Joe Biden once envisioned a “world without nuclear weapons,” but Beijing and Moscow are rolling back the clock to the Cold War.
Hal BrandsJanuary 30, 2022, 6:00 AM MST
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of “The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.”+ Get alerts for Hal Brands
As vice president in January 2017, Joe Biden gave a speech endorsing the idea of a “world without nuclear weapons.” Last year, he took office pledging to reduce America’s reliance on those weapons — perhaps with a promise that Washington would never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, or perhaps by cutting, even eliminating, the country’s intercontinental ballistic missile force.
Biden’s first year has been a reality check. The threat of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe has reminded American allies of the role that U.S. nuclear weapons might play in their defense. Thanks to a dramatic Chinese nuclear buildup, America will soon confront a nuclear peer in the Pacific. North Korea keeps expanding its arsenal. Some American allies in Europe and Asia have lobbied against a no-first-use pledge or cuts in the U.S. arsenal.
Biden may want a future in which nuclear weapons fade into irrelevance, but that simply isn’t where the world is headed. The U.S. is facing a new nuclear age: an era of fierce, multisided competition, one that is both reminiscent of and far more complex than the Cold War. It has only begun to grapple, strategically and intellectually, with this challenge.
The U.S. does have lots of experience with nuclear statecraft, as I discuss in my new book, “The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today.” During the Cold War, U.S. conventional forces were mostly outmatched in Europe and other key theaters. The threat of nuclear escalation was the ultimate guarantee of the free world’s security, and the nuclear balance shaped risk-taking and decision-making on both sides of the East-West divide.
Yet because the use of nuclear weapons would be so horrific, nuclear strategy involved stark dilemmas. How could Washington balance the need to avoid nuclear war with the imperative of being able to win it? Should the U.S. use nuclear weapons overwhelmingly at the outset of a contest, in hopes of prevailing rapidly, or should it escalate gradually, in hopes of limiting the resulting damage? Most fundamentally, how could it credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons if doing so might shatter civilization?
Different presidents offered different answers to these questions. Some of the problems were simply insoluble. But the resulting debates were usually rich and thoughtful; America produced a vast community of individuals — Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Herman Kahn and Andrew Marshall were some of the standouts — who understood the challenges of the nuclear age. Nuclear war was both unthinkable and all too plausible, so a global superpower had little choice but to prepare for that eventuality as thoroughly as possible.
That changed when the Cold War ended. The threat of Armageddon receded drastically. The U.S. became so militarily dominant that it hardly needed nuclear weapons. Dangers persisted, but they were primarily posed by nuclear terrorism, loose nukes and the weapons programs of relatively weak states such as North Korea.
The post-Cold War era saw continuing reductions in the Pentagon’s nuclear arsenal, often codified in agreements with Russia. In 2009, President Barack Obama called for the eventual abolition of the weapons; he flirted with a no-first-use declaration, even as he approved a costly modernization of America’s existing forces.
There was also an intellectual drawdown, as nuclear strategy went out of style. Ambitious policy wonks and military officers gravitated toward other issues. America’s strategic nuclear arsenal was so far from mind that the 2002 National Security Strategy contained no mention of it at all.
Biden’s speech in January 2017 captured the residual optimism of an era in which great-power nuclear competition seemed like an anachronism. By that point, however, a new nuclear age had already begun.
If nuclear weapons became less relevant after the Cold War, not everyone got the memo. India and Pakistan pushed their way into the nuclear club, with dueling tests in 1998. North Korea made its small arsenal ever-more menacing. Iran crept toward the nuclear threshold. And it wasn’t just lesser powers improving their capabilities.
Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia reversed the nuclear atrophy of the post-Soviet era. As part of a years-long modernization program, Putin’s regime drastically upgraded most of its nuclear missile forces. It invested in “non-strategic” nuclear weapons — torpedoes, short-range missiles and others — and is experimenting with exotic capabilities such as autonomous underwater vehicles and nuclear-powered cruise missiles. Not least, Russia expanded the range of circumstances in which it might use nuclear weapons, making them more central to its military strategy, just as the U.S. was headed in the opposite direction.
Then there is Beijing’s buildup. China may once have possessed a “minimal deterrent” — a small, relatively vulnerable arsenal, designed solely to deter nuclear attack on China itself — but that’s no longer the case. The Chinese test of a fractional orbital bombardment system (in essence, a nuclear-weapon delivery system that orbits the earth before plunging toward its target) is only part of a much larger endeavor.
China is now building a more secure and sophisticated “nuclear triad” — a combination of nuclear-capable bombers, ground-based intercontinental missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Its ICBM force is expanding rapidly. The Pentagon predicts that China will have more than 1,000 deliverable warheads by 2030 — an arsenal worthy of a superpower.
The return of great-power competition has brought with it the return of nuclear rivalry. Meanwhile, conventional weakness is making nuclear weapons even more important to U.S. strategy.
Over the past two decades, Russian and Chinese conventional buildups have dramatically altered the balance of power in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific. Washington and its allies might struggle to defeat a determined Russian attack on Estonia or a Chinese assault against Taiwan. An old question is becoming newly relevant: Would the U.S. start a nuclear war to avoid losing a conventional one?
