Restoring Nuclear Bipartisanship: Force Modernization and Arms Control

April 14, 2021

In his inaugural speech, President Joe Biden acknowledged he was addressing a divided nation. He called on the country to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” Political polarization — which reached fever pitch after last year’s election and the Capitol insurrection in January — has forced the Biden administration to pass major legislation without Republican support. Partisan rancor has impeded progress on important programs like the defense budget.

Despite these differences, there is a deal to be made on nuclear weapons and arms control. The president and Congress should work together to modernize American nuclear forces and develop a long-term plan for great-power arms control. By modernizing the nuclear arsenal and linking that modernization to serious arms control proposals, the president and Congress could advance both American national security abroad and political unity at home. Absent such bipartisanship, the United States is unlikely to enjoy the benefits of either force modernization or arms control.

Nuclear Bipartisanship, Then and Now

For much of the Cold War, Americans on both sides of the political aisle supported nuclear bipartisanship. While debates persisted over specific policies and programs, both leading Democrats and leading Republicans supported progressively improving the nuclear arsenal and negotiating arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Nuclear bipartisanship receded as the Cold War ended and American leaders focused on other pressing security challenges. Despite this pause, nuclear bipartisanship received new life in the Obama administration, as the president and Congress came together to ratify the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia while also committing to rebuild American nuclear forces. As the United States faces a return to great-power competition, this combination of nuclear force modernization and strategic arms control is increasingly important to American national security.



Skeptical observers have long questioned the logic of nuclear bipartisanship. Why should the United States modernize its nuclear forces as it draws them down? Conversely, why should American leaders enter into agreements with authoritarian, untrustworthy adversaries that place limits on U.S. nuclear capabilities? To critics on both the left and the right, nuclear bipartisanship has always lacked a clear rationale. Ironically, despite their radically different views, partisans agree that we should ditch compromise and pursue either arms control or nuclear modernization.

Like many products of the Cold War, nuclear bipartisanship is counterintuitive, but it is not illogical. Nuclear bipartisanship operates at both the domestic and international levels. Domestically, pursuing nuclear modernization and strategic arms control in tandem builds the political capital necessary to sustain both policies over the long term. Internationally, this approach shapes adversary behaviors in ways that enhance American nuclear capabilities and promote successful arms control. 

Defeating Domestic Spoilers

While critics claim that nuclear modernization and arms control have little in common, the two policies face similar domestic political challenges. Both require long-term commitments across multiple administrations and Congresses to bear fruit, and both face periodic controversies that would threaten their continuation. Linking the two together provides greater durability to ride out these controversies and achieve long-term successes.

The American nuclear arsenal is a vast system painstakingly assembled and reassembled over many decades. Successfully replacing the older components of the nuclear arsenal will take decades, if not the remainder of the century. And while nuclear modernization is not a major cost driver when compared to other financial liabilities and represents only a small fraction of the total defense budget, it does require consistent funding across those decades. As such, nuclear modernization will always be a target for those seeking to trim costs while avoiding difficult conversations about foreign policy priorities and domestic entitlements.

American leaders repeatedly delayed modernization in the 1990s and 2000s to focus on force reduction or long-running counter-insurgencies. Most of these decisions seemed reasonable under the circumstances. It would be difficult to argue, for example, that nuclear modernization was more pressing than procuring mine-resistant vehicles for immediate use in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, decades of deferral demonstrates that the long-term value of modernization the nuclear arsenal will struggle to attract political support when set against the opportunity or crisis of the day. Even as the United States returns to great-power competition with an increasingly decrepit arsenal, the ravages of the pandemic and growing concern about climate change create strong pressures to delay or abandon nuclear modernization efforts.

