Ploughshares Fund’s Roger L. Hale Fellow, Dr. Doreen Horschig, has released a new interactive report “The Biden Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review: New Policies to Prevent Nuclear War.” This report highlights the history of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and urges the Biden Administration to not only follow through on its campaign promises in regards to nuclear nonproliferation but asks Biden to “be bolder than his predecessors” to change the status quo on U.S. nuclear weapons policy.
On the latest episode of Press the Button, Horschig and her co-host Tom Collin discuss what President Joe Biden should address in the NPR. As Horschig explains, the NPR started in 1994 under President Bill Clinton and was developed to ensure that each administration makes clear their objectives and goals regarding nuclear security. Over the past four administrations, Horschig explains that “there has been a great degree of continuity in U.S. nuclear strategy even as nuclear forces and force posture have evolved significantly over that period.” She points out that across political party lines “we have had no review make a serious commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.”
Looking at the Obama and Trump administrations, both expanded nuclear weapons modernization programs. While President Barack Obama had ambitious goals at the outset to limit the role of nuclear weapons in security policy, Horschig explains that he was not able to achieve them all. She states that President Biden now has the chance to “make his more progressive nuclear security agenda happen.”
Horschig dives into Biden’s “long-standing views to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy, to decrease the likelihood of nuclear war, and to oppose the development of unneeded new nuclear weapons.” She points out that “we have him on record as a senator, as vice president, and as a presidential candidate, when he has consistently promoted a more limited role [for nuclear weapons], and the NPR now gives him an opportunity to really follow through on his words.”
Up till now, U.S. nuclear policy has been focused on addressing the very unlikely threat of an intentional nuclear attack. Horschig argues that the “Biden NPR should be based on the overarching goal of preventing nuclear warfare,” but through the lens of “reducing the risk of accidental war.” This pivot in policy would allow the administration to address the greatest risk of nuclear war—an accidental attack due to “human error or false alarm, or miscommunication.” In the report she outlines that since the beginning of the cold war until today, these errors have in fact been more likely to lead to nuclear war than any credible threat of an actual nuclear attack.
Horschig lays out “three policies that [Biden] can implement as President, which include ending sole authority, declaring a sole purpose policy, and terminating the launch on warning policy.” Sole authority is a policy that permits the President to have unilateral authority to launch nuclear weapons. As Horschig explains, this policy “was actually never legislated by Congress nor enshrined in the constitution.” For decades advocates against sole authority have argued that the ability to launch nuclear weapons should never rest in the hands of one person, as this can increase the risk of miscalculation and human error. Horschig proposes that an improved policy would “introduce shared authority with Congress or a subset of Congress.”
Turning to sole purpose, a policy that Biden in fact supported as a candidate, Horschig’s report outlines that such a policy would clarify that the United States has one purpose in having nuclear weapons—to deter nuclear use against the United States or its allies. The argument for sole purpose rests on the belief that due to their devastating nature, nuclear weapons should never be used in response to anything other than a nuclear threat—for instance never in response to a territorial dispute or regional conflict. And finally, Horschig addresses the current policy that Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) can be launched on warning of an incoming attack. She states that this policy “just increases the risk of a nuclear war” since it permits an atmosphere of quick decision-making when a decision to launch nuclear weapons should never be rushed.
Taken together, Horschig explains that adapting these three policies in the NPR would allow the Biden administration the “opportunity to reestablish the priority in American declaratory policy” to address the greatest risk of nuclear war: an accident. Horschig concludes that particularly because the Biden administration is unlikely to reverse the nuclear force modernization efforts begun by his predecessors, nuclear security must be “created in different ways.”
The entire interview with Dr. Doreen Horschig is available here on Press the Button. The full report “The Biden Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review: New Policies to Prevent Nuclear War” is available on the Ploughshares Fund website.
Alexandra B. Hall is the policy associate and special assistant to the president at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.