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Unless Biden Acts Now, His Nuclear Policy Will Look a Lot Like Trump’s

The smart move is to declare a "sole purpose" policy and reverse the dangerous expansion of nuclear missions.

President Joe Biden will soon have the opportunity to put his mark on U.S. nuclear policy and fix some of the worst blunders of the Trump administration. His predecessor’s policies—many of which are still in place—have undermined arms control, started expensive programs for dangerous and unneeded weapons, and made it more likely those weapons could be used in war. But to reverse Donald Trump’s damage, Biden will first have to rein in the Pentagon bureaucracy. If he doesn’t, his nuclear policy, particularly on several key issues, will look a lot like Trump’s. 

The good news is that President Biden knows more about nuclear policy than any commander-in-chief in recent history. If Biden makes this a priority, there is every reason to think that he will approve new policies that will reduce the risk of nuclear war and make the nation and world safer. 

Unfortunately, the president has left these crucial issues to officials who are not committed to his vision. A key strategy document—called the nuclear posture review—has been drafted by an entrenched Pentagon bureaucracy that apparently wants to keep core elements of the Trump agenda intact, including new nuclear weapons and more ways to use them. 

Take, for example, the question of when to use nuclear weapons. Since Harry Truman dropped the first atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, U.S. presidents have shown almost universal revulsion at the thought of going nuclear again. No sane president wants to be remembered for breaking a 77-year nuclear taboo. It’s one thing to use nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack, but to actually start a nuclear war? Unthinkable. 

As vice president, Biden worked with President Obama to seek a common-sense policy to never start a nuclear war, but they could not get it done. Instead, Biden gave a 2017 speech in which he said, “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary or make sense.” Biden has said multiple times, including during his campaign, that “deterring, and, if necessary, retaliating against a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

Under a “sole purpose” policy, nuclear weapons would be used only to deter nuclear attack—which could end civilization as we know it—and would not be used to respond to or deter attacks with conventional, chemical, or biological weapons. As serious as these threats may be, they do not threaten the survival of the nation and do not justify risking nuclear war. 

Trump’s nuclear policy review in 2018 took direct aim at Biden and sole purpose, declaring that deterring a nuclear attack is “not the sole purpose of nuclear weapons.” The Trump administration said it could use nuclear weapons against “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” a phrase widely interpreted to include cyberattacks.

But expanding the roles and missions for nuclear weapons is dangerous and unnecessary. The more options there are to use The Bomb, the more likely it will be used — at great cost to U.S. and global security. In the case of cyberattacks, we have options short of nuclear war that we can use, including proportional and credible cyber counterattacks. Starting a nuclear war and inviting a nuclear attack on the United States should have no role here. 

The smart move for Biden is to declare a sole purpose policy, advance the work of the Obama-Biden administration and reverse Trump’s dangerous expansion of nuclear missions. 

But that is apparently not what Biden’s staff is recommending. Instead of sole purpose, the Pentagon bureaucracy wants Biden to go back 12 years to Obama’s 2010 review and adopt weak language that would allow the use of nuclear weapons in multiple scenarios, including cyberattacks.

The Pentagon’s effort to reject sole purpose and muddy the waters with a weak alternative is not only bad policy but it undermines the president. It would break Biden’s campaign pledge, make it more difficult for Biden to distinguish his nuclear policy from Trump’s, and show that Biden had been rolled by a bureaucracy that he cannot control.

Rejecting sole purpose would also create a serious credibility gap for Biden. What are allies and adversaries to think about Biden’s intentions? Should they believe what he has said publicly multiple times (sole purpose), or believe a weaker policy that Biden left behind long ago? After all, on nuclear policy it matters more what the president thinks than what his advisors tell him to do.

When President Biden sits down to edit the nuclear posture review, he needs to make sure sole purpose is in there. Protecting this position would allow Biden to keep his campaign promise, stick with his convictions and, most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war. On nuclear policy, Biden needs to make a clean break from Trump’s dangerous legacy.

Tom Collina is director of policy at Ploughshares Fund and co-author, with former Defense Secretary William Perry, of the book "The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump."