There are hints of possible interest in acquiring nuclear weapons in both South Korea and Japan, especially since the rise of Donald Trump. Such a policy shift would be neither quick nor easy. Yet the presumption that the benefits of nuclear nonproliferation are worth the costs of maintaining a nuclear “umbrella” is outdated.
Since the development of the atomic bomb America has been committed to nuclear war. Many Americans probably believed that meant if their own nation’s survival was in doubt. But Washington always has been far more likely to use nukes on behalf of its allies.
The cost of America’s many commitments is high. The U.S. promises to sacrifice thousands if not millions of its own citizens for modest or even minimal interests.
Unfortunately, war is possible. Deterrence often fails, and Washington might have to decide if it will fight an unanticipated nuclear war or back down.
Friendly proliferation might be a better option. I write in Foreign Affairs: “Instead of being in the middle of a Northeast Asia in which only the bad guys—China, North Korea, Russia—had nukes, the U.S. could remain out of the fray. If something went wrong, the tragedy would not automatically include America.”
There obviously remain good reasons for the U.S. to be wary of encouraging proliferation. Yet opening a debate over the issue may be the most effective way to convince China to take more serious action against the DPRK.
Friendly proliferation might be the best of a bad set of options.