Abandoning Disarmament Means Embracing Proliferation

A casual observer of the Biden administration’s nuclear weapons policy might quickly come to the conclusion that American policymakers have dismissed the possibility that we will ever again live in a world without nuclear weapons. But a more careful observer might go further to conclude that this administration looks with equanimity on the possibility of new nuclear-weapons states emerging in the near future.

The first insight is not difficult to reach from a cursory scan of United States federal budget priorities: the US is set to spend nearly $800 billion on modernizing, or more accurately replacing, its nuclear weapons by 2032. Meanwhile, defense planners talk openly about nuclear weapons plans into the 2070s.

It seems that any alternative to warmed-over Cold War as the way to manage our nuclear-armed world has been all but dismissed: that means not just an arms race, but a comprehensive, intentional paranoia shaping every aspect of policymaking. Industrial policy, infrastructure development, education, and practically every other policy area are all carefully framed as above ways of competing with China.

The actual threat that China poses to the US in the nuclear realm is somewhat inflated to match its rhetorical role in policymaking: the country is now routinely referred to as a “peer” or “near-peer” competitor, despite the fact that it has not quite one-tenth the arsenal. China’s nuclear arsenal, is technically the world’s third-largest, is but it’s much closer in size to those of France or the UK, whose nuclear arsenals are structured with US extended deterrence guarantees in mind.

There are certainly many reasons to be pessimistic. The war in Ukraine has locked in and accelerated the effects of decades of deterioration of diplomatic relations between the US and Russia. This renewed tension includes threats of nuclear use, implicit and explicit, and has prompted the US and other members of NATO to dig in their heels on extended deterrence relationships, whereby the United States has pledged to defend other members of NATO, including with its own nuclear weapons, in the event of a (presumably Russian) attack.

And, though China’s estimated 410-weapon arsenal remains roughly an order of magnitude smaller than the US’s 5244 warheads, China has been expanding its nuclear arsenal and related facilities, as well as consistently asserting its right to a military presence in areas like the South and East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. The war in Ukraine has added fuel to fears that China will launch an attack on Taiwan in an attempt to take over the island, triggering the US commitment to defend it. And through all this, Russia and China have developed closer diplomatic relations.

An approach to foreign policy that assumes the United States’ ability to shape the world to its preference would rightly regard these developments (and the US’ apparently limited ability to influence them despite large and growing investments in military aid) as a profound challenge. But what’s maybe more worrisome are changes in the way the US talks about its “extended deterrence” relationships that suggest that it has accepted nuclear proliferation, in the short or medium term, as an inevitable cost of great-power competition.

In April of 2023, the late Henry Kissinger told the Economist that Japan “has a pretty clear view of where they’re going; they’re heading towards becoming a nuclear power in five years. And they always want to be close to us. Except I wouldn’t exclude their making deals inconvenient to us.”

Kissinger’s attitude is instructive here. Not a member of government but certainly an individual with perhaps unparalleled access to high-level political figures across the world, he openly articulates the kind of none-too-concerned resignation with which the US seems to regard proliferation among its allies, current or potential. (As for his assessment of Japan in particular, public opinion remains opposed to nuclear weapons, though former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that Japan should allow US nuclear weapons to be based in the country, and other high-level officials have suggested reconsidering Japan’s anti-nuclear commitments. Meanwhile, the country has drastically increased its overall defense spending.)

For South Korea, open, public debate about developing a nuclear weapons program has become part of what President Biden described on April 26, 2023—incidentally, the 37th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster—as “a great success story.”

In early January 2023, South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol announced that it would consider building nuclear weapons of its own, or ask the United States to redeploy them on the Korean Peninsula. Polls seem to indicate popular support for this position, and the need for some kind of nuclear weapons presence in the country has been a consistent element of Yoon and his party’s messaging. US weapons were formerly based there, then removed in 1991.