Strategic arms control is similar to nuclear force modernization in its long-term orientation and vulnerability to disruption. Arms control is vulnerable because it can be reversed. Most arms control agreements place limits on specific weapons systems — how many can be built, where they can be deployed, or how they can be used. Some also place limits on the material capability to build weapons — for example, treaties which limit not just the number of missiles or warheads, but the number of missile factories or nuclear enrichment facilities. Yet, few if any agreements eliminate the technological basis for building weapons in the future, since the basic technology often has important civilian uses. Rocket boosters can be used on intercontinental ballistic missiles or for a country’s civilian space programs. As a result, there is rarely any barrier to rolling back an arms control agreement and rebuilding the dismantled forces later, if the parties of the agreement decide to do so. Arms control’s political volatility compounds its reversibility. As relations with adversaries worsen, so too does the temptation grows to tear up arms control agreements in frustration.

Sustaining arms control and nonproliferation efforts has proven challenging in recent years. The Trump administration quickly scrapped one of the signature nonproliferation achievements of the Obama administration, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or Iran nuclear deal). Trump also abandoned Obama’s attempts to bring Russia back into compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, in favor of withdrawing from both agreements. The point is not to apportion blame but merely to note how ineffective a tool of foreign policy arms control becomes when successive administrations reverse their predecessors’ policies.

Given their similar requirements and vulnerabilities, we should not be surprised that proponents of nuclear force modernization and strategic arms limitation have historically banded together to pursue nuclear bipartisanship. Lyndon Johnson linked specific arms control objectives to modernizing American forces in the late 1960s. His Republican successor, Richard Nixon did likewise, setting a pattern that would continue for the remainder of the Cold War. Nuclear bipartisanship did not end debates about either force modernization or arms control, which remained fierce throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But pursuing force modernization and arms control at the same time enabled decades of gradual, but steady, improvement of American nuclear forces and long periods of successful arms control observance, including the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which lasted 29 years; the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which lasted 18; and the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has lasted 53 years and counting. Neither policy is likely to be as successful politically on its own.

Building International Cooperation

Combining modernization and arms control provides an effective strategy to compete with adversaries and ultimately promote international cooperation. Smartly executed, nuclear bipartisanship creates a cycle of limited competition and expanding negotiation that strengthens the United States while making the world safer from nuclear war. Pursuing nuclear modernization and arms control together provides immeasurably greater benefits to American national security than pursuing either on its own.

Some proponents of arms control argue that the best way to approach negotiations is to show unilateral restraint in one’s own force modernization. The historical record suggest this is not the case. Instead, far from threatening adversaries unduly, a competitive program of nuclear modernization is the best way to incentivize adversaries into serious negotiation. Only when the adversary concludes that their security is threatened will they be willing to make the hard bargains necessary for real arms limitation.

A competitive approach to arms control has been far more successful than showing unilateral restraint. The most significant successes in great-power arms limitation have come when the United States has competed with adversaries and linked that competition directly to its arms control proposals. The United States developed Safeguard missile defenses prior to the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, it deployed Pershing II intermediate-range missiles prior to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and it produced Peacekeeper intercontinental missiles prior to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The correlation is interesting, though the paucity of Soviet-era sources makes it difficult to show definitively that the American competitive approach was decisive in bringing the Soviet Union to the table. On the other hand, the steady declassification of American sources has led to a raft of studies demonstrating how Soviet force modernization drove American arms control policy, as American leaders responded to the Soviet development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, multiple warhead systems, or modern intermediate-range missiles with new arms control initiatives of their own, desperate to limit Soviet advances. This is the paradox at the heart of all great-power arms limitation: Only when both sides have coerced each other are such negotiations likely to succeed. Of course, progress on arms control also requires smart diplomacy, skilled leadership, and a great deal of luck, but our growing understanding of the Cold War shows that, while modernizing one’s forces may not be sufficient for arms control success, it is most definitely necessary.

