Opinion: The great powers are itching for another nuclear arms race. Who will stop them?

Activists rally at a press conference calling for the divestment from nuclear weapons.
Activists rally at a press conference calling for the divestment from nuclear weapons in New York City in 2020. It’s time for the public to protest a new nuclear arms race.
(Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden / Sipa USA / Associated Press)
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In early June, the Biden administration announced a more “competitive” nuclear weapons strategy, after Moscow and Beijing reportedly spurned U.S. efforts to discuss arms control. The new approach includes the possibility of increasing America’s deployment of strategic nuclear weapons. The administration’s more muscular stance may be only a small down payment on an even larger nuclear buildup foreshadowed in a recent report mandated by Congress. The public has a compelling interest in participating in this discussion now, before the bills and risks come due.

“How much is enough” regarding America’s nuclear forces is not a new question. It has been debated by political, military and scientific leaders since the first two nuclear weapons were used to end the Second World War almost 80 years ago. Today, Washington and our two most likely nuclear adversaries, Russia and China, are all examining their nuclear ledgers to account for growing tensions in great-power relations, new technologies such as artificial intelligence and cyber warfare and emerging battlefields in space.

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Will the American people have a voice in this debate? Historically, there have been moments when public opinion has driven nuclear policy, and not simply through elected representatives in Congress voting on defense appropriations. Widespread concerns over radioactive fallout helped drive negotiations that banned atmospheric nuclear testing in the early 1960s. In the early 1980s, millions turned out in the United States and Europe to protest the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear weapons, which put pressure on President Reagan and the U.S.S.R.’s Mikhail Gorbachev to negotiate a ban on these systems.


Yet it has been decades since the American public has weighed in en masse on nuclear policy, leaving the discussions to a small number of government, civilian and military bureaucrats and members of Congress.

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The rest of us have practical and existential reasons to get engaged. To begin, the resources required to maintain or expand our nuclear arsenal are substantial — hundreds of billions of dollars for new land-based nuclear missiles, bombers and submarines. This will come at a substantial cost to other defense capabilities and domestic priorities. Even more profoundly, a more aggressive nuclear policy and the mere existence of more weapons may increase the risk of nuclear use, which poses an existential threat to us all. As the former CIA deputy director for intelligence rightly said to then-national security advisor Henry Kissinger decades ago, “Once nuclear weapons start landing, the response is likely to be irrational.”

Based on research by independent experts published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the United States today deploys more than 1,700 nuclear weapons. Roughly half of these warheads are on “day to day” alert, ready to be launched within minutes. Half of these are deployed at sea, immune from attack. Any rational nuclear adversary — say Russia or China, alone or together — must conclude that the use of even one nuclear weapon against the United States or its allies in Europe or Asia would likely trigger a massive American nuclear response that could obliterate an aggressors’ leadership, military forces and industry. And the sobering reality is that a rational U.S. president must conclude the same with respect to Russia, which deploys roughly the same number of nuclear weapons as the U.S., and China, with a much smaller but growing nuclear inventory.

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Adding more nuclear weapons, missile silos, bombers or submarines to the mix in China, Russia or the U.S. — or applying new technologies, whether in speed or power — will not change the nuclear fundamentals: Use even one nuclear weapon and risk nuclear retaliation and a wider nuclear war that would destroy nations. The wise course for the U.S. is to ensure an adequate nuclear deterrent that places a premium on survivability, which means firepower and totals limited to the current arsenal, or even fewer.

Everyday Americans can and should campaign against this dangerous nuclear expansion. And beyond that, we can support what the United States has slowly been doing, reducing the risks of a nuclear use by reducing global nuclear arms through sound security policies and diplomacy.

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We can also support efforts to make the stockpile we have safer. In a rare but laudable bipartisan initiative, Congress directed the Biden administration to conduct an internal review of America’s nuclear command-and-control systems, including “fail-safe” steps to strengthen safeguards against cyber warfare threats and the unauthorized, inadvertent or accidental use of a nuclear weapon. The review is due out in the fall, and it will almost certainly call for new investments to securely maintain a nuclear deterrent for as long as one is needed. That would be money well spent by Washington — and something that should be encouraged in every nuclear-armed state.


No question, the U.S. is now in an across-the-board competition with China and Russia. In Europe, it is centered on the war in Ukraine and deterring any further attacks by Russia on our NATO allies. The competition with China is much broader: There is an increasing military component in the South China sea and Taiwan, but the economic and technology race is as consequential.

“Winning” this competition will require a number of increased investments and initiatives, such as shoring up our conventional military capabilities, leading the artificial intelligence revolution, developing defenses against cyber attacks and expanding clean energy alternatives. Making expensive investments in nuclear capabilities beyond what is adequate for deterrence would mean running this race carrying a heavy sandbag on our shoulders.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, less is more.

Steve Andreasen was the National Security Council’s staff director for defense policy and arms control from 1993 to 2001. He teaches at the public affairs school of the University of Minnesota.