expire Feb. 5.

As a result, the top foreign policy priority of President Joe Biden, once he is sworn in, must be to dispatch a senior representative to reach agreement with Russia on a clean, five-year extension of the treaty (the maximum allowed under the agreement) and begin follow-on nuclear disarmament talks on the backlog of issues the two sides have failed to resolve since New START was concluded.

The loss of New START would deprive the United States of an irreplaceable source of information about Russian strategic forces, create the potential for unconstrained nuclear competition, and further complicate the already fraught U.S.-Russian relationship. For the first time since 1972, there would be no agreed limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

During the campaign, Biden said he would pursue an extension of New START, “an anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia and use that as a foundation for new arms control arrangements.”

Russia has recently reiterated it “supports extending the treaty for five years without additional conditions.” To date, however, Biden’s team has not signaled whether he will seek a longer- or shorter-term extension or what type of follow-on agreements he will pursue.

Extending the treaty by five years would enhance U.S. and Russian security by maintaining the treaty limits of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery systems, ensure newer Russian strategic weapons are covered by the treaty’s limits, and provide the most time for the complex negotiations that will be necessary for any follow-on agreement or agreements to supersede New START.

There is no evidence that a shorter-term extension of New START would make Russia more likely to negotiate a follow-on agreement. Nor would a one-year or two-year extension provide enough time to negotiate a meaningful, durable replacement agreement.

With mere days to effect an extension of New START, the Biden administration should not try to hold an extension hostage to the Trump administration’s ambitious, 11th-hour proposal to impose a one-year cap on all types of U.S. and Russian warheads—a proposal that Moscow is not close to accepting.

A temporary freeze on the number of all types of U.S. and Russian warheads would be a useful confidence-building measure, but a one-year freeze on warhead totals would be of limited value given that neither side could significantly increase the size of its arsenal in such a short time.

Upon announcing an agreement to extend New START, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin should issue a joint communique expressing their commitment to quickly resume strategic stability talks, begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement to achieve deeper mutual reductions in their stockpiles, and seek to engage other nuclear-armed states, which possess far smaller but still deadly arsenals, in the nuclear disarmament enterprise.

A key objective of the next round of bilateral talks should be, in part, deeper verifiable cuts in deployed strategic nuclear weapons. In 2013 the Obama administration determined that the United States could reduce its nuclear force by one-third below New START levels and still meet deterrence requirements. Follow-on negotiations should also address nonstrategic nuclear weapons; the interrelationship between offensive nuclear weapons and strategic missile defenses; long-range, dual-capable conventional missiles, including those formerly banned by the INF Treaty; and hypersonic glide vehicles.

Trump officials argue that the next arms control treaty must include China without explaining how this might be accomplished. Extending New START and pursuing serious follow-on talks designed to limit all types of Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons would certainly enhance U.S. leverage to bring China and the other nuclear-armed states further into the nuclear risk reduction process. But rather than repeat Trump’s failed scheme to shame Beijing into joining complex trilateral talks, Biden should propose a regular, bilateral strategic security dialogue with China and an expansion of the existing P5 dialogue on nuclear matters, which China already supports.

The P5 process could be reconfigured to become a genuine negotiating forum where the Biden administration could propose regular reporting by all states on total nuclear weapons holdings and a freeze on the size of Chinese, French, and UK nuclear forces so long as the United States and Russia pursue deeper nuclear cuts.

A straightforward, no-nonsense five-year extension of New START would provide the new president with an early win and positive momentum, help restore U.S. credibility on arms control issues, and create the potential for more ambitious steps to reduce the nuclear danger and move us closer to a world without nuclear weapons.

Until the Trump era, every U.S. president since John Kennedy has successfully concluded at least one agreement with the Soviet Union, or later Russia, to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons to the United States and the world.

Nuclear Challenges for the Biden Administration in the First 100 Days

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Tuesday, January 19, 2021
11:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time
via Zoom

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Upon taking office Jan. 20, 2021, the new presidential administration will confront a dizzying array of major challenges, not the least of which are related to the risks posed by the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Tensions between the world’s nuclear-armed states are rising; the risk of nuclear use is growing; billions of dollars are being spent to replace and upgrade nuclear weapons; and key agreements that have kept nuclear competition in check are gone or are in serious jeopardy.

President Biden’s nuclear policy challenges have been severely complicated by the neglect and poor policy choices of President Trump and his administration.

On day one, the Biden team will need to address several consequential, nuclear policy-related hurdles that require smart, swift, and decisive action.

Senior policy analysts from the Arms Control Association will review the most consequential nuclear weapons policy challenges and the decisions that the new Biden administration will need to address in its first 100 days—and sooner — and outline their recommendations on the steps that would make the United States and the world safer from the threats posed by nuclear weapons.

The speakers will elaborate upon the recommendations in the new report, "Nuclear Challenges for the Biden Administration in the First 100 Days," including measures to adjust nuclear launch procedures, extend the New START agreement, return to the Iran nuclear deal, and more.

Speakers will include:

  • Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy
  • Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy
  • Daryl G. Kimball, executive director
  • Tom Countryman, fmr. acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and ACA’s board chair, moderating

REGISTER HERE

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Analysts will review the most consequential nuclear weapons challenges that the incoming administration will need to address in its first 100 days and outline their recommendations as described in the new report, "Nuclear Challenges for the Biden Administration in the First 100 Days."

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Policy Recommendations for the New Administration


January/February 2021

The 46th president of the United States, Joseph R. Biden, enters office with a clear commitment to and substantial experience with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament that date back to his early days in the Senate.

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty ImagesFor example, in 1979, during the height of the Cold War, then-Sen. Biden spoke at the Arms Control Association Annual Dinner about “The Necessity of Nuclear Arms Control,” noting that “pursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity.”

