Choose Geopolitics Over Nonproliferation

If South Korea and Japan develop nuclear weapons, that doesn't mean we should abandon our alliances with them.

Editor’s Note: Please take a look at Elbridge Colby’s recent debate with T. X. Hammes: AirSea Battle vs. Offshore Control.

In a thoughtful and provocative January essay, David Santoro argues that America’s East Asian allies are likely to face increasing incentives to throw off their nonproliferation straitjacket and seek to obtain nuclear weapons if North Korean belligerence worsens and China’s ambitious assertiveness waxes. Santoro contends that, if Tokyo or Seoul elect to pursue nuclear weapons of their own, Washington will be faced with a stark choice. On the one hand, the United States could swallow the bitter pill of indigenous allied nuclear weapons capabilities, the development of which Washington has opposed, for the sake of what he terms “geopolitical” considerations. Or, on the other hand, Washington could hold true to the nonproliferation gospel that any further proliferation is too perilous to regional stability and menacing to the nonproliferation order, and so take the road of “terminating its alliances.” Santoro admirably doesn’t beat around the bush and forthrightly argues that, in the event U.S. allies like Japan or South Korea make for a nuclear weapons capability, Washington should “cut them adrift” and end its alliances with them. In his words, nonproliferation should trump geopolitics.

Santoro is to be commended for making his case clearly and for highlighting the increasingly pressing question of how to address U.S. allies’ disquiet about the reliability and credibility of our extended deterrent. But he is wrong to argue that we should, in all or even most of the variants of the scenario he posits, terminate our alliances with Japan or South Korea if they pursue nuclear weapons.

More broadly, he is wrong to contend that nonproliferation should trump geopolitics. Santoro is wrong because there are numerous plausible scenarios in which it would be ill-advised and perhaps even foolhardy for the United States to abandon its long-established and valuable alliances with two of the world’s largest powers for the sake of a principle that, while certainly valid and thus worth pursuing, should not be held as the highest good of U.S. foreign policy. In other words, geopolitics should trump nonproliferation.

Why? Because the specific characteristics of American foreign policy, including its alliance relationships and its nonproliferation policies, should not be fixed but, like Aristotelian morality, should be determined by reference to a more fundamental focus—in the case of U.S. foreign policy, on the broad-minded defense of Americans’ lives, liberties and prosperity, and on the enlightened advancement of their interests in the international arena. And, because the world is ever-changing—with new powers rising and old powers falling, new threats emerging and old ones falling away, and new opportunities opening and old ones closing—the specific characteristics of the fulfillment of this broad mandate are inherently subject to change. Thus 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.

This is of direct relevance in the scenario Santoro paints. Nonproliferation is unquestionably a great good. Contra Kenneth Waltz, the world is almost certainly better off with fewer rather than more nuclear-weapons states for all the reasons that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, analysts like Scott Sagan, and many others have amply elucidated. Moreover, it is of particular value for the United States, as nonproliferation helps Washington maintain the leverage it enjoys as one of the only nuclear powers, and one of only two nuclear superpowers.