Brian Bender / Politco
(January 27, 2021) —President Joe Biden is assembling a national security team with an unusually ambitious agenda to negotiate new arms control treaties, scale back the nuclear arsenal, and review decades of military doctrine.
But veterans of the last administration fear this newly empowered group of progressives may be naive about what can be achieved without undermining U.S. security, and are already warning them to prepare for a shock when they read the latest intelligence.
Taking up posts at the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council are a cadre of experts who collectively have their sights on a renaissance in nuclear restraint, after President Donald Trump withdrew from three arms control pacts, threatened a nuclear war with North Korea and expanded the role of nuclear weapons in war planning.
Biden has already agreed to extend the last remaining nuclear agreement with Russia, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and called for further negotiations with Moscow to place new limits on their arsenals, the world’s largest. And the group of arms control experts he is enlisting to carry out his agenda represents the vanguard of a decades-long progressive push to pull back from the nuclear brink and seek the elimination of atomic weapons.
“The stars are aligned,” said Joe Cirincione, a veteran nonproliferation advocate who mentored a number of Biden’s picks. “Extending New START for five years is just the opening gambit. This is going to be quite a show.”
Yet former Trump officials predict the appointees will be hit by a new reality when they learn more about real-world threats, including China’s major nuclear buildup in recent years.
“I think a lot of these guys who are going into government are going to finally start getting classified briefings about what China has been up to,” said Tim Morrison, who oversaw the arms control portfolio on the National Security Council under Trump and is now at the Hudson Institute. “I want to be a fly in the room. The color is going to drain out of their faces, they are going to sit back in their chairs, and they are going to say ‘oh s—.'”
Under Trump, the United States significantly increased spending on nuclear weapons and also fielded a new submarine-launched warhead, citing Russian and Chinese nuclear buildups and more aggressive efforts by North Korea to increase its arsenal and develop more advanced long-range missiles.
Others see Biden’s willingness to accept Russia’s offer to extend New START a full five years without preconditions as a worrying sign the new team won’t be tough enough on the Russians.
“I think that is a bad signal and suggests that Biden may be a pushover when it comes to this sort of thing because even those who still see value in New START agree there are some things the United States should be pushing for,” former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, a leading skeptic of arms control agreements, said in an interview.
Trump’ chief arms control negotiator, former Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, is also critical about Biden’s first move.
“They gave away all of the leverage that they had in order to get additional arms control done,” he said. “It’s not at all clear to me what further interest the Russians have in negotiating anything with the Biden administration.”
But the team advising Biden has big ambitions. One leading player is Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, a veteran of the Obama State Department who coordinated efforts to combat the spread of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. She has been nominated to be undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.
Jenkins has recently argued for declaring a “no first-use” policy when it comes to nuclear weapons, which arms control advocates consider a major step toward reducing nuclear tensions.
“We are trying to say, ‘we are not going to attack you with a nuclear weapon unless you attack us with a nuclear weapon,” she explained in a podcast this month. “That’s kind of the direction it was going. However, in 2018 we kind of took some steps back on that. We have added all these conditions where we can actually use a nuclear weapon. We have gone backwards.”
She is joined by a growing roster of progressive-minded national security experts who have advocated for some of the most drastic changes in U.S. nuclear policy in recent years.
For example, several key players in the new administration have ties with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the research arm of the liberal Council for a Livable World, which aims to “reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.”
Alexandra Bell, a former State Department official who most recently was the center’s policy director, has been appointed as deputy assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. Leonor Tomero, former chief counsel for the House Armed Services Committee who was the think tank’s director, will oversee nuclear and missile defense programs for the undersecretary of Defense for policy.
“I want to be a fly in the room. The color is going to drain out of their faces, they are going to sit back in their chairs, and they are going to say ‘oh s—.'”
Former Trump national security aide Tim Morrison
Meanwhile, Mallory Stewart, the new senior director for arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation on the National Security Council, is a longtime national security official and think tank scholar who was a member of the center’s board. And others with ties to the organization include Colin Kahl, Biden’s nominee to be Pentagon policy chief, who is an adviser.
“They want to lower the risk of having any nuclear catastrophe,” said former Rep. John Tierney, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, calling their new influence “a tremendous win for the State Department, the United States, and indeed, every person on the planet who believes a world free from nuclear threats is possible.”
“They want have have as much reasonable, verifiable arms control as they can to lower the risk of a nuclear catastrophe,” he added.
Other players on the arms control front include the NSC’s head of strategic planning, Sasha Baker. She’s a former national security adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading advocate in the chamber for reducing the size of the American arsenal.
“She is probably the person who’s going to rewrite the national security strategy,” Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, one of the leading disarmament groups, said of Baker.
Many of Biden’s arms control advisers believe deeply that the United States’ plan to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad — bombers, submarines and land-based missiles — is more comprehensive and expensive than needed to deter nuclear adversaries.
They are expected to review the nuclear modernization portfolio, which is expected to cost upwards of half a trillion dollars over the next decade alone, and much more after that. They are almost certain to try to kill a new, “low-yield” nuclear warhead that the Trump administration outfitted on submarines.
They are also likely to find more allies in a Democratically-controlled Congress.
“I think [Biden] is in a position where he can change our nuclear weapons doctrine,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and leading advocate for curtaining nuclear weapons spending, said in an interview.
He also believes the need for arms control has only grown “because of these past four years with Donald Trump.”
“We can see how quickly our relationship with other nuclear weapon powers can become much more tense and dangerous,” Markey said. “We can’t afford nuclear weapons overkill.”
Meanwhile, Tomero’s former boss, Rep. Adam Smith, is chair of the Armed Services Committee. Smith, a leading national security progressive in Congress, has been among the most vocal proponents for cutting the nuclear budget.
“There is a good opportunity when you add in the fact that Adam Smith clearly sees that this whole modernization plan, as it’s currently projected, is going to be way too expensive,” Tierney said.
“We don’t need any of the new weapons that Trump put in,” he added. “And [Biden] was clear on that when he was running. There is no reason why we should be developing new classes of weapons and nuclear warheads. That is destabilizing and it just leads to an arms race and makes everybody less safe.”
But the political and diplomatic obstacles to Biden’s agenda are also enormous, whether Washington tries to revive arms control agreements or pursue new ones with Russia, Iran, North Korea or China, or curtail U.S. plans to upgrade its own arsenal and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in American strategy.
“Some of the aspirations, some of the idealized goals of some of his base, they may not get what they want,” said Morrison, the former Trump administration NSC official.
Peter Huessy, director of strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, which is supported by the defense industry, also worries that the United States lacks enough experienced negotiators to replicate some of the arms control successes of the Cold War.
“By not having a professional cadre of arms negotiators, we lose institutional memory as well as full understanding of the gambits used by the Russians and the tricks they play in negotiations,” he said.
Others rebutted the idea that Biden’s team doesn’t have what it takes, or that they are naive about what can be achieved.
“They are believers, as has every president from Eisenhower to Obama, that arms control is a key tool to national security that reduces both existential and lesser risks to the United States,” said Ambassador Tom Countryman, who served as acting undersecretary of State for arms control and international security in the Obama administration.
“There is no greater risk to the existence of the United States than the increasing risk of the use of nuclear weapons,” he added. “It is a national security mandate to reduce that risk and the vehicle to do that is arms control. They are a dream team, not of ideologues, not of boastful dealmakers, but of people who are willing to do the hard work that is necessary.”
But he also acknowledged how hard it will be to make their visions reality. “It won’t be easy to get it done,” Countryman said. “I’m reluctant to predict any specific achievement besides the extension of New START.
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