In a Jan. 2017 address, Biden, then serving as vice president, said, “As a nation, I believe we must keep pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons—because that is the only surety we have against the nightmare scenario becoming reality.”

Biden’s experience on arms control and international security will, however, be put to the test. The president and his team must not only address several other major challenges in their first weeks in office—the Covid-19 pandemic, securing an economic stimulus package, pursuing racial justice, climate change, and restoring confidence in American democracy—but they will also face an array of difficult decisions and messy unfinished business on nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional arms control.

Arms Control Today asked eight leading experts, some of whom have served in key government positions, to offer their recommendations on how the new administration might best tackle some of the toughest weapons-related security challenges facing the United States and the world. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of the Arms Control Association. We invite your feedback in the form of letters to the editor.—Daryl G. Kimball, publisher and editorial contributor, Arms Control Today

 

 

Experts advise President Joe Biden on arms control and international security.

Enhancing Strategic Stability: New START and Beyond


January/February 2021
By Steven Pifer

Arms control offers a tool to enhance U.S. security. After extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the Biden administration should seek to engage Russia in negotiation of a follow-on agreement and use that to draw third-country forces into the arms control process. It should also weigh how to handle other issues that can affect nuclear relations.

A U.S. Trident II submarine-launched missile is test-launched from the USS Maine off the coast of San Diego in February 2020. Next-stage U.S.-Russian arms control talks could aim to reduce the number of warheads deployed on submarines and other delivery vehicles. (Photo: Thomas Gooley/U.S. Navy)New START extension. When the Biden administration begins on January 20, its first arms control task will be to extend New START, which expires on February 5. It should agree to the Russian proposal to extend the treaty for five years. That would constrain Russian strategic forces to 2026 and continue the flow of information about those forces provided by the treaty’s verification provisions, while requiring no changes in U.S. strategic modernization plans.

Strategic stability talks. Early on, the Biden administration should begin strategic stability talks with Russia. The factors affecting strategic stability, a situation in which neither side has an incentive to use nuclear weapons first, are dynamically changing. Strategic stability used to be based on the ability of each side, after absorbing a first strike, to retain sufficient strategic nuclear forces to devastate the attacker and therefore deter that first strike from happening.

Today, many more elements must be factored into strategic stability calculations. These include nonstrategic nuclear weapons (the use of which is the most likely path to a U.S.-Russian nuclear conflict); missile defense; long-range, precision-guided conventional strike systems, including hypersonic weapons; third-country nuclear forces; and developments in the space and cyber domains. U.S.-Russian strategic stability talks should address all of these subjects and how they shape what has become a multidomain, multiplayer strategic stability model.

The agenda should include discussion of each side’s nuclear doctrine, as both appear to believe that the other’s doctrine lowers the threshold for nuclear use. At a minimum, strategic stability talks would help each side understand the other’s concerns and might clear up misperceptions. They also could prepare subjects for more formal negotiations.

New START follow-on. One such negotiation should be a follow-on treaty to New START. In thinking about that negotiation, the Biden administration will have to weigh pursuing different approaches with different objectives.

One approach would aim for a treaty that limits deployed strategic warheads and strategic delivery systems, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and new kinds of delivery systems that replicate the capabilities of those constrained by New START. This New START II would have a structure similar to New START and perhaps entail modest reductions below the New START limits of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers.

The Biden administration should aim, at least initially, for more: a bilateral treaty covering all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads, with a goal of a single aggregate limit of perhaps no more than 2,500 for each side. That would represent a substantial reduction from current nuclear arsenals, which are estimated by the Federation of American Scientists to be 3,800 for the United States and 4,300 for Russia. That limit would leave each country with more than six times as many nuclear weapons as any third country. Even with a higher limit, agreement to an aggregate cap on all nuclear warheads would represent a major breakthrough.

Within the overall aggregate, a new treaty could have a sublimit of perhaps 1,000 each, covering warheads on deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and new strategic delivery systems. All other weapons, including bombs and air-launched cruise missiles for nuclear-capable bombers, would be nondeployed, that is, not mounted on delivery systems but in storage. This approach would include a limit on deployed strategic delivery vehicles that could be lowered from New START’s 700 if the limit on deployed strategic warheads were 1,000.

Verification would require working out procedures for monitoring weapons in declared storage areas. That would pose a difficult but not insoluble challenge.

Missile defense. Another difficult question would turn on whether Moscow maintains its past insistence that Washington address certain issues if U.S. negotiators wish to have all nuclear weapons on the table. Missile defense normally tops the Russian list, which also has included precision-guided conventional strike systems and third-country nuclear forces.

In 2020, U.S. and Russian negotiators discussed a one-year freeze on the number of all nuclear warheads, but failed to reach agreement. Whether that indicates a Russian readiness to negotiate a multiyear treaty covering all nuclear warheads without constraints on missile defense remains unknown. Some Russian experts suggest that Moscow no longer worries about U.S. missile defense systems. Others hold what seems to be the majority view, saying that limits on these systems remain a price that U.S. negotiators would have to pay to limit all nuclear arms.

The Biden administration may have to decide whether the U.S. interest in negotiating limits on and reductions in all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads is such that it would countenance limits on missile defense systems. A limited-duration agreement constraining these systems that allows some capability to defend against North Korean ICBMs but leaves Russia assured that its strategic forces could overwhelm that defense ought to be possible. It bears a serious look given that missile defense currently and for the foreseeable future will lose the strategic offense versus defense competition.

That said, putting missile defense systems on the table would be controversial domestically. Congressional Republicans, although having sought limits on Russian nonstrategic nuclear arms, oppose limiting missile defense systems. How the Biden administration deals with this could well determine what it could achieve in a New START follow-on agreement.

