Analysis & Opinions - European Leadership Network

Nuclear Diplomacy in the Biden Administration

| Jan. 06, 2021

The Biden administration not only inherits a country where COVID-19 is surging and jobs are haemorrhaging, but he also takes over a perilous global landscape when it comes to nuclear arms control and disarmament. The Trump years saw the dissolution of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (i.e. the Iran nuclear deal) and the Open Skies Treaty. President Trump has not extended New START, the last remaining arms control treaty, leaving 16 days for the new administration to work out an extension before the treaty expires.

The loss of arms control occurs amidst two opposite trends in nuclear disarmament diplomacy. On the one hand, the great powers are engaged in renewed global competition that includes nuclear weapon modernization plans. On the other, a large number of states partnering with a network of transnational activists are calling for all states to renounce nuclear weapons. The treaty enshrining this idea, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will come into force on January 21, 2021, now that it has achieved its 50th ratification.

President-elect Biden has more experience with nuclear issues than most incoming presidents, and yet even those with significant expertise would face strong headwinds in advancing nuclear diplomacy over the next four years. What can we expect from the Biden administration in terms of arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament? Where are the opportunities for progress? The actions the Biden administration might take on this front and the difficulty in achieving them fall into three general categories; relatively easy, challenging, and wishful thinking. As may be expected, the challenging and the wished-for items outnumber the easy tasks.

Relatively easy

Let’s begin with the small number of relatively easy steps the Biden administration is likely to take to improve nuclear diplomacy. The first and most obvious action is extending New START for a full five years. Soon after this extension, the Biden administration should begin planning for a follow on agreement. Arms control agreements usually require years to negotiate so preparations must begin right away.

Next, the Biden administration likely will begin planning for the twice-postponed NPT Review Conference (RevCon), now scheduled for August 2021. The RevCon offers the Biden administration a golden opportunity to boldly recommit the United States to multilateralism and global leadership. Improving US rhetoric and showing a willingness to engage with the other NPT members will be relatively easy in this setting, but achieving a consensus outcome document or an otherwise successful conference fits in the “very challenging” and perhaps even “wishful thinking” category.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Gibbons, Rebecca Davis.“Nuclear Diplomacy in the Biden Administration.” European Leadership Network, January 6, 2021.

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