October 09, 2020

Curb Your Enthusiasm, Update Your Strategy

If Joe Biden wins the US presidency, his policy on nuclear arms control is unlikely to meet German expectations of focusing primarily on disarmament. Countering China’s rise is, after all, one of the few remaining issues of bipartisan agreement in Washington.

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Then US Vice President Joe Biden speaks abord an Australian Navy ship, 2016
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With the nuclear arms control architecture in ruins after four years of President Donald Trump in the White House and its last remaining pillar—the US-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—set to expire in February 2021, expectations are high in Europe and elsewhere that a Biden administration would restore US leadership on arms control. After all, as vice president, Joe Biden was one of the architects of the Obama administration’s accomplishments in this area.

President Barack Obama pushed for a significant reduction in the role and number of nuclear weapons in US defense strategy. To implement the vision Obama set out in a speech in Prague in 2009, his administration negotiated New START, increased the role of non-nuclear means in deterrence, extended an offer to China to engage in strategic-stability talks, and sought to build on the agreement with Russia to achieve even deeper reductions.

With the exception of New START, however, these initiatives remained unreciprocated. On January 11, 2017, nine days before his tenure as vice president ended, Biden expressed regret: “We did not accomplish all that we hoped.”

No Straight Line

Observers would be mistaken, however, to draw a straight line from the Obama administration to a possible future Biden administration, skipping over the past four years as an anomaly. Particularly in Germany, arms control tends to be viewed through the lens of disarmament. This tendency grows out of the belief that peace can only be achieved when weapons are abolished. Efforts to control particular types of armaments should, ultimately, lead to their elimination.

In his opening speech to an international arms control conference in Berlin last year, for example, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas used the two terms “arms control” and “disarmament” virtually interchangeably. Similar confusion characterizes some of the recent contributions to the German debate on nuclear burden-sharing within NATO that present arms control, while meaning disarmament, as the solution to Russian nuclear saber-rattling.

Disarming Germans

This is not a particularly new development. Since the end of the Cold War, if not earlier, disarmament has dominated German thinking in this area.

There are two more purposes of arms control, however, in addition to disarmament: stability and advantage. While strategic stability plays some role in the German discourse, particularly among academics, there is no discussion of arms control as part of competitive military strategy. Against the backdrop of “long-term, strategic competition,” though, this is where US experts and policymakers are headed, and not only those with conservative leanings.

Recent US strategy documents pit the United States and its allies against revisionist powers. China and Russia in particular, the 2018 National Defense Strategy asserts, threaten the US-led regional security orders in Asia and Europe. To effectively compete with, deter, and—if necessary—win a war against them, the strategy lays out that Washington and its allies should seek and exploit military advantages. By placing relatively stricter limits on its rivals or formalizing US comparative advantages, arms control would reinforce a balance of power favorable to America, enabling it to better deter challengers.

While disarmament advocates view arms control agreements as the cumulative building blocks of a comprehensive and transformational peace agenda, in the context of military strategy, such agreements serve as temporary measures that should be discarded when they are no longer advantageous for shaping competition. This is the argument with which advantage arms controllers in the George W. Bush administration justified withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. A similar fate lately also befell the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

Taking Nukes Seriously Again

A Biden victory on November 3 would move nuclear arms control up the White House agenda again. The Democratic platform promises to “work with Russia to verifiably limit and reduce our nuclear stockpiles” and “to negotiate arms control agreements that reflect the emergence of new players like China.” Should Biden win, little time would remain after his inauguration on January 20 to agree with Russia on the extension of New START, as he has vowed to do. But beyond that, those hoping for major strides toward nuclear disarmament should prepare for disappointment.

After all, the Democrats, too, see the United States facing a more competitive world. Former US Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy, who is expected the lead the Pentagon under a Biden presidency, recently remarked that America’s ability to deter China and Russia was eroding and that substantial, targeted investments were needed to make US armed forces “more relevant, more survivable, more combat effective, and better able to underwrite deterrence.” Other contenders for top jobs and close advisors to Biden have expressed similar views. Not only is countering China’s growing assertiveness one of the few remaining issues of bipartisan agreement in Washington, but Russia has become such a toxic issue for the Democrats that another “reset” would find no political support.

Arms Control, Not Disarmament

True, arms control is anything but predicated on friendly relations between the parties involved. Nevertheless, in an increasingly competitive environment, a Biden administration would be unlikely to embark upon a dash toward nuclear disarmament. Instead, arms control will be seen primarily as a tool to manage competition with China and Russia and to buttress America’s ability to deter and defeat aggression.

Rather than reminisce about the past, German observers and policymakers would do well to recognize that the US discourse on arms control has shifted since 2010. That shift reflects an increasingly competitive international environment. Thus, arms control might not only, or even primarily, mean nuclear disarmament in Biden’s foreign policy. Much would be won for the transatlantic relationship and for the NATO alliance, if Berlin would not sleepwalk into new realities, but displayed at least some appreciation for strategic competition and the military’s role in it.

Rafael Loss is coordinator for pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

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