Taiwan sits barely 100 miles off China’s coast and is increasingly vulnerable to attack by Beijing. America’s ambiguous, uncertain promise to defend the island will become increasingly difficult to back with military force. Imagine China attempting to defend Cuba from the United States. Taipei and America would be far more secure if the former possessed its own nuclear deterrent.
Much the same has been noted for Ukraine, which abandoned its Soviet hand-me-down nukes in 1994. In return, through the Budapest Memorandum, Kyiv received promises by the guaranteeing powers, including Moscow, to go to the United Nations if Ukraine was attacked. Which deterred no one. Although Kyiv did not possess the operational codes for its nuclear inheritance, the Ukrainian heirs might have eventually found a way to put the component parts to effective use. It is unlikely that Russia would have attacked a nuclear-armed Kyiv.
Paying to defend European states that in turn invest in generous social benefits for their peoples is a bizarre form of international wealth redistribution.
With North Korea’s relentless nuclear buildup and China’s evident intention to turn the U.S.–Russian nuclear duo into a threesome, South Korea and Japan are growing increasingly uncomfortable relying on Washington through “extended deterrence,” by which American officials promise to trade Los Angeles and New York for Seoul and Tokyo. Hence South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s dramatic expression of interest in acquiring an independent nuclear deterrent a half century after Seoul abandoned its nuclear program only under extreme pressure from the Nixon administration.
The American Spectator’s Francis P. Sempa attributes Yoon’s interest in nukes, as well as similar political currents in Japan, to the Biden administration’s failings. The latter are many, of course, but allies’ diminishing faith in America’s willingness to commit nuclear suicide over less-than-vital interests goes far deeper than the follies of one president. (Indeed, though President Joe Biden’s exit from Afghanistan was botched, staying would have been a far greater blow to American credibility, wasting even more lives and money in trying to implant democracy in Central Asia.)
The fundamental problem is that extended deterrence itself looks increasingly dubious. Observed Foreign Policy’s Stephen M. Walt:
[C]onvincing people you might use nuclear weapons to defend an ally isn’t easy. One might imagine a U.S. president using nuclear weapons to retaliate against a direct attack on U.S. territory or to deter the extremely unlikely prospect of a conventional invasion that threatened U.S. independence. This is the one thing nuclear weapons are good for: deterring existential threats to their possessors’ independence or autonomy.… Because the balance of resolve favors the defender, even much weaker nuclear powers can deter enemies from attacking them directly. If you don’t find this argument persuasive, remember the U.S. attacked non-nuclear Iraq in 2003 and non-nuclear Libya in 2011, but it leaves nuclear-armed North Korea alone.
Promises to defend allies, which almost by definition matter less than the homeland, always will be less convincing. After all, America could survive, however uneasily, in a world without them. Indeed, during the Cold War, military commanders said they would recommend against using tactical nukes in Europe, since the consequences would be so grievous — including the potential for escalation.
Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara offered a sobering analysis four decades ago. He contended that once nukes started flying, full-scale nuclear war could scarcely be avoided:
Such an expectation requires the assumption that even though the initial strikes would have inflicted large-scale casualties and damage to both sides, one or the other—feeling disadvantaged—would give in. But under such circumstances, leaders on both sides would be under unimaginable pressure to avenge their losses and secure the interests being challenged. And each would fear that the opponent might launch a larger attack at any moment. Moreover, they would both be operating with only partial information because of the disruption to communications caused by the chaos on the battlefield (to say nothing of possible strikes against communications facilities). Under such conditions, it is highly likely that rather than surrender, each side would launch a larger attack, hoping that this step would bring the action to a halt by causing the opponent to capitulate.
Maybe that wouldn’t happen. Maybe responsible leaders would see the looming abyss and halt in time. Maybe. However, that is not the most likely reaction. What risks are Americans prepared to take? The result would not be “just” the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans. It could be the destruction of America as we know it.
For what should we accept such risks? European countries that, after 70 years of NATO membership and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, still believe their security is America’s responsibility? Japan, which, had it spent a measly 2 percent of gross domestic product on its military over the last decade, would possess a navy strong enough to protect the homeland, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and surrounding waters? South Korea, well able to defend itself, possessing 50 times the economic strength and twice the population of the North? And Taiwan, which has lagged badly in its own defense efforts, preferring to rely on Washington?
The situation will become infinitely more dangerous when North Korea perfects its nuclear deterrent. Estimates of Pyongyang’s current nuclear arsenal are inexact, but the North Koreans likely possess sufficient fissile material for 45–55 weapons. Alas, that’s just today. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un recently announced plans for an “exponential increase” in the North’s nuclear arsenal. The Asan Institute for Policy Studies and RAND Corporation have warned that North Korea could possess between 151 and 242 weapons by 2027, making Pyongyang a dangerous secondary nuclear power, well capable of destroying America. Equally disturbing, noted Asan/RAND, is that the North likely will possess “several dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and hundreds of theater missiles for delivering the nuclear weapons.”
Kim is not suicidal and won’t launch a first strike on the U.S. However, he could respond to Washington’s entry into a Korean War II by threatening to strike the American homeland. Imagine a reprise of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s 1950 march toward the Yalu River, met this time not by China’s entry but by the use of tactical nukes backed by a threat to destroy cities across the U.S.
This illustrates the potential high cost of extended deterrence. Washington officials endlessly repeat the claim that allies are a force multiplier. In theory that could be the case, but not when supposed friends act as shameless international leeches, long-term defense dependents that treat the military as a form of international welfare. Paying to defend European states that in turn invest in generous social benefits for their peoples is a bizarre form of international wealth redistribution.
Add to that the much-increased risk of nuclear war and the bargain looks a lot worse. China, North Korea, and Russia are all malign powers. None, however, is suicidal. All have developed and expanded nuclear arsenals to deter America. Thankfully, none of Washington’s disputes with them are worth nuclear war. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the trio would go to war with the U.S. — other than over one of America’s many defense dependents. The simplest step to improve this nation’s security might be to end extended deterrence.
Despite the hopes of abolitionists, nuclear weapons are not going to disappear. Pandora’s box has been opened, and there is no way to press nuclear knowledge, along with the weapons, back into it. The best Washington can do is restrict their use to the defense of America. And step out of the way if friendly democratic powers in Asia or Europe decide to develop their own.
Ultimately, the problem is the profoundly messy world, not the addled Biden administration.