January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph

Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Current Policy

Over the past four years, the Trump administration demonstrated a readiness to walk away from arms control agreements whose strategic utility it questioned, especially when other parties were no longer compliant.

After several attempts to encourage Russian compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Washington formally left the treaty in August 2019. Moscow’s violations included the development, testing, and deployment of prohibited missiles.1 Following the U.S. departure, NATO assigned “sole responsibility” for the treaty’s collapse to Russia.2 Then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the United States plans to deploy ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Asia, but the Pentagon has not yet done so.3

In May 2020, the administration declared its intention to leave another Cold War-era agreement, the 34-member Open Skies Treaty (OST), again citing Russian violations.4 Despite meeting with the Russians in July, the United States exited the OST in November. At the time of this writing, New START, which is set to expire in February 2021, remains the only strategic-level arms control agreement in place with the Russian Federation. During fall negotiations between Washington and Moscow, the Trump administration appeared open to an extension, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.5

The expected expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal deepened U.S. hesitancy to commit to its own restrictions. Chinese military modernization increasingly challenges Washington’s force planning and deterrence posture, creating an operational requirement for missiles previously banned by the INF Treaty.

The Trump administration also withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Instead, the administration pursued a “maximum pressure” strategy with the stated purpose of bringing Tehran back to the table to negotiate a better deal.6 For their part, Iranian officials continued rejecting reengagement with America.

In 2018, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to hold a summit with his North Korean counterpart and aimed for a denuclearization agreement. At the working level, the administration was unable to reach even the contours of a comprehensive agreement, reportedly due to Pyongyang’s insistence on substantial sanctions relief in return for abandoning only certain nuclear facilities.7 Despite the stalemate, North Korea abided by a temporary prohibition on long-range missile and nuclear tests, a moratorium whose utility rapidly diminished as short-range tests and long-range weapons development continued.8

Washington reportedly explored the prospect of conducting a nuclear test of its own, both in response to U.S. allegations indicating Russia and China had conducted low-yield tests and to gain leverage in future arms control negotiations. This was in spite of the international norm against nuclear testing, established by the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States signed but has not ratified.9

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-21D “carrier-killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles drive past Tiananmen Gate on September 3, 2015, in Beijing, China, during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. (Photo by Andy Wong – Pool /Getty Images)

With regard to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the administration took only limited efforts to shore up the treaty in response to Russia’s use of Novichok nerve agents against enemies of the state. In 2019, the United States imposed two rounds of sanctions on Moscow for a 2018 attack in the United Kingdom.10 Unlike Europe, the administration did not sanction Russia for a second attack in August 2020. Nor did it fulfill its legal obligation to issue a determination regarding Moscow’s culpability.11 Moscow has exploited this inertia by attempting to obstruct efforts at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to hold Russia and Syria accountable for the use of banned chemical weapons.12

Despite the administration’s skepticism of multilateralism, Washington continued supporting certain international nonproliferation efforts, for example by remaining in forums such as the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification even though Russia and China participate only as observers.13

Finally, the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic underscored major deficiencies in U.S. biological event preparedness.


The Trump administration exited arms control and nonproliferation agreements where doing so could boost U.S. leverage with negotiating partners, shaking conventional wisdom about leaving such agreements.14 Nonetheless, before withdrawing, Washington should both employ coercive diplomacy to push other parties to return to compliance, as well as conduct red-team exercises to prepare for and offset withdrawal-related fallout. The medium- to long-term costs of the Trump administration’s approach remain to be seen and may be dampened by the Biden administration’s stated intention to return to or extend select agreements.

To no avail, both the Obama and Trump administrations spent years engaged in compliance negotiations with Russia to save the INF Treaty. These efforts, along with the strength of the U.S. arguments for withdrawal, helped ensure NATO unity, despite the tumultuous relationship between Trump and his European counterparts. The administration also correctly identified OST as a stand-in for actual transparency.

China’s development of INF-applicable ballistic and cruise missiles also spurred the American departure.15 The Trump administration endeavored to include China in negotiations for a trilateral nuclear reduction agreement, yet Beijing refused to participate in any such talks until Washington and Moscow further reduce their much larger nuclear stockpiles.16

Regarding Iran, the Trump administration framed its departure from the JCPOA as part of a larger coercive policy intended to secure a better deal. Rather than negotiate, Tehran aimed to outlast the Trump administration’s pressure policy.17 In a bid for leverage, Tehran substantially regrew its uranium enrichment program. As of November 2020, Iran’s “breakout time,” or the time required to produce adequate fissile material for one nuclear weapon, had dropped from seven to 12 months under the JCPOA to around 3.5 months.18

Critics insist that this reduction in breakout time demonstrates the failure of the administration’s pressure policy,19 yet only 20 months have passed since the toughest sanctions returned and waivers permitting oil sales were revoked. As the JCPOA experience demonstrated, greater patience is necessary to secure meaningful concessions from a resolute rogue regime.

