Biden Can Find Middle Ground in Heated Nuclear Debate

A conditions-based policy can reassure allies while moving U.S. policy forward.

By , a Seoul-based adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security and a columnist with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Peace activists pose with mock nuclear missiles in Berlin.
Peace activists pose with mock nuclear missiles in Berlin.
Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on Jan. 29, 2021. John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden is faced with competing pressures as his administration prepares to announce the results of the latest Nuclear Posture Review. The administration; the niche, but important, arms control community in Washington; and foreign allies have been hotly debating whether Washington should adopt a policy pledging that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a crisis (a preemptive attack or first strike), referred to as a “no first use” policy, and that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack against America and its allies, referred to as a “sole purpose” policy. Both sides fiercely argue their viewpoint—but a middle way is possible.

In January 2017, then-Vice President Biden articulated his long-held belief that the United States does not need to use nuclear weapons first. It mirrored then-President Barack Obama’s convictions about reducing the role of nuclear weapons and America’s “moral responsibility … to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” It also reflected a reduction in Washington’s perceived need to retain the first-use option against non-nuclear attacks since the end of the Cold War. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged to push for a no-first-use policy, with his website stating, “As president, he will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with our allies and military.”

Biden is being pressed to make good on his campaign commitment by Democratic leaders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Adam Smith, who reintroduced the No First Use Bill in April 2021 and signed on to a letter delivered to the president on Jan. 26, and he is also facing pressure from some experts in the nongovernmental arms control community.

U.S. President Joe Biden is faced with competing pressures as his administration prepares to announce the results of the latest Nuclear Posture Review. The administration; the niche, but important, arms control community in Washington; and foreign allies have been hotly debating whether Washington should adopt a policy pledging that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a crisis (a preemptive attack or first strike), referred to as a “no first use” policy, and that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack against America and its allies, referred to as a “sole purpose” policy. Both sides fiercely argue their viewpoint—but a middle way is possible.

In January 2017, then-Vice President Biden articulated his long-held belief that the United States does not need to use nuclear weapons first. It mirrored then-President Barack Obama’s convictions about reducing the role of nuclear weapons and America’s “moral responsibility … to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” It also reflected a reduction in Washington’s perceived need to retain the first-use option against non-nuclear attacks since the end of the Cold War. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged to push for a no-first-use policy, with his website stating, “As president, he will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with our allies and military.”

Biden is being pressed to make good on his campaign commitment by Democratic leaders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Adam Smith, who reintroduced the No First Use Bill in April 2021 and signed on to a letter delivered to the president on Jan. 26, and he is also facing pressure from some experts in the nongovernmental arms control community.

Declaring a no-first-use policy would inevitably be accompanied by making changes to U.S. force posture and structure, including increasing the time and steps it takes to launch a nuclear weapon.

American allies, however, have firmly objected to alterations in U.S. nuclear doctrine that could put their own security at risk. Many Asian and European officials and experts in allied countries have told me that changes would also exacerbate existing doubts about Washington’s security commitment to them. As former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe said in 2014, “The real danger of a no-first-use pledge is that our enemies would pay no attention, but our allies would pay too much [attention], losing confidence in the alliances.”

Plus, the next American president could reverse Biden’s decision, further undermining U.S. credibility. Allies firmly resisted when the Obama administration was considering adopting a no-first-use pledge and most recently expressed similar concerns during the Biden administration’s consultations. That’s hard to ignore at a time when Biden is attempting to strengthen alliances damaged during his predecessor Donald Trump’s presidency.

Those who advocate for a no-first-use and/or sole purpose policy present many important arguments whose common denominator is enhancing crisis stability, reducing the chances of escalation to the nuclear level, and leading by example through unilateral nuclear restraint. The potential return of Trumpism (and a president’s sole authority to launch nuclear weapons) would add more weight to these claims, even though such policy could be reversed by a future president. Some experts also believe that no-first-use and sole purpose are different. The latter, they argue, avoids “eroding primary or extended deterrence” because such language leaves enough ambiguity about the circumstances in which the United States would use nuclear weapons.

However, U.S. allies do not want Washington to limit its nuclear use to only responding to a nuclear attack. For Asian allies in particular, the psychological effect of nuclear weapons is just as important as their physical destructive power. Even if high-tech conventional weapons could effectively respond to non-nuclear attacks from an operational standpoint, Asian officials say they still need something much stronger to scare and deter adversaries from waging any kind of attack.

Plus, decision-makers in both allied and adversarial countries will not spend time analyzing words and researching definitions and historical origins according to different formulations of the language presented in the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review. Several officials have told me that they will interpret no-first-use and sole purpose as the same concept, and either articulation will have the same effect on allies and rivals. A premature pledge would also bring back the ghosts of Trump’s “America first” nightmare, in which allies’ needs were abandoned in favor of a narrow concept of American security.

The United States can and should play a leadership role in reducing nuclear dangers worldwide. But the conditions or circumstances in the global security environment must support it. Not all nuclear-possessing countries have a no-first-use policy. Russia dropped it in 1993, and nuclear weapons play a key role in its military doctrine. This is important to remember amid increasing fears of another Russian invasion of Ukraine and the potential for Moscow to be further emboldened by an American no-first-use/sole purpose policy. China’s claimed no-first-use policy has been met with increasing skepticism. North Korea maintains a first-use policy. India’s conditional no-first-use policy reserves the right to use nuclear weapons against biological or chemical weapons attacks. Pakistan, France, and the United Kingdom have first-use policies.

