Nov 8, 2021 - Politics & Policy

First look: Top Republicans demand nuclear questionnaire

Biden with Lloyd Austin and Antony Blinken
Secretaries Blinken (third from left) and Austin (right) attend a Cabinet meeting with President Biden. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Top House Republicans are calling on the Biden administration to provide the questions and answers to a survey in which U.S. allies reportedly expressed grave concerns about a potential policy shift limiting the conditions under which the U.S. might use nuclear weapons.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is conducting a major nuclear posture review. It will have implications for both allies and strategic competitors like Russia and China, which are modernizing and expanding their nuclear arsenals.

The big picture: The review, expected to conclude some time next year, will determine whether the U.S. will adopt President Biden's campaign position, which stated the "sole purpose" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be to deter or retaliate against a nuclear attack.

  • Biden has also previously suggested he may support a "no first-use" policy, saying in 2017: "Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats — it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense."
  • Either policy would mark a major departure from the intentionally ambiguous position the U.S. has held for decades, which has left the door open to a possible preemptive nuclear strike, nuclear response to conventional warfare or a defense of U.S. allies who are attacked.

Driving the news: The Financial Times reported the Biden administration sent a questionnaire to allies earlier this year asking for their opinions about a change to nuclear policy, and the responses were "overwhelmingly negative."

  • Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday.
  • The lawmakers asked them for a copy of the questionnaire and the answers, and sought any other cables or memos concerning ally views of a potential change in U.S. declaratory policy.

What they're saying: A senior congressional source tells Axios that putting aside the questionnaire, it's "hard to find" a major European ally that hasn't registered its concerns with lawmakers about the possible shift.

  • A State Department spokesperson told Axios the administration is seeking to "take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. national security strategy, while ensuring the U.S. strategic deterrent remains safe, secure and effective, and that U.S. extended deterrence commitments to U.S. allies remain strong and credible."
  • The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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