Could Biden’s Legacy Be Leaving Behind a Safer World?

October 11, 2021
Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

On this day 35 years ago, a deal was almost struck that would have radically altered human history. Every person on earth was achingly close to living in a world free from the threat of nuclear annihilation, closer than at any time since the first U.S.-Soviet arms race spun up. In the end, it was not to be. 

Now, 35 years later, President Biden could revive that historic opportunity, forever ensure his legacy and, more importantly, vastly increase U.S. – and global – security, making every human on earth safer.

Let’s look back at the missed opportunity. On October 11, 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland. Much to the consternation of many of the president’s hawkish advisors, the two leaders agreed on “the desirability of getting rid of nuclear weapons” and intently discussed proposals for doing so. The big sticking point was “Star Wars,” President Reagan’s techno-fantasy of a perfect shield against incoming long-range missiles. Gorbachev wanted research on the system to be confined to the laboratory, but Reagan refused, and the talks collapsed.

Thirty-five years later, the goal that Reagan and Gorbachev set still makes sense, particularly for the United States. No country would benefit more from the elimination of nuclear weapons, as they constitute the greatest direct threat to our nation’s survival. 

We can’t go back in time, but we can go back to Reykjavik and back to the negotiating table. With that in mind, President Biden should invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to join him in Reykjavik and put on the table the elimination of nuclear weapons. If he is feeling highly ambitious, Biden could invite China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to join them. China has made it clear that it will only join negotiations on limiting its nuclear arsenal when the United States and Russia come down to its level. Setting a goal of zero, particularly in combination with progress on other international arms control treaties, could open that door at a time when it is desperately needed.

The current situation is dire. Russia is abiding by the New START agreement limiting US and Russian long-range nuclear weapons but is also developing a host of new types of weapons, several of which the treaty does not regulate, as well as short-range systems. China is constructing hundreds of new missile silos, while the United States ramps up efforts to rebuild and enhance every weapon in its nuclear arsenal, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Make no mistake, it would take masterful diplomacy to achieve such a deal. Putin is nothing like the creative, open leader Gorbachev was, and Russia today is very different from the Soviet Union in 1986. One thing would not change: the United States would have to agree to strict limits on missile defenses. Such limits are entirely sensible due to the inherent flaws in such systems and the destabilizing impacts of deploying them. Politically, however, limits are extremely challenging, to put it mildly. To make it work would require a far-reaching, verifiable agreement that will re-cast the entire U.S.-Russian security framework.

But even if that is too much to ask, a bold step by the president to start arms control discussions with the most optimistic outcome in mind could lead to other benefits. Indeed, while Reagan and Gorbachev failed in 1986 to agree on the elimination of all nuclear weapons, their near-miss did not stop them, and in 1987 they agreed, under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons, the first arms control agreement to achieve such a standard. (Sadly, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of that treaty, a regrettable choice that only undermines U.S. security.)

Admittedly, the president already has a lot on his plate, from the negotiations with Congress over trillions of dollars in spending to the fallout from the painful withdrawal from Afghanistan. But in that context, working in a space where he and his team have full control of the U.S. position, negotiations on eliminating nuclear weapons would give the president a new, inspiring direction that could literally change history forever.

Mr. President, be bold. You have much to gain and little to lose. Relying forever on nuclear weapons for security is in essence a suicide pact among the nuclear-armed states. You can break the pact and give every human a better chance at a bright future.