Conventional strike. Russia has also raised concerns about precision-guided conventional strike systems. Trying to constrain all of these would be a bridge too far. Yet, the sides might consider whether some subset of conventional strike systems, such as conventionally armed hypersonic weapons and future conventionally armed ballistic missiles of less than strategic range, poses a particular threat to strategic stability and thus should be a subject for limitation. A treaty banning nuclear-armed, intermediate-range ground-launched missiles also would be worth exploring, although it would entail verification challenges.

Third countries. The Trump administration sought and failed to bring China into the nuclear arms control process. A trilateral negotiation would not work, given the huge disparity between the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and those of China or any other third country (no more than about 300 weapons). Washington and Moscow would not agree to reduce to China’s level, nor would they agree to legitimize a Chinese build-up.

A more promising path would have Washington and Moscow conclude a new bilateral treaty with significant reductions and ask China, France, and the United Kingdom—Russia would insist on inclusion of the latter two—each to make a unilateral commitment not to increase its total number of nuclear warheads so long as the United States and Russia were reducing. Some basic transparency measures would be necessary to give confidence that the third countries were abiding by their commitments. If the United States and Russia agreed to limit missile defenses, that could incline China more positively toward considering such a unilateral commitment.

Other issues. Developments in the space and cyber domains could affect strategic stability and the nuclear relationship between the United States and Russia. A sweeping agreement on the nonmilitarization of space has little prospect, but the United States, Russia, and China might consider discrete steps such as a ban on anti-satellite tests that produce orbital debris, “keep out” zones around declared satellites (such as early warning systems), and a ban on deploying space-based weapons designed to strike surface targets. As for the cyber world, Washington and Moscow could agree not to use cybermeans to interfere with the other side’s early-warning satellites or nuclear command, control and communications, whether space- or earth-based. Yet, neither side should place much faith in that because a hostile cyberpenetration could go undetected.

Taken together, these steps would constitute a very, perhaps overly ambitious arms control agenda. If achieved, they would continue a stabilizing reduction in U.S. and Russian nuclear arms levels, bring third-country nuclear forces into the arms control process, and begin to address other issues that could erode strategic stability. In the end, the Biden administration might well fall short; the success of arms control negotiations depends also on the goals and desires of other nations. Still, it would be in the U.S. interest to try.


Steven Pifer was a William J. Perry Research Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University from 2018 to 2020 and is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer.

Arms control offers a tool to enhance U.S. security. After extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the Biden administration should seek to engage Russia in negotiation of a follow-on agreement and use that to draw third-country forces into the arms control process.

A U.S. Nuclear Strategy for the Biden Administration


January/February 2021
By Jessica Sleight

As soon as Joe Biden was sworn-in on Jan. 20 as the 46th U.S. president, the absolute power to order the launch of nuclear weapons was transferred to him. As work to rebuild the federal workforce and address the substantial laundry list of issues left by the previous administration begins, the nuclear “football,” the case carrying everything needed to order a nuclear strike, will never be far away. It is an ominous reminder of the awesome responsibilities of the presidency and of the risks of nuclear use by accident, miscalculation, or rapid escalation or on false warning inherent in U.S. nuclear strategy.

A missile crew works through a checklist at a U.S. ICBM launch control center at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming in 2016. Removing ICBMs from service would not affect U.S. deterrence while saving billions in unnecessary spending. (Photo: Christopher Ruano/U.S. Air Force)Although the Trump administration has exacerbated every nuclear challenge facing the United States by increasing nuclear tensions and the risk of use, upending key arms control agreements, and increasing the salience of nuclear weapons in national security, some of the challenges and underlying issues predate President Donald Trump. Entrenched views and misguided thoughts of controlling escalation have underscored a dangerous return of the belief that the United States can fight and “win” a nuclear war. Under Trump,1 this nuclear war-fighting fallacy led to expanding the circumstances for nuclear use against non-nuclear attacks to include cyberattacks, deployment of submarine-launched ballistic missiles with low-yield nuclear warheads, and plans for a new, more usable nuclear cruise missile.2

These new weapons add to the already outsized costs for plans to upgrade the land-, sea-, and air-based legs of the nuclear triad, which have ballooned to $1.5 trillion and are likely to continue to grow.3 Maintaining the safety and security of the nuclear arsenal while it exists is of the utmost importance, but current plans move beyond safety upgrades and siphon billions from real needs, such as housing, health care, and education. Even within the defense budget, the growing nuclear modernization price tag is running up against other defense priorities. The Department of Defense’s solution tends to skew toward increased budgets. In December 2020, Congress passed a $740 billion defense bill, including $44.5 billion for nuclear weapons, while it quibbled over an economic relief package during a global health crisis. The devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing tangible effects of climate change have reignited calls for the United States to reassess its priorities.

The United States is at a crucial decision point. It can continue to maintain nuclear policies that incur more risk than benefit and pump precious resources into a bloated nuclear arsenal, or it can step back and reenvision U.S. nuclear strategy, moving away from nuclear war-fighting toward a deterrence-only strategy based on a second-strike capability meant to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies. Biden, for his part, has stated his commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security.

The most urgent step Biden can take to put his nuclear convictions into practice is to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia for five years before the treaty expires on February 5. By maintaining limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals and valuable insight into the Russian nuclear arsenal that keeps officials from planning based on worst-case scenarios, New START extension would place the Biden administration on more stable footing as it assesses and develops U.S. nuclear strategy.

Biden’s nuclear guidance should shift the United States to a deterrence-only strategy. Key to this is adoption of a no-first-use policy, declaring the United States will never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons first. It should also end nuclear plans to use counterforce against opposing nuclear forces, end launch-on-warning policies, and take all nuclear weapons off high alert.4 Implementing each of these steps would reduce the risk of nuclear use while maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent. There is no plausible scenario wherein the first use of nuclear weapons makes sense for U.S. or allied security. Launch-on-warning and first-use postures place considerable time constraints and pressure on the president to use nuclear weapons preemptively or on potentially false warning of an incoming attack. Such posturing has no place in the 21st century security environment.

