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Arms Control & Nuclear Proliferation: Policy Briefing

Arms Control & Nuclear Proliferation

The Biden Plan for Arms Control in the Era of Great Power Competition

UPDATED August 17, 2021

President Biden faces emerging nuclear powers in Iran and North Korea, a backdrop of increasing Great Power competition with Russia and China, and a difficult landscape for multilaterally renegotiating global arms control agreements with existing allies. President Trump’s central approach to arms control focused on negotiating new agreements under his administration’s terms, as opposed to honoring existing agreements, and updating the U.S. nuclear arsenal to maintain parity vis-à-vis Russia through a $1.7 trillion plan. Trump had attempted to renegotiate arms control deals with Russia, China, and North Korea, but he left office with little concrete progress made on any new agreements. Since Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA—more commonly referred to as the “Iran nuclear deal”), Iran has taken significant steps toward nuclear development and away from transparency, and North Korea has not taken any concrete steps toward denuclearization, despite extensive U.S. sanctions and three face-to-face meetings between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The Biden administration has signaled an eagerness to return to U.S. commitments on numerous arms control agreements, pledging to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and confirming the extension of the new Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START) with Russia. Biden has nominated two of the Iran nuclear deal’s primary negotiators—Robert Malley and Wendy Sherman—to high-level roles in the Department of State and another, Jake Sullivan, as his national security advisor. A return to the Iran nuclear deal still faces major obstacles. To date, negotiations with Iran are stalled, and North Korea has been completely unwilling to engage with the Biden administration on denuclearization talks.

Among the Nine Nuclear Powers, Russia and the U.S. Hold the Majority of the World’s Nuclear Weapons

The United States and Russia hold over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads. After a rapid period of denuclearization in the 1990s, both the U.S. and Russia have been increasing their stockpiles of operational nuclear weapons since 2010.

U.S. and Russia’s Nuclear Arsenals, as of March 2021

All Other Nuclear Power’s Arsenals, as of March 2021

Source: Federation of American Scientists

For the Biden administration, re-building ties with NATO allies will be central for furthering arms control and defense interests, and Biden has expressed intent to do so, referring to NATO as “the single most important military alliance in the history of the world.” After four years of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, some key U.S. allies, such as France, expressed wariness over the U.S.’s ability to resume a multilateral approach. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia as well as the Treaty on Open Skies, prompting Russia to do the same in regards to both, and reinterpreted the rules of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) by allowing the sale of armed drones to foreign militaries. Trump’s move to unilaterally withdraw from both treaties was widely condemned by NATO allies, exasperating EU countries that were frustrated with Trump’s mercurial foreign policy decision-making. During his first overseas trip as president in June 2021, Biden actively attempted to reassure EU allies of the U.S.’s fidelity and willingness to uphold its security commitments. Following a series of meetings with European leaders at the NATO Summit, the U.S.-EU Summit, and the G-7 Summit, Biden expressed confidence in the strength of the alliance moving forward. Despite the U.S.’s distinct change in tone from the Trump administration, NATO still faces a number of pressing challenges, including U.S.-EU tensions over Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline and defense spending, and questions over the future of NATO relations with China and Turkey. Following the meetings with NATO allies, Biden met in person with Russian president Vladimir Putin for a discussion covering a range of issues, including cybersecurity, Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s border, and arms control. While tensions over these issues persist, in post-meeting press conferences, both Biden and Putin acknowledged their commitment to nuclear stability and stated that they would hold future talks to discuss potential changes to the recently extended START treaty. In a July 2021 follow-up meeting, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy defense minister, and U.S. deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman met to discuss arms control issues. While both sides remain committed to continuing the dialogues, disputes are ongoing over both sides’ development of new hypersonic missiles, the U.S.’s deployment of missile shields in eastern Europe, and the inclusion of China in future arms control agreements.

