Joe Biden’s arms control ambitions are welcome—but delivering on them will not be easy

A deadly pandemic to control. An urgent nationwide vaccination programme to roll out. An economic crisis to navigate. Political divisions and distrust deep enough to spark mob violence and terrorism. The 46th President of the United States faces a barrage of critical domestic challenges from day one.

Nevertheless, one matter of foreign policy will need to be at the top of his agenda: there will be barely two weeks left to save the 2010 strategic nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, New START, from extinction.

New START is the last nuclear arms control treaty left standing between the USA and Russia. It sets caps on the deployment of the long-range portion of the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals and is due to expire on 5 February.

Fortunately, both incoming president Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have indicated their willingness to extend the treaty without conditions. So it is likely to be a smooth process.

Amid the mistrust that colours today’s geopolitical landscape, far harder arms control challenges lie ahead.

The crisis in arms control

The past four years have seen major parts of the international arms control architecture weakened or dismantled. The 1987 Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty) collapsed in 2019. In 2018, the USA unilaterally pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)­—the 2015 ‘nuclear deal’ with Iran signed up to by all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council along with Germany and the European Union.

In November last year the USA formally withdrew from the 2002 Treaty on Open Skies, which allowed countries across the Euro-Atlantic space, from Anchorage to Vladivostok, to carry out unarmed surveillance flights over each other’s territory in order to monitor military activity. Russia has now announced it is following suit.

The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is also looking precarious. Much of the world is frustrated at the continued possession of nuclear weapons by the five nuclear weapon states recognized by the NPT—the USA, Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom—as well as Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will enter into force on 22 January, was born of this frustration.

While the US presidency of Donald J. Trump has been particularly detrimental to arms control, problems were growing long before, and are far from being resolved.

‘Arms control for a new era’

Joe Biden brings to the presidency an impressive depth and breadth of experience in the field of arms control and international negotiation. He made a commitment to ‘arms control for a new era’ a prominent part of his electoral platform and characterized the extension of New START as ‘a foundation for new arms control arrangements’.

New arms control arrangements are certainly needed. Without them, there is a serious risk of the further spread, and potential use, of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. It is also necessary to deal with an increasingly unpredictable, and expensive, arms race based on competition in technologies rather than numbers of weapons and characterized by the increasing entanglement of nuclear and non-nuclear technologies.

Several factors, such as missile defence, advanced conventional capabilities, hypersonic weapons, the accelerated militarization of outer space and the potential application of artificial intelligence to strategic weapons, are affecting the nuclear calculus and strategic stability.

It is unclear how these factors should be addressed in arms control negotiations. The task of designing a new approach to arms control is, in itself, dauntingly complex. And negotiations will take place in a far from ideal context.

Complicating factors

Delivering a new, effective arms control architecture will demand creativity, cooperation and compromise on all sides. Joe Biden has said that the USA will lead the process. But his team will face severe constraints.

The challenges around returning to the JCPOA—something Joe Biden has said he hopes to achieve—are illustrative. The JCPOA was proving a successful non-proliferation tool until the US withdrawal. But it was only entered into by the USA in the face of strong opposition from the Republican Party, which has not weakened in the interim. In addition, there are a number of other problems and external factors that could distract attention from urgent work on the JCPOA.

Even with control of both houses of the US Congress, it will be difficult for Joe Biden to obtain the support needed to approve future arms control treaties with Russia (or other states). Thus, the incoming president may well be restricted to executive orders, which are limited in scope and can easily be revoked by future US administrations. Congressional approval will also be necessary to terminate certain sanctions on Iran in 2023, as is required under the terms of the JCPOA.

Recent US actions have also damaged the USA’s international reputation in many quarters—among both adversaries and allies—which will further complicate arms control diplomacy.

A collective challenge

The world faces a range of potentially destabilizing realities in the coming decades, from climate change and other environmental crises to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of the big picture is that the geopolitical order is shifting, with new regional powers and new alliances in which the USA is less influential. In arms control, as in many other areas, the international community needs to find new ways of working to secure our common interest. We should hope that the successful extension of New START will be the prelude to a gradual resurgence of arms control, non-proliferation, disarmament and risk reduction. But, as with the other big issues of our time, success will depend on all key actors stepping up.

Ambassador Jan Eliasson (Sweden) is the Chair of SIPRI Governing Board.Dan Smith (United Kingdom) is the Director of SIPRI.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
SIPRI is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. Established in 1966, SIPRI provides data, analysis and recommendations, based on open sources, to policymakers, researchers, media and the interested public.