America’s Allies and Nuclear Arms: Assessing the Geopolitics of Nonproliferation in Asia

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While U.S. policymakers and lawmakers sometimes deeply disagree on precisely how to stop hostile states from getting nuclear weapons, they generally agree on the overall goal of nuclear nonproliferation with regard to adversaries. But what about the goal of nonproliferation with regard to treaty allies? If Japan, South Korea, or other U.S. treaty allies in Asia who are threatened by China’s and North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats, were someday to insist on getting independent nuclear arsenals, should Washington welcome or oppose them?

U.S. strategic thinking on this difficult and consequential question is at risk of becoming confused, and even counterproductive. Well-intentioned analysts today are wrongly framing America’s rejection or acceptance of potential nuclear proliferation by allies in Asia as a stark choice between nonproliferation or geopolitics. A spirited exchange in The National Interest illustrates the trend:

  • In a short and thoughtful essay, David Santoro of the Pacific Forum CSIS writes that Washington should choose nonproliferation over geopolitics, arguing: “In the face of Japan’s and South Korea’s nuclearization, the United States should cut them adrift because endorsing their decision (through a UK-like arrangement) or acquiescing to it (à la France) would be untenable.” He adds: “With nonproliferation now proscribed [sic] under international law, entrenched as an international norm, and given such a major focus on U.S. nuclear policy[,] not upholding [nonproliferation] for [America’s] allies would be a nonstarter.”
  • In a nuanced and thoughtful response, however, Elbridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) counters that “geopolitics should trump nonproliferation.” He elaborates: “American foreign policy should be—or, more accurately, must be—guided by elastic political judgment rather than marble dictates, steered by continual recalculation of how to pursue these core national aims in light of a changing international landscape[,] the dimensions of which impose the necessity of choices among goods.”

While Santoro and Colby deserve praise for wrangling today with a policy dilemma that Washington could face in Asia in a not-so-distant tomorrow, their debate rests on a deeply flawed premise—one that pits nonproliferation and geopolitics as rival and mutually-exclusive alternatives.  For the United States, nuclear nonproliferation is fundamentally about geopolitics.  Nonproliferation is not merely an abstract virtue or a feel-good international norm. Rather, it is a concrete reflection of how military power—in particular, a brute and indiscriminately destructive form of military power—is distributed internationally among the United States, its friends, and its foes.

Two geopolitical imperatives drive U.S. efforts to promote nonproliferation with treaty allies. First, when Washington works with allies to uphold nonproliferation, it is opting ultimately to preserve a distribution of military power that, in the face of competitive and resourceful adversaries, advances the security of the United States and its allies, and preserves their political cohesion and military interdependence.  And second, when the United States extends its security guarantee against nuclear attack over non-nuclear-armed allies, it enables them to invest their scarce resources—which they otherwise might spend on independent nuclear strike forces— instead on critical conventional military capabilities, and thus to share better with Washington the alliance burdens of meeting more likely and pervasive less-than-nuclear threats.

When the United Kingdom and France went nuclear during the Cold War, these geopolitical imperatives drove Washington to pursue an alliance-based strategy that successfully persuaded other treaty allies—especially those in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) threatened by the Soviet Union’s superpower-sized nuclear stockpile— from getting the bomb. As U.S. decisionmakers confront the growing challenges posed by Asia’s complex web of antagonisms, they ignore, at the nation’s peril, the profound overlap between nonproliferation and geopolitics.

The remainder of this analysis is available on the Project 2049 Institute's website.

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