North Korea and Umbrella Proliferation

As North Korea and Iran raise their nuclear ante, Washington “affirms” security guarantees to friendly states. But will America ultimately risk Los Angeles to protect Taipei?

South Korea's foreign minister predicts that Pyongyang will soon return to the six-party nuclear talks, which Beijing says are slated to begin this coming Thursday, but the United States doesn't seem so sure. After reports that North Korea was preparing to conduct a second nuclear test, Washington sent a squadron of stealth fighters to South Korea-supposedly a "routine deployment." Still, talk of a renewed nuclear freeze is wafting through Asian capitals, even as a British newspaper charges that North Korea has been aiding Iran's nuclear program.

Maybe the United States and its allies will strike an accord with Pyongyang next week, but North Korea has been dashing the hopes of Western diplomats for years. With military pre-emption seemingly off the table, despite the arrival of the F-117 Nighthawk fighters, what can be done if the North forges ahead?  The conventional wisdom is to strengthen and extend America's nuclear umbrella.

Umbrella Proliferation

Indeed, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded to recent talk about possible development of a countervailing Japanese or South Korean nuclear weapon by flying to East Asia.  She declared:  "It's extremely important to go out and to affirm, and affirm strongly, U.S. defense commitments to Japan and to South Korea." Those promises were understood to be nuclear.  Tokyo, in particular, responded by disclaiming any interest in going nuclear.

Although America's nuclear umbrella for Japan dates back to the end of World War II, the United States has not limited nuclear guarantees to historic allies. In order to convince Ukraine to disgorge the nuclear weapons that remained on its territory after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Washington reportedly provided Kiev with some security guarantees. Whether they include a promise to use nuclear weapons against Russia on behalf of Ukraine has never been revealed. In any case, Kiev may have given up its ultimate deterrent in the belief that Washington was offering an implicit commitment.

Moreover, Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post wants America to provide nuclear guarantees for the Middle East.  He writes: "Bush should announce that he wants consultations with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states-as well as principal U.S. allies in Europe-on extending a U.S. or NATO nuclear umbrella over friendly states in the Gulf."  This would, Hoagland contends, "enable Arab states to forgo developing their own nuclear programs, just as the U.S.-Japan bilateral security treaty is intended to keep Japan nuclear-free."

It's one thing to promise to respond to a nuclear attack by a potential global hegemon, the Soviet Union, against a major ally, such as Germany or Japan, especially when Washington has deliberately disarmed them. Very different is to promise to protect Jordan or Kuwait, friendly countries, true, but neither historic nor important allies, against an attack by Iran, a regional power without global reach.  The latter is an extraordinary extension of a doctrine fraught with danger.

The Tripwire Doctrine

The principle behind extending Washington's nuclear umbrella is deterrence. That is, smaller nations, even if evil or aggressive, will not risk American retaliation by threatening friendly states.  Moreover, friendly states, sheltered behind a U.S. guarantee, will avoid taking steps opposed by Washington-most particularly, constructing their own nuclear weapons.

Undoubtedly, security commitments help deter. The possibility of U.S. intervention raises the cost of war, and thereby discourages aggression. If aggression is less likely, then so is the likelihood that countries will adopt extreme defensive measures. Advocates of extended security commitments, and particularly nuclear guarantees, emphasize these effects.

However, though a military guarantee may help deter conflict in this way, it makes conflict more likely in other ways. First, if the U.S. commitment is not credible, there is no deterrent effect. Even a written treaty may not be enough. The famous Chinese challenge-you won't risk Los Angeles to protect Taipei-suggests some doubt in Beijing that the United States would pay the potential price of confronting a nuclear power in order to protect a peripheral geopolitical interest.

Second, if war erupts, U.S. involvement (assuming America makes good on its promise) is automatic. Washington loses the ability to weigh costs and benefits in the particular case at the particular time. For decades the quintessential example of this policy was the forward deployment of U.S. forces in Korea, the so-called "tripwire" that ensured sufficient American deaths in any North Korean invasion to trigger U.S. involvement.  That policy may have reduced the likelihood of war breaking out, but only by ensuring U.S. involvement in any conflict.

Even a small risk of war would be extraordinarily dangerous when dealing with nuclear-armed states. Confronting China, which has global ambitions, or even Iran or North Korea, assuming they develop a capacity to hit the United States, would be far different than attacking Serbia or Iraq. It would be tragically ironic to survive the Cold War without a nuclear exchange and then blunder into one by intervening in a small conflict of limited importance.