The likelihood of a great-power war going nuclear is significantly higher than most Americans probably realize. If China attacked Taiwan, it would probably use its conventional missiles to maul America’s air and naval assets in the Pacific. Within days, the U.S. might face a choice between seeing Taiwan defeated or using low-yield nuclear weapons against Chinese ports, airfields or invasion fleets.
Alternatively, if a U.S.-China war turned into a bloody stalemate, American leaders might be tempted to use nuclear threats or strikes to batter the Chinese into conceding defeat. Does this sound crazy? Washington repeatedly considered nuclear strikes against China the last time the two countries fought a stalemated war, in Korea.
China might also have incentives to go nuclear. Starting, and then losing, a war against the U.S. could be a fatal mistake for President Xi Jinping. If an invasion of Taiwan faltered, Beijing could try to turn the tide, or simply convince America to quit, by firing nuclear-tipped missiles at or near Guam or another important U.S. military facility in the region. Such coercive uses of nuclear weapons may be what China has in mind in enlarging its arsenal today.
Nukes would also loom large in a conflict between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Moscow can conquer territory in Eastern Europe, but it probably can’t win a long war against NATO. The scenario that worries American planners is known as “escalate to de-escalate”: In essence, Russia grabs some land and then threatens to use nuclear weapons, or perhaps even fires a warning shot, to compel NATO to make peace on Putin’s terms.
These possibilities began to influence U.S. strategy under President Donald Trump. That administration touted “limited” nuclear options — the ability to conduct a small number of strikes to defeat Chinese or Russian conventional aggression or to deter their threats of nuclear escalation. It invested in submarine-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles that could be equipped with low-yield nuclear warheads. “If you want peace,” wrote one recently departed Pentagon official in 2018, “prepare for nuclear war.”
Biden is now facing the same problems. Nuclear weapons are becoming more, rather than less, important; the scope for responsible reductions in the size or role of America’s arsenal is shrinking fast. Yet the dilemmas surrounding nuclear statecraft are as vexing as ever.
First, the fact that it may be necessary to threaten nuclear escalation to defend far-flung U.S. friends does not automatically mean that such threats are credible. During the Cold War, Washington could semi-plausibly threaten to unleash the apocalypse to stop Moscow from conquering Europe and Asia. Today, the idea of starting even a “limited” nuclear war over Taiwan might well strike most Americans as farcical, especially as China’s ability to inflict catastrophic retaliation on the U.S. increases.
A second dilemma pertains to missile defense. U.S. missile defenses can’t blunt an all-out Russian or Chinese attack, but they could complicate the sort of limited strike that Moscow or Beijing might try in a conflict. Or those defenses could simply give America’s rivals incentive to keep building more and better offensive missiles. As of now, there is no consensus in Washington on whether missile defenses will provide crucial strategic advantage or just encourage a costly arms race.
Third, the U.S. has barely begun to wrap its head around the problem of tripolar nuclear competition. During the Cold War, America had only one nuclear peer, the Soviet Union. Soon it will have two.
That could leave some strategists wanting a significantly larger nuclear arsenal, at a time when the Pentagon’s continuing nuclear modernization is already behind schedule and many U.S. conventional forces also desperately need an upgrade. And the dynamics of nuclear deterrence, crisis stability and arms control are likely to grow more complicated with three roughly equal actors involved.
This relates to a fourth issue: We’re in terra incognita when it comes to arms control. Done properly, arms control isn’t silly peacenik stuff: It can be a hardheaded way of keeping nuclear competition within bounds or even steering it into areas that favor the U.S. But the arms control frameworks that Washington and Moscow built during the Cold War have mostly collapsed over the past two decades.
In 2021, Biden and Putin renewed for five years the last significant U.S.-Russian arms control agreement — New Start — and initiated a new “strategic stability dialogue.” Yet it is becoming harder to justify arms control treaties that bind the U.S. and Russia but not China, and so far no one has found the formula for making Beijing play ball.
Finally, how will nuclear dangers affect America’s conventional warfighting plans? Defeating a Russian attack in the Baltics would probably require suppressing air defenses and artillery on Russian territory — which might take NATO across Moscow’s nuclear red line.
In a war over Taiwan, the Pentagon might strike Chinese missile bases — seeking to neutralize China’s conventional missiles but endangering its nuclear missiles as well. If these strikes made Beijing fear that it would lose its nuclear option, it might be inclined to use that option. Any great-power war will be fought in the nuclear shadow, which may impose limits on how far the U.S. can prudently go.
These are problems without obvious solutions. And they are made even harder by the fact that America’s nuclear expertise is not what it once was.
Today, the U.S. is reaping the consequences of its post-Cold War nuclear holiday. Comparatively few top- or mid-level officials, civilian or military, have deep experience in nuclear issues. There is, fortunately, a fair amount of academic expertise on these issues, thanks in part to a few foundations that made countercyclical — and at the time, counterintuitive — investments in nuclear studies. But the U.S. has far less intellectual capital on nuclear issues than it did during the Cold War, and far less than it will need in the years to come.