Chuck Hagel, US Secretary of Defense from 2013-2015, Malcolm Rifkind, British Foreign Secretary and then Secretary of Defense in the 1990s, Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia from 2007-2010 and then 2013, and Evo Adler, permanent US envoy to NATO Between 2009-2013, they all wrote their pessimistic assessments of the global nuclear situation in the post-Trump era. The general tone is a common boredom over the weakness of European cooperation with regard to military updates, military spending and nuclear coordination, in addition to what the assessment reflects on the desire of many US allies to arm themselves with the bomb, most notably Japan and Turkey, doubting the ability of the United States to fulfill its obligations. More details in the article.
It’s the year 2030, seismic monitoring systems have just revealed a sudden underground atomic explosion, a sign that another country has joined the growing nuclear armament club. There are now 20 countries of this type, twice more than the figure in 2021. The surprising thing is that nuclear proliferation did not come from failed states that have long pursued blackmail in this file, but from a group of countries that have long been viewed as cautious states obeying the law: Allies of the United States. Despite their pledge to renounce nuclear armament a few decades ago when signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), these allies changed their minds and withdrew from the treaty, a step that led to further setbacks as more countries around the world entered the race to obtain the bomb. . Thus the number of nuclear policymakers multiplied, increasing the prospects for the terrifying possibility: the possibility of operating one of these lethal weapons.
Is it unlikely? Perhaps, but that scenario is more plausible at the moment than many people think. Although the spread of nuclear weapons in recent decades has been concentrated in the Middle East and Asia, things have not always been the case. In the 1960s, Washington was anxious about its allies in Asia and Europe seeking nuclear weapons capabilities, and the US Intelligence Office predicted that by the mid-1970s there might be between 10 to 15 nuclear powers in the world, including Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Turkey. The NPT was specifically designed to prevent this possibility, and since its signing in 1968, only four countries – India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – have acquired nuclear operating powers. This success was achieved in large part thanks to the concerted effort of the United States in expanding its nuclear umbrella to include allied countries. Following assurances that they would be protected by the United States in the event of a nuclear threat or attack, the US allies in Asia and Europe decided not to develop nuclear capabilities of their own.
But they may be currently in the process of rethinking that decision. In both Asia and Europe, the allies of the United States are facing a threat from powers possessing nuclear weapons, while China and Russia are working to sharpen and modernize their nuclear forces. As for the United States, the allies still see it as a government that has abandoned its long-standing obligations in arms control agreements, and a people that does not seem to want to continue its global commitment. All of this left US allies wondering whether it would be possible to continue to rely on Washington for defense and security or whether it was time to think about getting the bomb.
In his inaugural speech, President Joe Biden pledged, “We will mend our alliances.” But after so much that the Trump administration has done to shake confidence, he will require the United States more than words to reassure allies of US commitments and erase ideas of joining the nuclear club. Restoring confidence in nuclear file guarantees, revitalizing defense cooperation with allies, and rethinking arms control, all of which will require the United States to take concrete steps. It is true that it is a huge agenda, but it is possible to do it.
Most of the discussions about the US nuclear umbrella took place in allied capitals in private, but signs of uneasiness began to appear. In Germany, doubts about the credibility of the United States have surfaced in official circles, and a growing number of voices outside the government have suggested finding possible alternatives to the US nuclear guarantee. Some of them suggested relying on an alternative European nuclear umbrella consisting of a mixture of French and British capabilities, financed by Germany, possibly and other non-nuclear European countries. For its part, France called on friendly European countries to engage in a “strategic dialogue” on European nuclear deterrence, and raised the possibility of participating in nuclear exercises.
In Poland, voices called for the provision of European nuclear deterrence, while Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the country’s ruling party, welcomed the idea of a European nuclear power that has an arsenal comparable to that of Russia. Turkey has also shown its interest in the bomb, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicating his openness to the possibility of obtaining it, and said: “Several countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. As for us, we cannot obtain it, and this is something I do not accept.”
A similar affection appears in Asia. Japan, the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, is concerned about the continued reliance on the US nuclear umbrella, especially as its nuclear-armed neighbors (China and Russia) are getting more and more fierce. Doubts about reliance on the United States are not new in Japan, and in 1970, the country delayed ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by more than five years, worried that the treaty would perpetuate Japan’s nuclear weakness and that the United States’ nuclear umbrella would prove insufficient to ensure Japanese security . Today, these sentiments are accompanied by the emerging Chinese threat and the nuclear advance of North Korea. Although Japanese officials do not publicly raise the possibility of their country obtaining a nuclear arsenal of its own, Japan still maintains the necessary materials and knows how to quickly design it if it decides to acquire it.
South Korea was investigating the need for a nuclear arsenal as well. North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, and in the years that followed that year, it had built dozens of weapons and hundreds of missiles, some of which could reach the American continent. What adds to South Korea’s concerns is that in 2019 the Trump administration canceled joint military exercises between the two countries, and called for an increase in the dues South Korea pays for the remaining tens of thousands of American troops on its soil by 5 times. Although few South Koreans support a national nuclear deterrent for the country, more of them want greater reassurances from the United States. Many voices called on Washington to reintroduce the short-range, low-power tactical nuclear weapons that it withdrew after the end of the Cold War.