Nuclear bipartisanship brought many arms control successes, but it also advanced American security in an era of great-power competition. Some proponents of modernization argue that arms control agreements damage American security and constrain American competitive options unduly. There’s little historical evidence to support this position. On the one hand, the United States often does have common interests with adversaries, such as limiting human exposure to radiation by ending atmospheric nuclear testing under the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. On the other hand, policymakers during the Cold War employed arms control as a tool for enhancing American strengths. For example, the United States used arms control negotiations to limit the number of nuclear weapons throughout the 1970s and 1980s as a component of its offset strategy, which shifted competition with the Soviet Union away from the number of weapons and toward the quality of weapons. This competitive approach to arms control was not schematic but rather evolved significantly over time as American leaders came to realize the true transformative scope of emerging technologies and the depth of the Soviet Union’s struggles to match American breakthroughs. Of course, not all arms control proposals will so readily advance American security. Here, too, intelligence, persistence, and luck are important. Yet, critics who write off arms control as wishful thinking would do well to consider how current and future agreements might be used to enhance and extend American power.

Military competition and arms control are deeply interrelated. The combination of nuclear modernization and arms control negotiation creates a virtuous cycle, aiming ultimately for the sort of “arms control regime” the governed American and Soviet forces at the Cold War’s end, much to the advantage of the United States. Neither nuclear modernization nor arms control negotiations can bring about this sort of success on their own. Nuclear bipartisanship can. 

Next Steps

The Biden administration has already taken the first step toward nuclear bipartisanship by extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for the next five years. This extension will constrain Russian forces while the United States begins the long work of rebuilding its nuclear arsenal. Critics of this extension argue that Biden should have held out for greater concessions from the Russians, but such criticism misreads the sources of American leverage: not the provisions of treaties themselves, but rather the strength of American arms. With Russia so far ahead of the United States in their nuclear modernization, there is little chance of serious concessions in the short term. While not a perfect agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty serves an important bridging function, retaining some constraints on Russian nuclear forces until such time as American modernization can entice them into better arrangements.

The White House and Congress should now recommit to modernizing the American nuclear arsenal, which, despite vague promises in the recent budget topline, remains in doubt. At a minimum, this should include continued funding for the B-21 bomber and the Long-Range Standoff Weapon, the Columbia-class submarine, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile, and fully rebuilt warheads like the W93. This modernization should also embrace key non-nuclear capabilities like ground-based intermediate-range missiles and hypersonic weapons, which the United States will need if it hopes to convince adversaries to restore or establish controls on such weapons. Just as Biden was wise to ignore critics of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, he and congressional leaders should ignore critics of these modernization programs. Such modernization is required for the nuclear bipartisanship on which future arms control successes will depend.

To close the circle, Biden and Congress should link specific modernization goals to specific future arms control objectives, placing adversaries on notice regarding what the United States expects of them in future negotiations and highlighting the real security consequences of ignoring American offers. For example, funding the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile could be tied explicitly to further reducing the size of Russia’s own intercontinental missile forces, as well as a freeze on “new types” of strategic weapons like nuclear-powered cruise missiles or “doomsday” torpedoes. Similarly, the development of new warheads like the W93 could be linked to greater transparency over, and control of, weapons-grade fissile material production and reproduction among the nuclear great powers. New intermediate-range and hypersonic missiles could be linked to the control, and perhaps elimination of, such weapons, much as they were in the 1979 NATO dual track approach. Each of these proposals would improve strategic stability while also channeling competition in ways favorable to American advantages. No doubt the Chinese and Russians would balk at such proposals, but when coupled to steady progress on American nuclear modernization, they could still lay the groundwork for long-term success.

Even in an era of deep political polarization, the president and Congress can advance American security through nuclear bipartisanship. Linking nuclear modernization and strategic arms limitation would promote political cooperation at home and strengthen the United States against the geopolitical challenges of the 21st century.



John D. Maurer is a professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Air University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His book on the history of American arms control policy, Competitive Arms Control, is forthcoming with Yale University Press. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: White House (Photo by Chuck Kennedy)