Yoon framed this potential development as a reasonable response to further development of North Korea’s nuclear program, a step further than, but naturally following from, strengthening the United States’ extended deterrence commitments. The US declined to respond, and three months later, Biden and Yoon announced closer collaboration under the countries’ extended deterrence agreement, with Biden saying, “we’re not going to be stationing nuclear weapons on — on the Peninsula, but we will have visits to — port visits of nuclear submarines and things like that.” It’s safe to assume that Biden’s behavior here, and the logic behind the announcement, is motivated in part by a desire to prevent a South Korean nuclear program.  But it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish this kind of behind-the-scenes effort on its face from tacit acceptance.

 

Middle Uneasy

Tacit acceptance of one country’s nuclear ambitions can inspire another that wants to make a case for a nuclear program of its own. Saudi Arabia, three months into Israel’s assault on Gaza, is reportedly still pushing for a security agreement with the United States as part of the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal that the US had been working on for several years. President Biden told donors on December 12 that he hopes to conclude the deal after Israel’s attacks on Gaza have ended, in the context of “the beginning of option — an option of a two-state solution.”

The deal would potentially include a uranium enrichment deal, where the US would provide facilities and expertise to help Saudi Arabia pursue uranium enrichment for a nuclear energy program.

Yet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has stated at least twice in the US media that, should Iran develop a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia will do the same. In response, there has not been a significant step back on the part of US officials, who have instead offered assurances that it will pursue a so-called 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia, requiring a wide range of assurances around its provision of nuclear material and expertise aimed at preventing its being used in a weapons program. But experts have pointed out that there’s no real recourse for the United States if Saudi Arabia does decide to pursue a nuclear weapons program—and no clear plan if it develops nuclear weapons by other means and the United States finds itself allied to, and designing its Middle East policy around, a new nuclear weapon state.

In fact, the treaty relationship that Saudi Arabia wants with the United States has been described as that which exists between the US and South Korea. But it might make sense to see the full set of diplomatic agreements under discussion here not only as a theoretical leveling of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but also from Saudi’s perspective, an elevation of its status relative to the US as something closer to that of Israel–recipient of consistent aid and plaudits, shielded from criticism, the chance to see itself as a partner in formulating a certain amount of US foreign policy—and the opportunity for a certain amount of leeway around the question of its own nuclear weapon program, with South Korea on one, more conservative end of a range of possibilities, and Israel, with a full nuclear weapons program that remains officially unacknowledged by the United States on the other. The Biden administration’s insistence that its hands are tied when it comes to limiting Israel’s genocidal attacks on Gaza, inasmuch as they are not flimsy cover for an endorsement of those attacks, is another hint at what the limits of US influence on Saudi policy after a deal is concluded might be.

All this can be plausibly interpreted as ultimately aimed at Iran, though as a strategy it is so full of serious, obvious risks and disadvantages that it can only withstand a certain amount of serious consideration. The Biden administration came into office promising to bring the US back into the Iran Deal, but it’s become clear that this is now viewed as a total impossibility even by those who advocated fiercely for it in the past. Meanwhile, Iran is moving closer to having a nuclear weapon, and there’s a substantial and consistently vocal subset of the US political class that has been bent on starting a war of some kind with Iran for at least two decades.

The alternative to some kind of diplomatic limit to Iran’s nuclear program seems to be triangulation, with Saudi Arabia and Israel anchoring a problematic third point in Iran, achieving a balance of concessions to both those countries and threats to the third to prevent the whole delicate arrangement from collapsing. This is far from the only example of the US relying on military invention, threatened or real, more and more as its go-to diplomatic mechanism, a tendency carried over from the previous administration (though it certainly wasn’t invented then). This type of maneuvering doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to preventing proliferation, in the long or short term—but then again, this may be more evidence that the prevailing attitude toward nuclear proliferation in elite policy circles in the United States is fundamentally one of resignation.