Finally, there is a growing concern in Australia about China that has led to what the Australian government calls the “most important strategic realignment” in its defense policy since World War II, which is based on a greater focus on defending its national security and the security of the Indo-Pacific region, based on the strategy of “great-power competition.” And the increased likelihood of conflict. Although Australia has not yet revisited its nuclear reluctance, it decided to acquire long-range missile capabilities to increase its defense credibility and improve deterrence capabilities. If doubts about US credibility are more than just a temporary phenomenon, the same will apply to the debate over Australia’s non-nuclear policy.
Reassuring allies begins with going back to basics: The Biden administration should clearly state the importance of the United States’ security commitments. This means affirming the United States ’commitment to collective defense pacts, returning to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw US forces from Germany and elsewhere, and negotiating long-term arrangements for burden-sharing with countries that host US forces in Asia and Europe.
To erase doubts about protecting the United States, the Biden administration should raise the importance of the nuclear issue with its allies, and it should involve NATO and allies in Asia in the nuclear planning process from the very beginning, that is, consulting them during the next “nuclear review”. The administration should plan for more exercises with US allies, exercises that include a nuclear dimension, and the involvement of political leaders in allied countries regularly. Finally, the United States should seek to strengthen the defense and deterrence capabilities of its allies in Asia and Europe. That might include an increase in US troop numbers in both regions, or at least a commitment to maintain the current troop levels. This may include deploying more missile defense capabilities and reviewing the US nuclear situation in both regions to ensure that current capabilities are sufficient to preserve the credibility of US nuclear protection. Whatever decisions are, they should be made in close consultation and willingness with U.S. allies.
But the allies of the United States are required to do their part as well, and Europe should, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, “shoulder more responsibility, militarily and diplomatically.” But it must do so by building real military capabilities – through improved war capabilities and better preparedness – and not content itself with more procedures or headquarters. Europe will also have to build a nuclear range for its defense efforts, and European allies currently participating in NATO’s nuclear missions by deploying aircraft and hosting American weapons should retain and modernize these capabilities.
The two nuclear powers in Western Europe, represented by France and Britain, should not only deepen long-term nuclear cooperation, but also provide the possibility of nuclear deterrence to their European allies, so the result would be a European nuclear weapon, something that complements the US guarantee rather than replacing it, and strengthens NATO and supports European security. There is no doubt that this is the idea of increasing European capabilities, and the United States should make it clear that it welcomes any efforts to deepen defense cooperation within Europe. The region’s ability to act on its own does not pose any threat to the United States or NATO, on the contrary, it makes Europe a stronger military partner than it is.
Restoring confidence between the United States and its allies in Asia will be more difficult, because the region lacks its own version of NATO and relies instead on bilateral security arrangements. To compensate, the United States will have to encourage greater cooperation between the Asian allies themselves, and re-establish collective security cooperation with Japan and South Korea, which has been hampered in recent years by disputes between the two Asian powers. Washington should also establish an Asian equivalent for the “NATO nuclear planning group,” a body that would unify the nuclear planning process between Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States, and provide these countries with a platform for discussion of regional deterrence. Finally, the United States and the other three countries in the “Asian Quartet Security Dialogue” namely Australia, Japan and India may need to include South Korea in the group if the country expresses its desire to join.
The largest nuclear unknown remains in the next decade connected to the Chinese arsenal, which, although surrounded by secrecy, is believed to be undergoing rapid modernization, and could double in size in the coming years. There is a strong incentive for the United States and its allies to unravel the Chinese nuclear ambiguity and gain broader access to its capabilities. Arms control agreements can play a role in this effort, as they provide greater transparency about capabilities, allow an exchange of views on intentions, and provide stability regarding the overall nuclear relationship.
Certainly the United States needs to reform its approach to global arms control, and Biden took a wise first step when he agreed to extend the “New START Treaty” with Russia, which covers only long-range strategic weapons. The next step should be a new bilateral agreement that seeks To the full coverage of nuclear warheads for the United States and Russia, including those in storage, as well as new nuclear weapons delivery systems, such as hypersonic weapons.
In conclusion, arms control should go beyond the decades-old framework of Russia and the United States. Logically, the new set of expanded discussions will include the five permanent members of the Security Council. China, Russia, France, Britain and the United States. These five countries are required to initiate a dialogue that addresses nuclear issues, negotiate over time on measures that would bring the curtain down again on their nuclear arsenals, and convince each other of the defensive nature of this arsenal, and openness to the possibility of joint limiting them.
For more than 50 years, US alliances have helped stop the spread of nuclear weapons. However, in light of the escalating regional threats and the growing suspicion of the continuity of the US power, its allies began to reassess their security arrangements, including the nuclear dimension.
Biden made the rearrangement of US alliances a fundamental priority from the moment he took office. The US President was right to reaffirm the US commitment to NATO during a call with the Secretary General of NATO and major European allies, and he was right to do the same with Australia, Japan and South Korea in calls with the leaders of these countries.
Currently, however, the hard part remains in transforming relations in more fundamental and important ways, namely improving deterrence and defense everywhere, and engaging Asian and European allies in the US nuclear planning process and arms control. This is not an impossible agenda, but it will not be more urgent than it is today. At stake is nothing less than decades of success in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons.
This article is translated from Foreign Affairs and does not necessarily feature Maidan.
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