On the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, during the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged to “restore American leadership on arms control and nonproliferation…and work to bring us closer to a world without nuclear weapons.” This month’s summit of the Group of Seven (G7) in Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic attack that killed more than 140,000 men, women, and children in 1945, provides President Biden with a historic and timely opportunity to do so.
To support America’s Japanese allies, Biden and the other leaders will need to acknowledge the horrors of nuclear war. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida chose Hiroshima, his home city, as the venue for the May 19-21 summit “to deepen discussions so that we can release a strong message toward realizing a world free of nuclear weapons.”
The leaders will reportedly meet with some of the few remaining hibakusha, survivors of the devastating Aug. 6 and Aug. 9 atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And, in response to Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear weapons use last year, they must, as Kishida has suggested, “demonstrate a firm commitment to absolutely reject the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”
But as the leader of the only country to have used a nuclear weapon in war, Biden has a responsibility to go further than his counterparts. The visit to Hiroshima provides him with the ideal platform to deliver the first speech of his presidency that outlines his own vision and plan for avoiding an arms race with Russia and China and for reducing the risk of nuclear catastrophe.
Over the years, presidents of both parties have understood that the United States has a national security imperative and a moral responsibility to reduce nuclear threats, including by negotiating treaties and agreements to verifiably reduce and eventually eliminate these weapons. Much has been achieved to end nuclear testing, reduce arsenals, and prevent proliferation. But today, the nuclear threat is higher than at any time since the depths of the Cold War.
Heightened Nuclear Risks
Tensions between the United States and both Russia and China continue to grow; Russia carries on its reprehensible war in Ukraine, which heightens the risk of nuclear escalation; all three of those nuclear-armed countries continue to move forward with expensive and unnecessary nuclear modernization, and in some cases, nuclear weapons expansion programs; and new nuclear proliferation pressures among allies, such as South Korea, and adversaries, such as Iran, have emerged.
Not surprisingly, a recent national poll reveals that Americans consider “nuclear weapons and nuclear war” to be the top potential causes of the end of life on Earth, with 66 percent saying they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned.”
U.S. presidents cannot, by themselves, solve major global challenges. But history shows there is no substitute for U.S. leadership in reducing nuclear dangers. And there is no more important time than now for Biden to show the way.
With the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START, the last remaining Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control agreement) expiring in 2026, Biden should reiterate and elaborate on his proposal for Russia to re-engage in serious talks to restore inspections under New START and on a new nuclear arms control framework agreement to succeed it.
Without any mutual constraints, Russia (and the United States) could within a couple of years double their deployments of strategic warheads to 3,000 or more by uploading additional warheads on their land- and sea-based missiles. If Moscow and Washington break out of the New START limits, leaders in Beijing would likely accelerate their nuclear buildup to ensure they preserve their own devastating nuclear retaliatory capabilities.
Russia has suspended implementation of New START and says it is not inclined to engage in arms control talks so long as the United States continues to support the defense of Ukraine. But at the same time, Putin has also said that Russia will remain under the ceilings set by the New START agreement (1,550 deployed strategic warheads). Even Putin understands that there are no winners in an all-out nuclear arms race.
Opportunity for an Understanding
This creates an opportunity to reach an understanding that they will both remain under those limits until they conclude a new nuclear arms control framework that limits and reduces all types of Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons.
Although the United States and Russia still possess 90 percent of the 12,000 nuclear weapons left today, Biden should also remind President Xi Jinping that all nuclear-armed States, including China, need to be part of the solution.
All five nuclear-armed States that have joined the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are obligated under Article VI “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament ….” China, however, has rebuffed overtures to engage in bilateral talks with the United States about its growing arsenal of some 450 nuclear weapons.
Through a speech in Hiroshima, Biden could call upon China, France, and the U.K., to freeze the overall size of their smaller but still deadly nuclear arsenals as long as the United States and Russia continue to maintain limits on their strategic nuclear arsenals and pursue talks to achieve further nuclear reductions. This type of multilateral approach might yield some results, since it would not require direct negotiations and could win wide support from the world’s non-nuclear-weapon States, who make up the majority and who are likely to agree that all nuclear-armed States must do their part to advance disarmament.
A “global nuclear freeze” approach, if adopted by the president, could put more pressure on Russia to refrain from further nuclear threats, increase the chance that Russia re-engages in disarmament diplomacy, put pressure on China to exercise nuclear restraint, and improve the long-term prospects for renewed progress on nuclear risk reduction and disarmament. It could make the G7 meeting in Hiroshima a truly historic turning point.