The Biden administration must also grapple with the emergence of increasingly complex, advanced technologies enabling rapidly proliferating new classes of weapons, many of which circumvent existing arms control agreements. The landmark arms control agreement governing U.S.-Russia nuclear development, the INF treaty, was signed at the end of the Cold War and does not include advanced missiles and related technologies. It also does not include China, which has allowed that country to develop a new class of hypersonic missiles, which had been constrained in the U.S. and Russia under the INF. The U.S. Department of Defense spends billions annually on artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and other cutting-edge technologies to maintain a military advantage. None of these technologies is currently governed by arms control agreements, and development of new weapons by the U.S., Russia, and China is driving efforts by all three nations to maintain parity. The absence of concrete agreements governing the development and sales of these technologies heightens risks they will be accessed by adversaries—including state and non-state actors. This risk is exemplified by the rapid proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) globally, which has been due in large part to lax international restrictions and global distribution primarily from China and Israel, raising fears that newly developed chemical, biological, and cyber weapons could become widely available on the international market in a similar fashion. The limits of existing arms control agreements create new challenges for the Biden administration, as currently stated policy priorities on existing arms control agreements will not address these classes of newly developed weapons. Following Biden’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, 2021, the U.S. and Russia released a joint statement establishing a Strategic Stability Dialogue for negotiating bilateral arms reduction. Similar talks had stalled in the past—the Obama administration had cut negotiations short in 2014 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and little progress had been made under Trump when talks resumed in 2017.

Major Arms Control Deals and Their Status Under President Biden

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. withdrew from four major arms control deals and did not move to ratify a fifth. While the Biden administration has moved toward re-entering the Iran nuclear deal, it has yet to put forth concrete policy proposals on re-entering other deals that the U.S. pulled out of under Trump. Biden agreed to extend the New START treaty with Russia in January 2021. The status of major arms control deals is listed below:

2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)
  • Overview: The New START treaty places limits on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and nuclear warheads. It also establishes onsite inspections and biannual data exchanges between the two nations.
  • Status: Under the Trump administration, the New START treaty was the remaining major arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia that was kept in place. The Trump administration sent mixed signals and indicated at different times that it both intended to extend the treaty and withdraw. As president, extending the New START treaty was one of Biden’s first moves on arms control in January 2021.
1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)
  • Overview: The INF is a bilaterally ratified treaty between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., which required the elimination of all missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,500 miles. The INF treaty is the first nuclear arms control agreement to actually reduce nuclear arms rather than establish ceilings. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the treaty was expanded to include the twelve former-Soviet republics.
  • Status: Trump withdrew from the treaty in 2019, citing multiple Russian violations, including deploying banned missile systems. Biden has not moved to rejoin the INF, due in part to China’s medium-range missile development.
1992 The Treaty on Open Skies
  • Overview: The Open Skies Treaty establishes the freedom of navigation for short-notice, unarmed, observation flights by signatories over the territories of other signatories. Signed by all NATO allies and Russia, it creates the obligation to accept observation flights from other signatories, meant to create transparency around potential weapons development.
  • Status: Trump withdrew from the treaty at the end of his presidency after losing re-election in November 2020. Biden condemned the move at the time but appears unlikely to rejoin the treaty as president.

Other Major Arms Control Deals to Address

1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)
  • Overview: The CTBT prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion” anywhere in the world. The treaty has been ratified by 170 countries, including Russia. The U.S. was one of the original signatories of the treaty in 1996 but has yet to ratify it.
  • Status: As vice president during the Obama administration, Biden urged the U.S. to formally ratify the treaty but was opposed by a GOP-led Congress. Under Trump, the issue of ratifying the treaty was left unaddressed. While Biden has previously pushed for ratification, he has yet to re-address the issue.
2014 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)
  • Overview: Ratified by sixty-one countries, including five of the top ten arms exporters (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK), the ATT regulates international arms sales between states. It is intended to prevent small arms and light weapons from being used to perpetrate human rights abuses.
  • Status: Obama signed the treaty in 2013, but the Senate never voted to approve it, so the U.S. never fully ratified the treaty. Trump removed the U.S.’s signature from the treaty in 2019. Biden has not taken a stance on re-signing the treaty, but even if he were to do so, it would be unlikely that Congress would support its ratification.