Under this guidance, the Biden administration should reorient the nuclear force to strengthen credibility, ensure survivability, and save billions in unnecessary spending. Trump’s new weapons programs can be canceled, and the United States can move to a nuclear deterrent force of strategic submarines, the most survivable leg of the triad, and 650 warheads. To hedge against anti-submarine warfare threats or unexpected technical deficiencies in the future, the United States could keep a reserve force of strategic bombers and 450 warheads.

The replacement program for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) system, should be canceled, and the Biden administration should begin the process of retiring the ICBM leg. As former Defense Secretary William Perry said, “[T]hese missiles are some of the most dangerous weapons in the world.”5 As “use or lose” missiles, they are tools of first-strike posturing and increase the risk of accidental use. Under a deterrence-only strategy, they are an unnecessary hedge added to a hedge of reserve bombers. Biden should also eliminate certain warhead plans, including the W87-1 slated for deployment on the GBSD system, and reduce requirements for plutonium pit production to 30 pits per year, eliminating the need for a new pit production facility. Implementing some of these changes would save more than $100 billion over 10 years.6

Some of the savings should be reallocated to strengthening nuclear command, control, and communications and early-warning systems, which experts have described as the Achilles heel of nuclear strategy.7 Savings can also be reallocated to provide more non-nuclear options to military planners or, better yet, combat genuine security challenges such as pandemics and climate change.

It is important that any change to U.S. nuclear strategy be done in close consultation with U.S. allies. Engagement should begin early in Biden’s first year as his team develops its nuclear guidance. Work to reaffirm and strengthen U.S. commitments to allied security should include discussions on the role of nuclear weapons in extended deterrence, the risks of current U.S. nuclear policy, and the increased stability of a deterrence-only strategy. The Biden administration should also work to build support in Congress and vocalize support for nuclear victim assistance programs such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

The United States can implement a deterrence-only strategy without reciprocal steps from Russia, although ideally this strategy would serve as a blueprint for a follow-on to New START. Either way, Biden should encourage conversations on declaratory policy and nuclear risk reduction among nuclear-armed states, perhaps relying on the successful nuclear security summits model. This would be a fundamental step to getting back on track toward the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

The United States cannot maintain policies and prioritize investments in systems that increase the risk of nuclear disaster while continuing to dismiss the realities of actual threats to U.S. and global security, such as climate change and pandemics. Expert analysis has shown the obstacles to a deterrence-only strategy are not military, but political.

Biden can and should take this opportunity to advance U.S. leadership in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security, making the world safer from nuclear use. By moving to a deterrence-only strategy, Biden can decouple the United States and its allies from outdated and dangerous war-fighting policies, maintain a credible deterrent while providing greater stability at a lower cost, reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, and make progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

ENDNOTES

1. Jon Wolfsthal, ed., “Blundering Toward Nuclear Chaos: The Trump Administration After 3 Years,” Global Zero, May 2020, https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Blundering-Toward-Nuclear-Chaos-ANPI-Report-May-2020.pdf.

2. Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review,” February 2018, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF.

3. Arms Control Association, “U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs,” August 2018, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/USNuclearModernization.

4. For more on a deterrence-only strategy and how a reduced nuclear force meets U.S. deterrence requirements, see Bruce Blair, Jessica Sleight, and Emma Claire Foley, “The End of Nuclear Warfighting: Toward a Deterrence-Only Posture,” Global Zero, September 2018, https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/ANPR-Final.pdf.

5. William J. Perry, “Why It’s Safe to Scrap America’s ICBMs,” The New York Times, September 30, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/30/opinion/why-its-safe-to-scrap-americas-icbms.html.

6. Sustainable Defense Task Force, “Sustainable Defense: More Security, Less Spending,” Center for International Policy, June 2019, p. 19, https://cfde140b-3710-4a65-aa9a-48b5868a02dd.filesusr.com/ugd/3ba8a1_635241b0a0894b3fb377c88e500c3620.pdf.

7. Blair, Sleight, and Foley, “End of Nuclear Warfighting,” p. 17.


Jessica Sleight is program director at Global Zero.

When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, the absolute power to order the launch of nuclear weapons will be transferred to him.

Improving U.S. Conventional Arms Policies


January/February 2021
By Rachel Stohl

President Joe Biden is planning to tackle many foreign policy issues within the first 100 days of his administration, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the Paris climate agreement, and nuclear nonproliferation, but he should also take steps to strengthen controls surrounding the transfer of conventional arms. The international arms trade is inextricably linked to foreign policy and national security and has an outsized impact on conflict, stability, and the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. The Trump administration’s approach to U.S. arms sales has led to devastating effects during the last four years.

A U.S. F-35 aircraft flies a training mission at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in 2020. The Trump administration has announced plans to sell F-35s and other weapons systems to nations with concerning human rights records. (Photo: Bryan Guthrie/U.S. Air Force)The Trump administration reoriented the U.S. approach to arms sales by prioritizing perceived economic gains over foreign policy concerns and national security interests. Indeed, the administration made selling weapons a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy priorities. During the first three years of President Donald Trump’s tenure, U.S. foreign military sales agreements totaled more than $200 billion. Yet, in using arms sales as a political tool for short-sighted and mostly economic objectives, the administration’s arms transfer policies often overlooked risks to human rights, civilian protection, stability, and longer-term U.S. strategic interests. Although the value of weapons sold is telling, what is more concerning is the recipients of these weapons, with the United States actively pushing through arms sales to countries with concerning human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Philippines.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to reinvigorate U.S. leadership on conventional arms issues and develop an approach to reflect long-standing U.S. values and principles that reinforce respect for human rights, risk mitigation, and restraint through several policy approaches.

