Under the Umbrella

Posted in NATO , United States | 25-Feb-10 | Author: Michael Ruehle

In his now famous Prague speech last April, United States President Barack Obama endorsed the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. He sent a strong political signal: if repairing the fragile nuclear nonproliferation arrangements required a credible disarmament commitment by the nuclear weapons states, America was willing to lead by example. But setting that example could become much more complex if a whole host of new nuclear states is to be avoided. The American nuclear umbrella is still needed to shelter many nations, preventing them from pursuing their own nuclear paths.

tHE APPROACH OF THE UNITED STATES administration is clear. A strong commitment to arms control and nonproliferation, including hosting a summit meeting on nuclear security in April, should prepare the ground for a successful Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, scheduled for May. Such a success would help foster a new consensus between the nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states about adopting more far-reaching nonproliferation measures.

However, maintaining effective global nonproliferation requires more than a new dynamic in arms control and disarmament. There is another dimension that will be at least as important as cutting existing nuclear arsenals: the US nuclear umbrella, America’s willingness to extend nuclear deterrence to allies and friends.

While some arms controllers are quick to dismiss extended deterrence as a relic of the past and an obstacle to deep reductions of the US nuclear posture, a closer look reveals that the nuclear umbrella is still a cornerstone of a

predictable international order. Without it, the emergence of new nuclear nations would be a foregone conclusion.

Today, more than thirty nations rely on extended US deterrence, including the members of NATO, South Korea and Japan. In addition, several other states without formal defence agreements, like Australia and Taiwan, are also believed to be beneficiaries of the umbrella.

These extended commitments have become a major nonproliferation tool. American protection satisfies the security interests of allies and thus dampens any temptation to develop nuclear weapons of their own. Current developments in Asia and the Middle East demonstrate that the significance of extended deterrence has not changed. With Iran and North Korea challenging the political and military status quo in their respective regions, US security guarantees are crucial to nuclear nonproliferation.


Japan is one prominent example. The country’s growing nervousness about China’s military rise and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, has provoked a debate about a national nuclear option that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

To be sure, a short-term reversal of Japan’s anti-nuclear stance remains highly unlikely. Still, the case of Japan brings home that even seemingly irreversible policy principles can change if a country is confronted with new security challenges. When faced with a fundamentally altered security landscape, yesterday’s taboo can become tomorrow’s mainstream view.

While Japan never actively sought nuclear weapons, most experts agree that Taiwan and South Korea once tried. Taipei and Seoul had both been laying the groundwork for a national nuclear option to hedge against a worsening regional security situation. It was only after the US intervened politically that the programmes were terminated. For the time being, at least, the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region bridles nuclear ambitions and spares Southeast Asia a nuclear arms race.


The situation in the Middle East and the Gulf is far less encouraging. Since the uncovering of Iran’s illicit nuclear activities in 2002, more than a dozen countries in the region

have announced the launch of civilian nuclear programmes. Many experts believe that these decisions are part of a strategy to hedge against the regional dominance of a nuclear-armed Iran. Hence, should Iran start to throw its nuclear weight around, neighbouring countries could quickly convert their civilian nuclear capabilities into military ones. Europe would then be faced with a neighbouring region where every conventional conflict would be fraught

with nuclear escalation risks. And what about Europe? Given the improving

security situation since the end of the Cold War, there has not been a debate about extended deterrence for a long time. Some analysts have warned that Turkey might flirt with a nuclear option should Iran go nuclear, but few believe Europe as a whole is facing serious proliferation pressures. However, the interest in a tangible American security commitment remains unchanged. The war between Russia and Georgia in mid 2008 made this abundantly clear. It led some of NATO’s easternmost members to ask publicly for changes

in its military planning and deployments. Moreover, the desire of these countries to host American military installations on their national soil, and the nervousness they display about a prospective withdrawal of the remaining US nuclear weapons from Europe, demonstrate that what Josef Joffe has called ‘Europe’s American Pacifier’, is still in demand. All these developments bring home what many disarmament enthusiasts dare not admit: the nonproliferation successes of the past forty years were not just a result of the nonproliferation Treaty or arms control, but also of

extended US deterrence. The nuclear abstinence of many states in pivotal geopolitical

regions is neither a law of nature nor the result of a universal nonproliferation norm. Rather, these nations bank their security on a predictable international system. And, irrespective of the new debate about a ‘post-American’ world, that system is still being upheld by the US.

Washington’s nuclear policy thus faces a dilemma. In order to pursue long-term nonproliferation goals, the US and the other nuclear weapons states need to make a credible commitment to nuclear disarmament; yet the current nuclear reality requires credible US extended deterrence.

If the US were to reduce or even end its role as a nuclear protector, this could result in the largest wave of proliferation since the dawn of the nuclear era. That is why the US needs to take great care in phasing prospective nuclear reductions in such as way as not to cast doubt about its willingness and ability to keep the nuclear umbrella open.

A delicate balancing act indeed. Perhaps it explains why Obama, in his Prague call for the elimination of nuclear weapons, prefaced his optimistic ‘yes, we can’ with a less self-assured ‘we must insist’. A small change in rhetoric, yet it says more about the challenges ahead than any lengthy think tank study.

First published in the March edition of The World Today by Chatham House in London www.theowldtoday.org