What’s more, China and Russia have made strides in their conventional capabilities, continue to modernize their nuclear weapons capabilities, and are increasingly aggressive. North Korea’s nuclear weapons advancements and sophistication drive neighbors to want their own nuclear deterrent. Advanced weapons in both conventional and dual-capable systems risk blurring the distinction between an incoming conventional and nuclear attack. Emerging non-nuclear threats and new technologies have also increased uncertainties about their destructive power and impact on military strategies as well as possibilities for nuclear use. And there is no guarantee or evidence that other countries will follow America’s lead on no-first-use/sole purpose. The list goes on.

A decision on when and how to take tangible steps toward no-first-use/sole purpose, therefore, should be guided primarily by the circumstances in the security landscape and the security concerns of both the United States and its allies. They could be assessed according to four general conditions: threat assessments of concerned parties; adversaries’ nuclear doctrines, force postures, and military capabilities; allies’ confidence in U.S. security guarantees; and U.S. military and political capabilities to deter both nuclear-weapons use and non-nuclear threats that can cause mass destruction by adversaries.

The Biden administration could demonstrate it is serious about working toward no-first-use/sole purpose by taking a series of declaratory and actionable steps. First, it could reiterate that no-first-use/sole purpose is America’s ultimate goal and that it will proactively work toward that end. It could outline specific steps in the Nuclear Posture Review or in a separate format.

Such a statement would further advance Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which articulated its commitment to work toward reducing the role of nuclear weapons without yet giving up its right to nuclear first use, while acknowledging the Trump’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review’s assessment of a sharp deterioration of the security environment with growing threats from China, Russia, North Korea, and non-nuclear strategic sources.

The Biden administration could compile an illustrative list of circumstances under which it might consider employing a nuclear weapon against a non-nuclear attack, as proposed by expert Robert Einhorn. Such a list, he argues, would indicate that those circumstances would be much more limited than the impression that was conveyed in Trump’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The Obama administration stated that Washington would consider the use of nuclear weapons only “in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” It did not elaborate on “extreme circumstances.” The Trump administration used almost identical language, but it went further to articulate that “Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks … [which] include, but are not limited to, attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

Washington could also announce that it will take steps toward adopting no-first-use/sole purpose in close consultation with allies. Specifically, the administration could run threat assessments of both the United States and its allies respectively to gauge the specific circumstances under which all parties would feel comfortable with Washington renouncing nuclear first use, declaring sole purpose, and beginning to take steps to add credibility to its declaratory policy. Such measures would include moving nuclear weapons off high alert, or ready to launch instantly. These discussions could be held in newly created consultative mechanisms with allies or included in existing ones that deal with defense and extended deterrence issues. Congress could also stay informed about the administration’s progress by receiving regular briefings.

From an alliance perspective, if the United States renounced its right to nuclear first use in extreme circumstances and declared sole purpose today, it would contradict NATO’s policy and undermine the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. European allies object to no-first-use because of Russia’s revanchism and growing reliance on nuclear weapons. Washington would, therefore, need to manage any future no-first-use/sole purpose policy within NATO.

In Asia, allies have already been increasingly skeptical about the reliability of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent, or nuclear umbrella, and would be tempted to seriously consider their own nuclear options because of threats from China and North Korea. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and even Australia have previously toyed with nuclear weapons programs. South Koreans tell me that progressives might use a no-first-use/sole purpose policy as rationale—arguing that the nuclear umbrella is gone or broken—to question the need for U.S. troop presence and the United Nations Command, while moderates and conservatives would likely use the same rationale to call for the country’s own nuclear weapons. Prospects of Japan’s nuclear armament would ignite a nuclear arms race in the region as well.

Washington could also announce that it plans to discuss with senior officials of nuclear states either eventually agreeing to global or reciprocal no-first-use postures or beginning conversations on how to reduce pressures for nuclear use. There are many advantages of the former, including preventing Washington from going first only to find no one else follows and reducing the likelihood of intentional, accidental, unauthorized, or miscalculated nuclear use. States would still retain their deterrent, but the threshold would be raised for nuclear use and nuclear war. Global no-first-use could be achieved from a cobweb of bilateral agreements or multilateral ones. ­­­

But it’s true that global or reciprocal no-first-use is ambitious and unrealistic for the foreseeable future. The more feasible option could then be for the administration to begin senior-level discussions with nuclear states on how to reduce pressures for nuclear use.

Either way, these measures would provide a more tangible way for nuclear weapons-possessing states to create a more reassuring security environment together.

A no-first-use/sole purpose pledge and force posture would pose more risks than benefits in today’s strategic environment. But it is still a long-term goal that the United States could strive for provided the right conditions or circumstances are in place. Until then, nuclear deterrence is effective—when adversaries know the United States would actually use its nuclear weapons.

Duyeon Kim is a Seoul-based adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security and a columnist with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She specializes in the Korean Peninsula, nuclear nonproliferation, East Asian relations, arms control, and security regimes.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.