America's goal of stopping nuclear non-proliferation has suffered two serious setbacks in recent years. Both North Korea and Iran appear to be pursuing ambitious nuclear weapons programs. What U.S. officials have not recognized is that such actions are a logical, perhaps even inevitable, response to the foreign policy the United States has pursued since the end of the Cold War. Washington may have tried to shape the international system with the best of motives, believing that taking action against unsavory states would both enhance America's security and advance the goals of peace and justice in the world. But as generations of realist scholars have shown, other nations may not concede that the motives of an activist power are benign. What might seem to U.S. policymakers justifiable, even noble, behavior may seem threatening to nations that have a less than cordial relationship with the United States.
Consider the extent of U.S. military action since the opening of the Berlin Wall. The United States has engaged in nine major military operations during that period. Moreover, in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush explicitly linked both North Korea and Iran to Iraq (a country with which the United States was clearly headed to war) in an "axis of evil." In the wake of Bush's decision to engage in pre-emptive regime change in Iraq, it is hardly surprising that Pyongyang and Tehran concluded that they might be next on Washington's hit list unless they could effectively deter an attack. Yet, neither country could hope to match the conventional military capabilities of a superpower. The most reliable deterrent--maybe the only reliable deterrent--is to have nuclear weapons. In other words, U.S. behavior may have inadvertently created a powerful incentive for the proliferation of nuclear weapons--the last thing Washington wanted.