Biden's Radical Change in Nuclear Weapons Policy Favors China | Opinion

Many expect the Biden administration will soon announce a radical policy regarding the use of nuclear weapons. The policy, which would replace one adopted in the 1940s, is slated to be part of the administration's Nuclear Posture Review, expected before the end of the year.

American allies, the Financial Times reports, are deeply concerned. Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Australia—all U.S. treaty partners—are intensively lobbying the Biden administration to not adopt a "No First Use" policy. "Allies are essentially, in unison, collectively panicking," said "one senior congressional source" to the paper. "They don't believe their numerous and repeated overtures are being reported up to Biden administration principals, and to the president himself."

The disarmament community has long wanted the United States to declare it will never first use nuclear weapons in a conflict. The administration may not announce No First Use, but it is possible—even likely—that it will go for a "Sole Purpose" policy.

"I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack," Joe Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2020.

"'Sole purpose' nuclear policy is just 'no first use' by another name, and to even consider adopting either is a complete betrayal of our allies," said James Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

China has announced a No First Use policy. Aggressors tend to favor this approach and urge their intended victims to adopt it, as well. China's Global Times, signaling Beijing's own stance, issued an October 31 editorial with this title: "U.S. Should Announce 'No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,' With No Strings Attached."

"No First Use provides our enemies a sanctuary in which their military forces and assets remain free of the threat of nuclear strike," Peter Huessy of the Air Force Association and GeoStrategic Analysis told Newsweek.

"This gives the enemy the initiative, should they wish to go nuclear under an escalation-to-win strategy, and seriously undercuts the extended nuclear umbrella deterrent that we provide to our NATO and western Pacific allies," says Huessy. "This would be a huge gift to China and Russia," noted a "European official" to the FT, referring to the distinct possibility of President Biden adopting either No First Use or Sole Purpose.

Aggressors have conventional superiority in today's hotspots—the Baltics, Taiwan and South Korea, to name just a few of them—so the American threat to use nukes deters conventional strikes, Huessy believes.

Arms control advocates have argued that nukes do not, in fact, deter. The risk of "an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal escalation" is so high that the threat of using nuclear weapons "lacks credibility," wrote Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, in 2016.

First Use has been American doctrine for as long as the U.S. has possessed the bomb. And that doctrine has saved lives. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as horrific as they were, clearly shortened World War II by precluding an invasion of the Japanese homeland.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the authorization of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus on November 03, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

These weapons have also been instrumental in avoiding global war since then. The Soviet Union, which possessed a far larger conventional force, never sent its divisions through the Fulda Gap, and most every analyst attributed Moscow's hesitancy to start World War III to the threat of annihilation by America. Reagan's success in convincing NATO to base nuclear-tipped Pershing missiles on European soil in the 1980s forced the Soviets to back down.

The alternative to No First Use is a rapid and sustained build-up of conventional forces to deter China's Xi Jinping, Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Advocates of No First Use do not typically advocate accelerated spending programs for conventional capabilities, unfortunately.

In the summer of 2016, the Obama administration was on the eve of announcing No First Use. Ultimately, it did not do so, and the factor that seemed to have swayed President Obama was the fear of destabilizing an already-tense situation around the world. Today, China and Russia have made the world far more unstable than it was even five years ago.

In any event, many do not actually believe China's ostensible No First Use pledges. Huessy, for instance, calls Beijing's announcements "fantastical."

He is absolutely right. Beijing has periodically made unprovoked threats to incinerate American cities, former Chinese disarmament diplomat Sha Zukang issued a public warning that China would nuke Taiwan and since July Chinese propaganda has been talking about lobbing nuclear weapons into Japanese and Australian cities. With the exception of America, none of these possible targets is a nuclear power.

What, in spite of all these factors, would recommend a change in America's nuclear policy? "Nuclear weapons are not war-fighting weapons," Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania told Newsweek after the FT report. "America should have a No First Use policy coupled with robust deterrence and second-strike capabilities."

"I believe just as Britain and France have a nuclear deterrent independent of the U.S., so should Japan, Australia and perhaps Taiwan and South Korea, which also face direct nuclear threats," said Waldron, a China historian. "Small nuclear arsenals in the region would greatly reduce the possibility of conflict in Asia, as they have in Europe."

Taiwan is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and so does not have an obligation to refrain from possessing nuclear weapons. Japan, Australia and South Korea, however, are signatories and are not permitted to have nukes. They have, at least up until now, felt secure under the American "nuclear umbrella"—the U.S. commitment to use its nuke arsenal to defend them.

Now, however, they do not feel as secure, and a move to No First Use would only further shake their confidence in America's ability to defend them—especially if Biden scraps the modernization of the aging American nuclear arsenal, as some in his administration are also suggesting.

Waldron's idea, contemplating a substantial spread of nuclear weapons to deter China, would horrify arms-control advocates. Yet such a spread is the inevitable result of feeble non-proliferation efforts. The United States had the means to stop China in the 1970s from giving the bomb to Pakistan, and then to stop Pakistan from spreading Chinese technology to regimes like Iran and North Korea. But the U.S. hardly did anything at all.

Arms-control advocates of course abhor proliferation, but they have never been able to answer this question: Why should China's totalitarian proxies be allowed to possess nuclear weapons while America's democratic allies are not?

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts