How the Biden Administration Can Restore the Balance in Nuclear Policy

December 3, 2021 • Updated December 6, 2021
Joshua H. Pollack

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Main points

  • The results of the Biden Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review are expected early in 2022.
  • The contents of the posture review report and the timing of its release will have implications for U.S. nonproliferation policy. These issues should be decided with a view to strengthening the hand of U.S. diplomats at the 10th Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which opens on January 4, 2022.
  • News media reports suggest that the Pentagon-led review process has emphasized the requirements of deterrence at expense of the requirements of nonproliferation. It will fall to the White House to remedy any imbalances.
Launch of a U.S. Air Force Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile

U.S. Air Force Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Source: DOD via Flickr

A Nuclear Balancing Act

The Biden Administration will soon make important decisions about nuclear-weapons policy. According to public remarks earlier this year by the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Nuclear Posture Review must weigh both the credibility of U.S. nuclear deterrence commitments—to adversaries and to allies—and implications of nuclear posture for U.S. arms control and nonproliferation objectives.

These two sets of interests are in many ways compatible. But in certain areas, trade-offs between deterrence and nonproliferation interests cannot be completely avoided. Nuclear policy could be compared to monetary policy in this respect. The “dual mandate” of the Federal Reserve Bank means it must set interest rates high enough to control inflation, yet low enough to minimize unemployment. Nuclear policy-makers similarly must find the balance between their two major sets of goals, which sometimes conflict.

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