In 2018, the Trump administration released a new policy for conventional arms transfers, which placed economic interests ahead of foreign policy or security interests when making arms transfer decisions. Notably, the policy did not require a recipient’s past actions to be taken into account when assessing transfer decisions or its previous behavior concerning human rights, counterterrorism, and the potential for misuse. Thus, Biden must develop a new policy that considers human rights, potential violations of international humanitarian law, and the likelihood of a U.S.-origin weapon being used to commit or facilitate civilian harm. The new policy also should more delicately balance foreign policy priorities and national security objectives with economic considerations.

Based on a bill then-Senator Biden introduced in 1986, the new administration has an opportunity to support an effort to change the way that Congress asserts its oversight role on arms transfers. Specifically, Congress could flip the script and develop a system that requires affirmative congressional approval for a select set of arms sales in place of the current system, which requires a vote of disapproval in order to stop singular objectionable sales. Congress could use this system to focus on arms sales with the highest risk of abuse, either due to the type of weapon in question or the historical or potential conduct of the buyer, such as potential sales that would abet war crimes or violations of human rights or humanitarian law, fuel corruption, enable aggression, escalate regional tensions, or be retransferred to an unauthorized third party.

In addition, the Biden administration should strengthen oversight of firearms exports in part by reversing a Trump decision to shift control of certain firearms and munitions sales from the Department of State to the Department of Commerce. Biden should also revert to notifying Congress about sales valued at $1 million or more, a policy Trump dropped in 2020. This reversal would provide more scrutiny, oversight, and transparency for those weapons causing immense harm around the world.

One of the more disappointing legacies of multiple administrations has been the U.S. reticence to fully implement the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) and prohibit military assistance and arms sales to governments using or recruiting child soldiers. The CSPA, which took effect in 2010, aims to leverage U.S. military assistance to pressure governments to stop using children in combat. The law prohibits U.S. military assistance or arms sales to governments that use children in their national security forces or government-supported armed groups, although the restrictions can be waived if the president finds it is in the national interest to do so. In the 10 years since the law took effect, the Obama and Trump administrations have waived more than $4 billion in U.S. arms and security assistance to CSPA-listed countries. The Biden administration has an opportunity to reset the U.S. approach to the CSPA and stop waiving the majority of the military assistance and arms sales prohibited under the act. This would send a strong message to governments that recruit and use child soldiers that there are consequences for their continued exploitation of children in conflict.

In 2013 the United States signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first legally binding treaty to regulate the conventional arms trade. Although the ATT was sent to the Senate in the waning days of the Obama administration, neither President Barack Obama nor Trump put any serious effort into promoting the treaty with the Senate. Then, in April 2019, the Trump administration sent a letter to the United Nations, which serves as the treaty’s depositary, claiming the United States was “unsigning” the treaty, despite there being no legal means of doing so. The Trump administration announced it had no intention of ratifying the treaty and claimed the United States is no longer bound by the treaty’s object and purpose. In doing so, Trump further isolated the United States from its close partners and allies, who bemoaned the U.S. decision, and undercut long-standing efforts to promote greater responsibility and transparency in the global arms trade. Biden can easily reverse this short-sighted effort and reengage in the ATT process by rescinding the Trump administration’s letter and stating his intention to ratify the treaty and fulfill the obligations of signature to the treaty.

For both landmines and cluster munitions, the Biden administration should ensure that it is in step with its allies and work toward accession to the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The Biden administration should also reverse the Trump administration’s landmines policy by promising not to deploy anti-personnel landmines or cluster munitions anywhere.

In 2017 the Trump administration made significant changes to U.S. drone policy and revised the policies, principles, and procedures guiding the U.S. drone program. These changes have included expanding the targets of armed strikes by eliminating a requirement that a targeted person pose an “imminent threat,” loosening the requirement of “near certainty” that the target is present at the time of the strike, revising the process through which strike determinations are made by reducing senior policymaker involvement and oversight in such decisions and delegating more authority to operational commanders, expanding the CIA’s role and responsibilities in lethal strike operations, and removing the requirement to report on casualties resulting from U.S. strikes outside combat zones.

The Biden administration should thoroughly evaluate how drone proliferation and usage fit into larger strategic objectives and publicly release the legal and policy justifications guiding the use of drones in counterterrorism operations. In general, the administration should commit to greater transparency and examine the international precedent set by the U.S. approach, and the administration should ensure that it advocates the creation of strong international drone standards.

Moreover, the Biden administration should promote restraint when it comes to drone exports and rescind the Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally reinterpret the parameters of the multilateral Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and resume the “presumption of denial” for MTCR Category I drone exports.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to reassess how the United States approaches arms sales and reassert leadership on principles of restraint, risk minimization, and harm prevention. Moreover, after four years of turning its back on multilateralism, the United States can get in step with international standards and norms guiding the global arms trade and reinforce shared commitments with partners and allies.


Rachel Stohl is vice president of the Stimson Center and a board member of the Arms Control Association.

President-elect Joe Biden is planning to tackle many foreign policy issues within the first 100 days of his administration, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the Paris climate agreement, and nuclear nonproliferation, but he should also take steps to strengthen controls surrounding the transfer of conventional arms.

Pandemic Shows Need for Biological Readiness


January/February 2021
By Andy Weber

President Joe Biden’s inauguration comes during the worst stage of the deadliest biological event of our lifetimes. Too many thousands of citizens have suffered and died due to President Donald Trump’s failures. As bad as this pandemic is, imagine if instead it were caused by the deliberate release of a sophisticated biological weapon. About 2 percent of those infected have died of COVID-19, while a disease such as smallpox kills at a 30 percent rate. A bioengineered pathogen could be even more lethal. Our failed response to the pandemic in 2020 has exposed a gaping vulnerability to biological threats, ranging from natural outbreaks to deliberate biological weapons attacks.

A health worker prepares a syringe of Covid-19 vaccine on Jan. 6 in France. The pandemic illustrates the danger of intentional biological attacks and the need to prevent them. (Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images)This fact, as well as the increasing availability of advanced biotechnologies, contributes to a growing threat. Furthermore, the taboo against developing and using banned biological weapons is eroding. In recent years, Syria, Russia, and North Korea have employed prohibited chemical weapons in brazen attacks in Syria, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and last summer against Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in Siberia. Although these were not biological attacks, a country that develops and uses horrific chemical weapons seems unlikely to respect the parallel taboo against bioweapons. We need to strengthen the Chemical Weapons and Biological Weapons Conventions and make pariah countries that wantonly violate them pay a heavy price.

Biological weapons are not an abstract concept. Twenty-five years ago, I led a secret U.S. visit to the world’s largest biological weapons factory, just over the Russian border in the formerly secret town of Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union built this massive facility in the 1980s, not long after the entry into force in 1975 of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). It was proven capable of producing 300 metric tons of anthrax agent during a wartime mobilization period of about eight months. Remember the havoc that less than two grams of anthrax agent delivered in a letter caused at the Hart Senate Office Building in the fall of 2001. Thanks to the foresight of Senators Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs helped Kazakhstan safely destroy the biological weapons factory there.

Biden has a unique opportunity to lead an effort to help make this the last pandemic and render biological weapons obsolete as a weapon of mass destruction. We cannot let our country slip back into complacency after this pandemic, as we always have shortly following other biological crises in this century. Indeed, we must use the lessons of the current crisis to strengthen the U.S. and global system of early warning, data sharing, planning, and exercises. We must also focus on developing, manufacturing, and delivering rapid medical countermeasures to such a degree that it will deter any adversary from developing and using biological weapons.

The new administration can start by showcasing Biden’s vision and plans in a global speech about eliminating biological dangers, much the way President Barack Obama so artfully did for nuclear dangers in Prague in April 2009. A joint session of the World Health Assembly and the BWC member states in Geneva would be a possible venue. Biden should announce an offer to host in September the first in a series of biological security summits, modeled on the successful Obama administration nuclear security summit series in Washington, Seoul, and the Netherlands.

Of course, the new president’s first priority must be leading a coordinated global effort to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the United States is well positioned to end it domestically once the vaccines are widely available this spring, many other countries are less fortunate. In early 2014, the United States launched the Global Health Security Agenda and later that year mobilized more than 70 countries to contribute to ending the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Biden should build on those efforts with a new pandemic prevention and biodefense initiative crafted to end this one quickly and strengthen the infrastructure to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to future biological events no matter what their origin.

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) speaks to the media in 2003 to promote efforts to improve U.S. preparedness for bioterrorism. Awareness of the threat was raised dramatically by the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five in the United States. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)Domestically, Biden must make crystal clear that preventing biological threats is a core mission of U.S. defense and national security agencies, in addition to the traditional health agencies. As Obama did during the Ebola crisis, the president should chair regular meetings of the National Security Council with the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to expand U.S. efforts and monitor progress.

Budgets matter, and perversely the Department of Defense’s program for chemical and biological defense was cut 10 percent in 2020, with 30 percent of those cuts falling on the medical biodefense component that includes vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The Nunn-Lugar Biological Threat Reduction Program was also cut by one-third. Operation Warp Speed, fueled by one-time emergency appropriations, has been a stunningly successful partnership between the Defense Department and HHS, and Biden will need to find ways to institutionalize and further expand these agencies’ joint contributions to national and global biodefense. One model would be to invest $10 billion each in HHS and the Pentagon over each of the next 10 years. We should also encourage our allies and partners to make complementary investments.

Just as Biden has called for made-in-America green technologies to create jobs and combat the climate crisis, investments in our bioeconomy will fuel growth and help us prevent existential biological risks. Thanks to increasingly cheap and ubiquitous genetic sequencing and related diagnostic and information technologies, it is now possible to create a real-time global pathogen mapping and forecasting capability modeled on the U.S. Weather Service.

Such information can feed into our medical countermeasures ecosystem, as we observed a year ago when the Chinese posted the SARS-COV-2 sequence and mRNA vaccine prototypes were built from it in just weeks. These and other rapid medical countermeasures were supported by the Pentagon’s biodefense program and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which for decades have had the right goal of compressing the time from discovery of a novel natural or engineered pathogen to deployment of tailored vaccines and therapeutics. Reducing these times further should be the overarching goal of U.S. research, development, and stockpiling efforts. To lead this agenda, Biden should create an H-ARPA for health, with joint HHS-Defense Department sponsorship, that will focus on moonshot medical discoveries instead of the incrementalism characteristic of the National Institutes of Health.

There are three existential risks to the survival of our species: biological, climatological, and nuclear. Unfortunately, our investments in biological defense and pandemic prevention have been episodic and woefully inadequate. Given the stakes, Biden should use all of the powers of the presidency to lead a muscular approach to reducing these dangers. Future generations will applaud his efforts.


Andy Weber is a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors. He previously served as assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs and coordinated U.S. leadership of the 2014–15 international Ebola response for the Department of State.

President Joe Biden’s inauguration comes during the worst stage of the deadliest biological event of our lifetimes.

Returning to Progress on Iran


January/February 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

President Joe Biden has a narrow window of opportunity after his inauguration to head off a nuclear crisis with Iran by stabilizing the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and laying the groundwork for future negotiations on the country’s nuclear program.

The U.N. Security Council discusses Iran in 2018. Renewed U.S. support for a key resolution on Iran's nuclear program could help stabilize tensions over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Biden expressed his intention to return the United States to compliance with the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if Iran does likewise. In a September opinion piece for CNN, Biden wrote that “[i]f Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

This is a logical path forward—more than two years of full implementation of the JCPOA demonstrated its effectiveness and its verifiability. Furthermore, restoring the deal and U.S. credibility is necessary for future negotiations with Iran on a longer-term nuclear framework and regional security, which Biden says is his intention.

