Originally published at Common Dreams
Nonproliferation advocates on Wednesday expressed disappointment after the Biden administration released a summary of its latest Nuclear Posture Review, which fails to depart from decades of dangerous U.S. first use policy.
“This Nuclear Posture Review is a failure. It nudges the needle back to the Obama administration but does almost nothing to reduce the continuing risks of nuclear war,” Stephen Young, the senior Washington representative for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said in a statement.
While President Joe Biden—a longtime advocate of adopting a no first use (NFU) policy—promised reform while on the 2020 campaign trail and in office, he has largely continued his predecessors’ policies, including initial use of nuclear weapons, even against non-nuclear foes.
“If media reports are true, President Biden has missed a historic opportunity to reduce the role of… nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement last week. “Retaining a warfighting role for U.S. nuclear weapons is a triumph for the trillion-dollar defense industry, but it is a tragedy for everyone counting on the president to keep his campaign promise to make deterrence the sole purpose of nuclear weapons.”
Young of UCS asserted that “the U.S. faces two choices: spending $1 trillion rebuilding our entire nuclear arsenal and continuing Cold War-era policies that make nuclear war easier to start, or deciding it is time to change, and beginning to move posture and policy back from the brink.”
“This NPR chooses the first path,” he added. “If maintained, it will mean decades more of nuclear brinkmanship and clear nuclear risk. The chances of catastrophic failure are higher than ever.”
The United States waged the only nuclear war in human history. Since then, it has devised various plans for the first use of nuclear weapons, and has repeatedly threatened first-strike nuclear war—including against conventionally armed foes—in various conflicts and crises.
An extreme U.S. first-strike policy proposal was drafted during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Called “Furtherance,” it initially called for a full-scale nuclear attack on both the Soviet Union and China in the event that the president was killed or disappeared during an attack on the United States, even if it was accidental or carried out with conventional weapons.
In the post-Cold War era, the U.S. embraced the first use doctrine—even against non-nuclear states and actors—as part of a broader plan to ensure that no geostrategic rivals emerged. This so-called “Wolfowitz Doctrine” profoundly influenced the militant policy of the neoconservative George W. Bush administration, whose first-strike doctrine was continued by Bush’s successors with relatively minor adjustments.
Of the world’s nine nuclear powers, only China has unconditionally pledged never to use nuclear weapons first. India has an NFU policy with exceptions for chemical or biological attack.
Last week, Russia—whose invasion of Ukraine has been frustrated by fierce resistance—alarmed the world by declaring it could use nuclear weapons even if no enemy used them first. The Kremlin has since walked back its threat.
“Many have argued it would take a nuclear crisis to break the stranglehold that Cold War hawks have held on nuclear policy,” said UCS’ Young. “Right now, in Ukraine, we are witnessing just such a crisis: A nuclear-armed aggressor, empowered by its arsenal, acts with impunity. Nuclear weapons no longer ‘keep the peace,’ they enable war.”
“We live in a new era and sticking to the status quo is not going to make us safer,” he added. “We have to get rid of nuclear weapons. It won’t be quick or easy. But everything we do should be directed toward that end, or we risk facing the end of humanity as we know it.”
Nonproliferation advocates have long urged U.S. administrations to adopt an NFU policy. Last year, Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) reintroduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act, which would prohibit the presidents from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war.
“President Biden and our allies have shown remarkable restraint in the face of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling, to avoid escalating a conventional war into an unfathomable nuclear one,” Markey said last week.
“Congress must now step up and lead by passing my Restricting the First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act,” he continued. “Our constitution gives Congress, not the president, the exclusive power to declare war. And there is no war like a nuclear war.”
Markey added that “no president—especially under duress in the fog of war—should have the power to unilaterally and unconstitutionally order the end of millions of lives by firing the first shot in a nuclear war.”