Key Challenges for the Biden Administration

Iran has been moving forward with its nuclear program, and the U.S. faces a difficult negotiation process in re-entering the JCPOA with Iran. Under the previous administration, the U.S.-Iran relationship deteriorated significantly—Trump declared Iran a “nation of terror,” ordered the killing of its highest-ranking general, Qasem Soleimani, strengthened U.S. ties to Saudi Arabia, and imposed sweeping sanctions. Biden has pivoted toward a more critical stance on Saudi Arabia and has stated that he will make exceptions to existing sanctions for humanitarian aid, but he has remained firm that the U.S. will only provide extensive sanctions relief in the context of a renewed commitment to the JCPOA. In the early months of his presidency, Biden attempted to revive multilateral talks with Iran and rescinded Trump’s order that the UN restore all existing sanctions on Iran, easing travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats to the UN. The success of the negotiations for re-entering the deal will now rely heavily on Iran’s newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, who was sworn into office in August 2021. In his campaign, Raisi stated his dedication to working toward lifting U.S. sanctions and included a commitment to following the JCPOA as part of this effort. Negotiations over the nuclear deal reached a standstill during Iran’s election season, and as of August 2021, Raisi’s administration has yet to resume talks. While negotiations remain stalled, Iran has been pushing forward with its nuclear weapons development program. In July 2021, Iran began the process of making enriched uranium metal, which can be used to make the core of a nuclear bomb. This activity violates the original terms of the JCPOA and speeds up Iran’s timeline for developing a nuclear weapon. In April 2021, Iran began testing its newly completed IR-9 centrifuge. Once fully operational, the IR-9 will be able to enrich uranium 50 times more rapidly than Iran’s first centrifuge, the IR-1. These developments raise concerns that Iran’s nuclear program is rapidly progressing to a point where the original terms of the JCPOA may no longer be sufficient to effectively contain its nuclear program, even if a renewed agreement is eventually reached.

North Korea has largely ignored U.S. sanctions and continues to move forward with its nuclear program. After a series of high-level summits between Trump and Kim Jong Un failed to produce concrete agreements on denuclearization, Kim has doubled down on North Korea’s intent to become a nuclear power. In January 2021, he stated that North Korea is moving forward with developing new weaponry, including a nuclear-powered submarine, tactical nuclear weapons, and advanced warheads designed to penetrate missile defense systems. Biden confirmed his commitment to pushing a policy of denuclearization in North Korea on a January 2021 call with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshide Suga. Based on Kim’s recent posturing, it is unlikely that North Korea will comply with a policy of denuclearization, no matter what approach the Biden administration takes. Kim’s stated requirements for engaging with the U.S.—ending the U.S. commitment to protect South Korea and withdrawing its troop deployments in Southeast Asia—are contradictory to Biden’s aims in the region. Biden’s approach to containing China will likely focus on rebalancing U.S. troop deployments to the region and deepening U.S. military engagement with existing allies in the region, such as South Korea and Japan. The contradictory policy demands between the incoming Biden administration and Kim’s vision for North Korea are likely to continue the current impasse until the two countries have reached a denuclearization agreement.

Great Powers are refurbishing nuclear arsenals after decades of decline. After decades of post-Cold War denuclearization, the Biden administration will be challenged to advance arms control in a renewed era of Great Power competition and emerging nuclear powers. Russia, China, and the U.S. are all taking steps toward expanding, upgrading, or modernizing their nuclear arsenals. China now boasts a nuclear arsenal of 350 nuclear warheads, the third-most of any nation after Russia, and the U.S. It is still far behind the U.S. and Russia, and even with current expansion plans, China will not be close to directly rivaling either country in the size of their arsenal. But China has likely surpassed the United States in the development of a new class of weapons: hypersonic strike vehicles. These missiles can exceed the speed of sound, enhancing their ability to evade missile defense systems. U.S. intelligence has estimated that China will at least double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. Russia has similarly developed advanced intermediate-range missiles and has embarked on an extensive nuclear weapons modernization campaign. Both Russia and China have become major nuclear technology exporters, accounting for 60 percent of the international market combined, and they have inked deals to develop nuclear power plants across a wide range of countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Nuclear energy exports grant a wide range of nations the capacity to potentially repurpose large quantities of plutonium from fuel to weapons use. They also create political and economic relationships that can span decades as exporting countries gain long-term influence on nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation in importing countries. The U.S., to date, has been unable to compete internationally against Russia’s and China’s state-funded models, and a continued inability to do so could both impede security goals and make it difficult for the U.S. to lead the global transition toward cleaner energy.