Biden, however, will need to move quickly. To date, Iran’s breaches of the accord in response to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement and systematic campaign to deny Tehran any benefits of remaining in the accord have increased the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program, but have been carefully calibrated not to kill the deal.

Yet, a new Iranian law enacted December 28 requires Iran to take a number of more serious steps to accelerate its nuclear program over the course of 2021 that close U.S. allies and parties to the JCPOA—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—have warned could collapse the deal. If the deal is no longer viable and the Biden administration has to begin negotiations from scratch, it will have less credibility and less international support than when the JCPOA was negotiated.

To demonstrate that the United States is sincere about returning to the JCPOA and acting in good faith, the Biden administration could consider immediately announcing steps to build confidence with Iran as a return to full compliance with the JCPOA is coordinated. These steps, outlined below, could result in Iran delaying implementation of the December 28 law, thus creating time and space to restore the JCPOA.

Waiving sanctions for cooperative nonproliferation projects outlined in the JCPOA. Taking this step benefits both sides. On the Iranian side, nuclear cooperation is a tangible benefit of the JCPOA, and reinstituting the waivers may make it easier for Iran to return to compliance with the accord. Restoring waivers allowing the country to transfer out enriched uranium and heavy water, for instance, could help facilitate Iran’s adherence to its obligations. On the U.S. side, a number of cooperative projects included in the JPCOA benefit U.S. nonproliferation interests, such as conversion of the Arak reactor to a less proliferation-sensitive model. Renewing the waivers also benefits the remaining parties to the deal because they are required to assist Iran on certain projects, such as Arak and the conversion of the Fordow facility.

Clarifying U.S. support for UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Although the Trump administration’s attempt to snapback UN sanctions on Iran was rebuffed by the Security Council because the United States withdrew from the JCPOA, Trump officials asserted that UN sanctions were reimposed and threatened to sanction any state that did not adhere to them. If the Biden administration were to clearly state that the United States does not view UN sanctions as snapped back and supports Resolution 2231, that would help demonstrate the U.S. commitment to returning to the JCPOA.

Facilitating humanitarian transactions. Humanitarian trade with Iran is exempt from U.S. sanctions, but actions taken by the Trump administration have stymied efforts to facilitate transactions for essential medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. The Biden administration could indicate its support for mechanisms such as the Intrument in Support of Trade Exchanges and Iran's Social Security Investment Co. to process those transactions. Similarly, the United States could drop the U.S. ban on travel to Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the United States and Iran do not need to “negotiate” a return to full compliance with the JCPOA and that both sides can simply take the required steps, but coordination will likely be necessary because neither side likely will want to be perceived as acting unilaterally.

After taking office, the Biden administration could first seek a meeting with its JCPOA allies and then with the full P4+1 (China, France, Germany, the UK, and the European Union) and Iran to discuss the process and sequence of returning to the JCPOA, as well as any issues that might need to be resolved, such as the future status of advanced centrifuges introduced by Iran that are not covered by the JCPOA. The United States and Iran could then agree on a date by which both sides agree to take the steps necessary to return to the deal.

To date, Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA are largely reversible. Although Tehran will have gained some knowledge on advanced centrifuge operations that cannot be undone, Iran could likely reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium to less than 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235, reduce enrichment of uranium to below 3.67 percent, remove excess advanced centrifuges, and halt enrichment activities at the Fordow site within three to four months. Similar to the JCPOA’s implementation day in January 2016, the IAEA could issue a special report on Iran’s nuclear activities that confirms Tehran’s return to the deal’s limits.

In coordination with the release of the IAEA report, the Biden administration could waive sanctions as required under the JCPOA. This may be more advantageous than trying to coordinate an action-for-action approach that draws out a return to full implementation, thus increasing the risk of spoilers.

To coordinate a return to compliance and the strategy for further negotiations, the Biden administration could also:

  • Seek consensus among the P5+1 and Iran to meet within the next several months, perhaps after Iran’s next president takes office in August 2021, to begin negotiations on a longer-term framework to address Iran’s nuclear program after certain JCPOA limits expire or a regional approach to limit certain nuclear activities. This approach could include a commitment to pursue separate tracks of negotiations on other areas of mutual concern, such as regional stability.
  • Reconstitute the office in the Department of State to oversee JCPOA implementation and coordinate with the Department of the Treasury on the process for waiving the sanctions necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA. Given opposition in Congress to the JCPOA, this office could commit to hold briefings for Congress to discuss the Biden administration’s strategy for follow-up negotiations and garner congressional input on a longer-term framework for Iran’s nuclear program and regional security discussions.
  • Take regional nuclear developments into account when considering options for the longer-term framework on Iran’s nuclear activities. With activities and rhetoric from Saudi Arabia indicating that Riyadh may seek to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities and a rising interest in nuclear power in the region, the Biden administration should develop a regional approach to address Iran’s nuclear activities in the long term in addition to or instead of a multilateral agreement that builds on the JCPOA. Pursuing regional restrictions may be more amenable to Tehran and could complement efforts under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Despite bipartisan agreement that it is in the U.S. national security interest to prevent Iran from acquiring the means to build nuclear weapons, Biden’s plan to return the United States to compliance with the JCPOA already faces significant opposition. Even supporters of the JCPOA have argued that Biden should use the leverage generated by the Trump administration’s sanctions campaign to pressure Tehran into accepting further limits on its nuclear program.

Despite the significant toll that the reimposed sanctions have had on Iran’s economy, U.S. leverage is limited. By withdrawing from an agreement to which Iran was adhering and that enjoyed broad international support, including from close U.S. allies, the Trump administration significantly damaged U.S. credibility. Returning to the JCPOA is a necessary step to demonstrate U.S. good faith and lay the groundwork for future negotiations.

