Four years ago, President Barack Obama warned Donald Trump on his visit to the Oval Office two days after the election that the biggest national security threat he would face was North Korea’s impending ability to fire nuclear missiles against the United States.
President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to see the inside of the Oval Office until after his inauguration on Jan. 20. But had Trump invited his successor, as all his postwar predecessors did, he might have warned Biden that he could face not just one, but possibly three nuclear crises in the coming years.
Not only has North Korea continued to grow its nuclear missile inventory, but also Iran has increased production of nuclear materials tenfold since Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, and the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement with Russia is set to expire within weeks of Biden taking office.
The nuclear threats are but one among a host of pressing issues confronting Biden. The coronavirus pandemic is spreading out of control. The economy is slowing as millions of unemployed are cut off from government support. Racial tensions remain raw as a result of systemic discrimination. Political polarization is deeper and wider than any time since the Civil War. And climate change continues unrelentingly, producing bigger and more frequent storms, larger fires and droughts, and rapidly rising seas.
Even so, the Biden administration can ill afford to ignore any of the nuclear issues when it takes office.
The most pressing is extending the New START treaty with Russia, which is set to expire Feb. 5. Talks with Moscow on extending the treaty have stalled over Trump’s demand for additional restrictions. Though these demands — including a verifiable freeze on the number of all nuclear warheads (strategic and nonstrategic, deployed and stored) — are sensible, it would be much better to negotiate any new provisions after the New START has been extended for five years. Such an extension would, at the very least, keep the arms control framework that has governed U.S.-Russian nuclear relations intact.
The second pressing nuclear issue concerns Iran. In 2018, Trump made good on his campaign pledge to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, which he’d called the "dumbest deal ... in the history of deal-making." But while he reimposed punishing economic sanctions, the decision also freed Tehran to restart its nuclear program.
In recent days, the UN’s nuclear agency reported that Iran had produced almost 2,500 kilograms of enriched uranium, sufficient to build two nuclear bombs, and also restarted advanced machinery to speed up the production process. These reports may explain why Trump last week asked his senior advisers for options to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. Though the president seems to have been persuaded by his advisers that such a strike risked a wider war, the Iran nuclear question remains a pressing concern.
Biden has pledged to return to the original deal, though that won’t be easy. Not only will some of the key provisions in the original deal phase out in a few years, but Iran will likely exact a steep price for returning to compliance, including compensation for the costs of the new sanctions. And in both countries, political opposition to returning to the deal is bound to intensify.
Biden, however, has little choice but to try and negotiate binding limits on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. A nuclear Iran would be destabilizing for the region, and deeply dangerous for the world. The 2015 agreement was hardly perfect, but it was far preferable to the unconstrained growth of Iran’s nuclear program that we’re once again confronting.
The dangers of unrelenting nuclear proliferation are all too apparent in North Korea, the third nuclear crisis confronting Biden. Although Trump and Kim Jong Un met three times and exchanged glowing letters over the past two years, the pleasantries did nothing to curtail North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang has continued to churn out nuclear bombs and new missiles at a fast clip, and last month it showed off new sea- and land-based missiles likely capable of reaching all of U.S. territory.
For 30 years, the United States and its Asian allies have insisted on the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That is still the right goal. But the lesson over five administrations is that we won’t get there in one fell swoop. We need a new incremental approach that starts with freezing current capabilities, extends to closer political negotiations (including a peace treaty), adds arms control measures and builds trust over an extended period. Only then is denuclearization a realistic possibility.
Few presidents have faced as tall and urgent an inbox as the one on the Resolute Desk that awaits Biden as he walks into the Oval Office for the first time as the nation’s 46th president. Among these are three nuclear crises that, if not addressed with urgency, could well come to dominate his entire presidency.
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. He wrote this piece for the Chicago Tribune.