Analysts are lining up to offer advice to President-elect Joe Biden on how he should reshape America’s foreign and defense policies, and some are rightly focusing on the global threat posed by nuclear arms.
The two nations at the top of that agenda, many argue, are Russia and Iran.
Professor Geoffrey Roberts, a well-known British historian and author of books on Soviet diplomatic and military history, wrote a letter to the Financial Times recently arguing for a reset of the United States’ relationship with Russia by the incoming Biden presidency.
It came as a breath of fresh air amid the avalanche of apocalyptic predictions about Biden’s likely foreign policy trajectory vis-à-vis Russia.
The big question is how the Biden White House can navigate a reset with Russia at a juncture when that country is regarded as a threat and an adversary. Perhaps the first prerequisite will be what Roberts suggested, namely to step back from the “dangerous confrontation” that by itself may improve the atmosphere of Russian-American relations.
Why not, to begin with, make the renewal of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) agreement for another five-year period a top priority for the first fortnight of the Biden presidency? The agreement is due to expire on February 5, which leaves just about 16 days after the presidential inauguration.
Two dozen arms-control, environmental and other groups in the US in a November 19 letter proposed to Biden’s transition team that ahead of inauguration day, the President-elect’s team should “publicly express their interest in a five-year extension” and designate a special representative who will engage with Russian counterparts “on day one.”
The experts suggested that the new administration should also announce its intention to seek to engage Russia in talks “on follow-on nuclear arms reduction agreements.” They further proposed the US should:
- formally adopt a no-first-use policy and encourage all other nuclear-armed states to adopt a similar approach;
- cut down the cost of the current nuclear-weapons sustainment and modernization program and focus on simply “what is necessary to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent”;
- reduce excessive nuclear force structure and spending on nuclear weapons; and
- divert funds to priorities such as pandemic response, combating climate change, etc.
The eminent experts underscored the imperative need of a “renewed and active US leadership … to shore up and strengthen” the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament architecture. Specifically, this includes:
- building majority support for a plan of action that reaffirms previous NPT commitments and obligations and outlines concrete steps that would advance Article VI disarmament goals;
- reaffirming support for US ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty engaging with Russia and China on confidence-building steps; and
- recognizing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (which is coming into force on January 22, 2021).
What is truly amazing here is that within the US strategic community there could be such a body of opinion wedded to effective arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament.
Equally, this voice is being heard at a point in time when President Donald Trump’s administration in a matter of four years systematically destroyed decades’ worth of hard work done by previous US administrations in establishing trust, confidence and diplomacy – on nuclear and non-nuclear issues – among both friends and foes.
In a single term as president, Trump made sure that the prospect of nuclear proliferation, a new nuclear arms race and even the use of nuclear weapons more likely than ever before in living memory, including the Cold War era.
Trump’s abysmal nuclear legacy includes eviscerating decades of trust-building between the US and Russia and withdrawing from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Much hope is being placed on a Biden administration to repair the global nuclear damage. A good starting point would be the extension of the 2010 New START, which is the last remaining bilateral arms-control agreement between the US and Russia, providing an anchor of strategic stability between the world’s two largest nuclear powers even through the current tumultuous period of tensions between the West and Russia.
Both Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have expressed willingness to pursue an extension of the New START, and that such a step could provide the foundation for new arms-control agreements.
Next only to New START is the critical necessity to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s withdrawal from the historic multilateral agreement prompted Iran to abandon the nuclear limits established under the agreement and restart its nuclear program.
Biden has indicated that he is ready to bring the US back to the Iran nuclear deal. Biden’s stated position is that if Tehran returns to strict compliance with the deal, he would “rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”
However, the path ahead is not going to be easy.
The assassination of a top Iranian scientist near Tehran on Friday, by terrorists allegedly hired by Israel, is a stark warning that the United States’ allies in the Middle East – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are determined to make every inch of the way ahead extremely problematic for the Biden administration.
The very same cabal of regional states had opposed the 2015 nuclear deal, but then-US president Barack Obama persisted. That is why it becomes extremely important that the Biden camp and the remaining signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) show the foresight and wisdom to condemn what happened in Tehran on Friday.
The point is, Iran may have no problem replacing a scientist in its nuclear or defense establishment. Iran’s nuclear program will run its course. But what is really significant here is that the Israel-Saudi-Emirati axis is testing the waters.
There has been a steady buildup to this point through the past couple of years with covert attempts to destabilize Iran and to provoke Tehran into some sort of retaliation that could be seized as casus belli for launching a military attack.
Basically, the agenda of this cabal is to vitiate the regional security climate to a point that a constructive engagement of Iran by the US negotiators may have to be deferred.
A path that involves all at once conciliation, negotiation and compromise lies ahead for the Biden transition team to cross to address the Iran nuclear question.
What complicates matters is that Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the other war hawks in the lame-duck administration will do everything in their power to prevent the Biden team from succeeding at diplomacy with Iran.
Generally speaking, there is every hope that the Biden administration will return to the Obama-era policy trajectory of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the US national defense strategy.
But a caveat must be added here too. Biden also has a formidable domestic agenda that is sure to remain his top priority – the Covid-19 pandemic, economic recovery, climate change and so on.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.