Arguably, the United States also has significant leverage if it returns to the JCPOA. Full implementation of the JCPOA demonstrated that Iran’s economic growth will remain limited so long as U.S. primary sanctions remain in place. Returning to the JCPOA and restoring U.S. credibility gives the United States leverage to negotiate further limits in exchange for additional sanctions relief.


Kelsey Davenport is director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

President Joe Biden has a narrow window of opportunity after his inauguration to head off a nuclear crisis with Iran by stabilizing the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and laying the groundwork for future negotiations on the country’s nuclear program.

Strengthen Norms Against Chemical Weapons Use


January/February 2021
By Wardah Amir

The last time Joe Biden was in the White House, the United States was concerned about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Over the past four years, chemical attacks have continued within and beyond Syrian borders with the emergence of new state perpetrators. International norms established under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) have been blatantly violated by state and nonstate actors as chemicals are misused as weapons.

A Syrian girl holds an oxygen mask over the face of an infant at a make-shift hospital following a reported gas attack on the rebel-held besieged town of Douma, Syria in 2018. The Trump administration was marked by its inconsistent response to instances of chemical weapons use in the past four years. (Photo: Hasan Mohamed//AFP/Getty Images)Following the 2017 presidential inauguration, the Trump administration had to address immediately the use of chemical weapons by state actors when Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was assassinated with VX nerve agent in Malaysia. The United States blamed and sanctioned North Korea, which is not party to the CWC, for this fatal chemical attack. Unfortunately, chemical weapons were used again as instruments of assassination when Russia employed Novichok nerve agent against its opposition. In 2018, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were injured in a chemical attack in Salisbury, United Kingdom. More recently in 2020, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny survived another chemical poisoning by Russia, which has failed to adhere to its CWC commitments. In a bipartisan effort, U.S. lawmakers asked the Trump administration to impose additional sanctions on Russia following an investigation into the Navalny poisoning. Such a move will now likely fall on the Biden administration’s to-do list to hold Russia accountable for its use of chemical weapons.

It is important to hold chemical weapons perpetrators accountable because it sets a precedent that there are consequences for challenging the norms. These consequences can deter other actors from engaging in chemical weapons programs and attacks. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been generating reports on allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, but it is the responsibility of states-parties to decide what they want to do with the findings of these reports because the OPCW is not mandated to be a judicial body. Therefore, the U.S. response to every chemical weapons attack, big or small, is important, not only to decide the fate of those violating the treaty but also to lead the international community to rally behind a common goal to reinforce the norms that have been broken.

The Trump administration’s response to chemical weapons use was inconsistent and seemed to vary by perpetrator. Although North Korea and Russia were sanctioned under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 (CBW Act), the Trump administration decided to launch military strikes against Syria on two occasions: following the 2017 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhun that killed at least 70 civilians and the 2018 chemical attack in Douma that resulted in at least 40 fatalities. The United States has attributed at least 50 chemical attacks to the Assad regime since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, and even though this far exceeds the allegations of use against North Korea and Russia, each instance of chemical weapons use, regardless of magnitude or scale, must be treated as a violation of international law.

In contrast to his military response in Syria, President Donald Trump decided to meet with Kim Jong Un at the 2018 Singapore summit, despite the assassination of Kim’s half brother. The two leaders discussed denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but failed to address North Korea’s chemical weapons program. Following the Salisbury incident, the United States joined its allies in another nonmilitary response with the diplomatic expulsion of 60 Russian intelligence officers. Although the United States should further explore nonmilitary options for reinforcing the norms, it is important that the redline be drawn equally for all users of chemical weapons.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s response failed to halt the contraventions of the CWC. The Trump administration did use military force to respond to chemical weapons use, but the United States can and should better utilize the nonmilitary toolbox: diplomacy, sanctions, and legal accountability.

The Biden administration should be prepared to issue a strong political statement condemning the increase in use of chemical weapons in recent years and calling out state perpetrators (North Korea, Russia, and Syria) by name. This statement should include the importance of international cooperation and appreciation for allies that work together to uphold CWC norms. Furthermore, the United States must not lose sight of Russia’s violations of the CWC when negotiating other arms control treaties, such as an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Negotiating arms control agreements is of utmost importance, and the Biden administration should avoid stovepiping nuclear and chemical weapons issues when preparing for future bilateral and multilateral dialogues on arms control. Although it is important to engage the Russians on arms control, the Biden administration will have to face the challenge of negotiating with a CWC violator.

Next, the Biden administration should track the status of investigations on the Navalny poisoning and related U.S. sanctions against Russia. If Trump fails to respond to Russia’s most recent use of chemical weapons, against Navalny in August 2020, the responsibility will fall on the new administration not only to issue tougher sanctions under the CBW Act, but also to deliver a political statement to announce the sanctions and condemn Russia’s continued violation of the CWC.

TCambodian officials attend an online session of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' annual meeting on the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Of the treaty's 193 member states, 119 have satisfied the requirement to have national implementing legislation. (Photo: OPCW)he United States also should provide foreign assistance to CWC states-parties in good standing with international norms to develop their national laws to penalize the use of chemical weapons. Despite the requirement in the CWC for the 193 member states to have national implementing laws, currently 39 states-parties only have accomplished this partially, and 35 states-parties are not satisfying this requirement at all. In 2018, the United States joined about 30 countries and international organizations for the launch of the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, a promising French initiative to identify and penalize perpetrators and build legal capacities. The goal of the Biden administration should be to mitigate legal safe havens for users of chemical weapons around the world and to develop capacities via bilateral and multilateral engagements, such as this international partnership, so that each partner country has the capabilities to prosecute those that should never have broken CWC norms.


Wardah Amir co-chairs the Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Security Policy Working Group. She is currently a contractor working on chemical security issues at the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the State Department.

The last time Joe Biden was in the White House, the United States was concerned about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Over the past four years, chemical attacks have continued within and beyond Syrian borders with the emergence of new state perpetrators.

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