Joe Biden’s ban on US first-strike nuclear attacks is threatened by rising tensions with Russia and China

Can first-use nuclear weapon strikes ever be justified? Joe Biden thinks not. Five years ago, as outgoing US vice-president, he called for a no-first-strike US defence policy.

“Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary, or make sense,” he said in the January 2017 speech.

When he finally entered the Oval Office 12 month ago there were hopes that, Mr Biden would turn these words into deeds with his own “declaratory policy” (which states under what circumstances nuclear weapons would be used) that would proscribe American first use of them.

But the geopolitical and security situation has deteriorated rapidly since then. In the face of increased Russian aggression – notably in Ukraine, China’s ever-louder threats against Taiwan, and hypersonic missile advances by both countries, the Democratic president’s desire to dial down the east-west nuclear stand-off faces serious obstacles.

A key indication of US nuclear strategy is imminent. Pundits think the Biden administration’s defence review (known as the “nuclear posture review”) – due out in a month or so – will not be nearly as cheerful as the President had envisioned 12 months ago; the likelihood of a no-first-strike policy now looks highly unlikely.

The Obama administration, with Biden as vice-president, stated in 2010 that it would “only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners”, without defining “extreme circumstances”.

Eight years later, the Trump administration restated the Obama policy but was less opaque. “Extreme circumstances”, it said, “could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.”

Mr Biden began his presidency talking of reducing nuclear armament. But given the developments in Russia and China even this commitment now seems complicated.

In March, in what the White House called interim national security guidance, he said China and Russia had changed “the distribution of power across the world”, and that he would react by strengthening the United States at home, repairing its alliances abroad, and elevating the role of diplomacy.

Since then, tensions with China and Russia have only increased. Satellite imagery has shown China building large numbers of new underground silos for nuclear missiles. In November, a Pentagon report said China could quadruple the size of its nuclear stockpile by 2030.

Even before the latest Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s border, the Pentagon’s policy chief, Colin Kahl, said that US nuclear policy would be influenced not only by China’s nuclear ambitions but also by “real anxiety” among US allies in Europe over Russian military policy.

The upshot is that the Biden administration is likely to keep the traditional “triad” of sea-, air- and land-based nuclear weapons, which critics have described as overkill.

University of Toronto pundit Andrea Chiampan, writing in the latest Nato Defence College Policy Brief, predicts that Mr Biden may ditch the controversial nuclear-armed version of the Tomahawk land-attack sea-launched cruise missile. But the plan for new submarine-launched ballistic missiles might stay, he says. Both weapons were touted by the Trump administration as necessary to augment existing nuclear weapons that were either too powerful or too vulnerable to attack to be credible deterrents in small-scale conflicts.

Arms control advocates, such as Michael Krepon, founder of the Stimson Center think tank in the US, insist, however, that avoiding first use of nuclear weapons remain paramount – as a moral and a security imperative.

“First use leads to more use,” Mr Krepon, author of Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace, told Forbes. “And if escalation cannot be controlled, the use of nuclear weapons would be a crime against humanity and nature.”

If there is any positive news from the Biden nuclear posture review it will probably take the form of a renewed commitment to reinstate the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), plus a pledge to reinvigorate talks with Russia and China on strategic stability and risk reduction.

The five official nuclear powers, the US, Russia, China, France and the UK, made positive noises in this vein yesterday.

The five have agreed that a further spread of nuclear arms and a nuclear war should be avoided, according to a joint statement by them published by the Kremlin on Monday.

The group – all of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, agreed it was their primary responsibility to avoid war between the nuclear states.

Their pledge to work to avoid nuclear armageddon was vague. But at least they’re talking. If the main players in the ongoing nuclear geopolitical tussle gave up on diplomacy, things would soon get very scary indeed.