A realistic assessment of the situation would acknowledge the possibility that the Middle East may go from one to three nuclear weapons states in the next 10 to 15 years.The real risk of nuclear proliferation in the short- to medium term has come to seem somehow preferable to whatever concessions might be required to conduct diplomacy in the more traditional sense. What, then, is the worse outcome that is being avoided by drastically increasing the risk of a nuclear exchange, one that could take place without US consent or input?

Increasingly, it seems that the worst case scenario, the thing that must be avoided more carefully even than nuclear proliferation—is that China more convincingly and enduringly make claims on the role of superpower, and in this specific way: that it take up this place specifically of nuclear kingmaker, granter of nuclear privileges. This is explicitly true in the case of Saudi Arabia, which has already worked with China on exploring its uranium reserves, and has received a bid for a Chinese-built nuclear power plant.

 

Contracted Deterrence

Extended deterrence is usually understood as being as much about preventing the emergence of new nuclear states as much as preventing attacks on smaller states. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raised serious questions about the nature of the US commitment to countries it has agreed to protect, as well as the role and relative importance of nuclear versus conventional weapons in a conflict. Taking Russia’s actions in Ukraine, US behavior with regard to its extended deterrence commitments, and global efforts to use nuclear technology as a diplomatic tool together, it seems that, rather than preventing war as more narrow definitions of deterrence promise, nuclear weapons seem to function as a guarantor of a kind of minimal imperial control over a territory. This doesn’t necessarily imply a certain level of control over a country’s political decisions, let alone an ability to govern—only that another large nuclear state will not be able to exercise that influence.

Doubts about the durability of the US commitment are often phrased as a quick and chilling exchange of cities: would the US really give up, say, Los Angeles, for Seoul? New York for Warsaw? As the US pours more money and goodwill into insisting that the answer to that question is yes, it is saying that the most consistently prioritized and empowered sector of its government, the national security state, sees itself as equally responsible for cities on the US mainland—and its budget priorities reflect this. This is fundamental to understanding what empire in the contemporary political sense actually describes—and what it would take to dismantle it.

But a commitment to nuclear disarmament, rather than indefinite expansion, as a plan for the long-term but knowable future, is also necessary for US foreign policy to function. Anyone who has paid close attention to US-North Korea negotiations has seen how difficult it is to make progress on curtailing another country’s nuclear program if both countries do not see nuclear disarmament as itself a good. 

As the United States becomes less attached at even a rhetorical level to the goal of disarmament as an eventual, if long-term plan, and as countries with extended deterrence agreements push for more and more assurances that the US truly regards their security, in the cold city-for-city calculations of nuclear planning, as equally important with that of its own territory, the US will continue to be forced into the position of tacitly condoning its allies’ open speculation about nuclear programs. This matters in the somewhat fuzzy, immaterial world of weakening another taboo around nuclear weapons, but it really matters with each new country that sees it as less and less of a contradiction to desire a binding security agreement with the US while still feeling free to openly consider the possibility of acquiring a nuke, should they see fit. The United States’ failure to take the need to disarm seriously is thus weakening the political utility of its own nuclear weapons as it struggles to maintain and expand a stable global network of influence.

US nuclear policy must recenter itself squarely on preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear use, and its commitment to preventing the former must be backed up by the conviction that the latter would be too costly to countenance, in human and economic terms. This policy approach must strive for partnership with China, whenever possible, in preventing these risks. News that the US and China held arms-control talks for the first time in nearly five years early in November was quickly drowned out by reports that China continues to build up testing facilities in its northwest. There are plenty of examples from the first Cold War of productive diplomacy taking place at moments of high US-Soviet tension; all sides in the new Cold War would benefit from learning and building on this history rather than pushing the global nuclear order closer to its breaking point. The stakes of unchecked proliferation, for everyone, are simply too high.

 

Emma Claire Foley’s (she/her) writing and commentary on nuclear weapons and foreign policy issues has been featured in Newsweek, NBC, the Guardian and other international news outlets. Find her on twitter at @emmaclairefoley.