After his initial summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump prematurely claimed to have resolved the North Korean nuclear threat. At their second summit, however, Trump walked away from the table after sensing that Kim wanted to secure economic relief in exchange for token nuclear concessions. Since then, the administration maintained an uneasy détente with Pyongyang, at the cost of letting diplomatic pressure on Kim erode. All the while, according to a UN panel of experts, the regime persisted in circumventing UN sanctions.20

Despite various adversaries’ nuclear advances, Trump’s apparent interest in resuming nuclear testing was misguided because there are much better ways to demonstrate American military might. Appropriately, the administration’s own Nuclear Posture Review called “on all states possessing nuclear weapons to declare or maintain a moratorium” on testing and specified no current technical need for explosive tests.21 Rather, the United States retains the ability to check the reliability of its nuclear forces through computational testing and experimental means.

Regarding the CWC, the Trump administration’s failure to shore up global norms against the use of chemical weapons catalyzed Congress to advocate for penalizing Russia. Congressional initiatives included proposed Senate legislation, the passage of a bipartisan House resolution, and demands for executive action.22 With this opportunity, Congress may increasingly seek to reclaim its historical role as a shaper of U.S. nonproliferation policy.

Finally, despite the administration’s development of a National Biodefense Strategy in 2018,23 followed by an implementing directive from the president, the Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. biodefense enterprise still has “no clear processes, roles or responsibilities for joint decision making.” America must better prepare for the next biological event, whether natural or intentional.24


  • Extend New START and seek further agreements that are enforceable and verifiable. China’s nuclear weapons capacity is growing, but Washington should still be prepared to explore threat reduction and arms control measures with Beijing where possible. In the interim, the United States and Russia should agree to a modified extension of New START on an annual basis for up to five years, using this time to negotiate with Russia on a follow-on treaty for further reductions, assess Moscow’s willingness to begin talks on new missile systems, and improve verification.
  • Capitalize on existing leverage to secure a better Iran deal. The Biden administration should build on the existing U.S. sanctions architecture and attempt to expand a coalition for pressure with Britain, France, and Germany to elicit concessions from Iran, rather than offer premature concessions in a bid to restore Iranian compliance with the timebound and flawed JCPOA. Washington, with its partners, should seek a broader deal that also addresses Tehran’s missiles, arms transfers, and other malign regional activities.
  • Hold firm on demands for the complete denuclearization of North Korea, and close international sanctions gaps. The United States should commit over the long-term to North Korea’s full, complete, and verifiable denuclearization as the basis for negotiations, withholding sanctions relief until Pyongyang agrees to a rapid timetable for dismantlement and verification. In the meantime, Washington should seek additional UN blacklisting of North Korea sanctions violators and use diplomatic pressure and the threat of designations to convince other countries to crack down on Pyongyang’s illicit activity.
  • Do not resume U.S. nuclear weapons testing. U.S. nuclear testing would risk destroying carefully built international norms and invite reciprocal testing by China and Russia. For now, the United States should continue tracking any low-yield testing efforts by China and Russia and address potential violations through diplomatic means.
  • Strive for uniform enforcement of global nonproliferation rules. Washington should provide conventional means of assurance to partners in the Middle East and Northeast Asia who are under threat from revisionist powers, to discourage them from hedging by exploring nuclear weapons capabilities.25
  • Strengthen the coalition to hold Russia and Syria accountable at the OPCW. This is an important opportunity to show that multilateral organizations are capable of enforcing global norms. 
  • Aggressively fund biological event preparedness efforts and implement a holistic U.S. health security strategy. In line with the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy, Washington should ensure the biological event preparedness enterprise is adequately governed and resourced and ensure well-coordinated national efforts to identify and respond to outbreaks of disease.
  • Strengthen regional and homeland missile defense capabilities. Washington should both expedite the sale of missile defense systems to U.S. partners and better protect deployed American assets with layered missile defenses. To improve homeland missile defense against evolving threats, the United States should seek deployment of another radar system abroad and aggressively fund the development and deployment of Next-Generation Interceptors as part of its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system.26
  • Continue to make the case for the expansion and better implementation of the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. Increased membership and adherence to voluntary regimes can help constrain the proliferation of missiles and delivery system technologies.
  • Strengthen Congress’ oversight and substantive role in nonproliferation and arms control issues. U.S. policy is more effective when Congress has a say in nonproliferation and arms control policies, programs, and agreements. To that end, Congress should strengthen its ability to evaluate and oversee executive initiatives. The administration should seek to incorporate Congress in future negotiations and submit all such agreements for ratification as treaties.