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Why America’s Allies Should Develop Nuclear Weapons

Germans are losing their trust in America’s security guarantees. Believing that U.S. troops would always defend Europe, Berlin has allowed its military outlays and capabilities to wither. German defense spending at present barely breaks 1 percent of GDP. With only slight overstatement, political scientist Christian Hacke recently said of the German military, “nothing flies, nothing floats, and nothing runs.”

For years, Washington officials have whined about Europe’s and especially Germany’s failure to take defense seriously. Yet the U.S. also continued to spend money and deploy troops to “reassure” its allies, giving them less incentive to do more.

Despite his tough rhetoric, in practice, President Donald Trump’s policy has proven to be more of the same. He criticized America’s defense commitments to Montenegro, yet allowed it to enter NATO. At the latest alliance summit, his subordinates advanced new subsidies for member states. This year the administration is putting another $6.5 billion into the European Deterrence Initiative, formerly called the European Reassurance Initiative.

Nevertheless, the president’s crude hostility and unpredictability have set him apart from his predecessors. Thus, many Germans and other Europeans worry that he might walk away from NATO.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particularly vocal. Last year she defiantly responded to President Trump’s criticism by calling on Europeans to “take our fate into our own hands.” She remains committed to bumping her country’s military outlays up to 2 percent of GDP, despite opposition from her coalition partners.

Other Germans want to do even more. For instance, shortly after Trump’s election, Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of the Bundestag and former German general staff officer, suggested creating a European military budget to expand the French and British nuclear arsenals. Berthold Kohler, publisher of the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, urged direct German support.

Two weeks ago, the Welt am Sonntag ran an article by Christian Hacke that argued Germany was no longer under America’s nuclear umbrella and that “national defense on the basis of a nuclear deterrent must be given priority in light of new transatlantic uncertainties and potential confrontations.” Criticism of his idea was fierce—a former intelligence official denounced it as “reckless, foolish, and incendiary.”

U.S. commentators also dumped on Hacke’s proposal. Jim Townsend, a one-time deputy defense secretary, argued: “Trump notwithstanding, the U.S. nuclear guarantee is not going anywhere.” That, of course, is the conventional wisdom inside the Blob, as the Washington foreign policy establishment has been called, which also believes that America must forever defend Europe, Asia, and the Middle East; fix failed societies and sort out foreign civil wars everywhere; and underwrite every authoritarian regime that claims to oppose Washington’s enemy du jour.

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But it isn’t just the Germans who are considering nuclear options. Jarsolaw Kaczynski, former Polish prime minister and dominant figure in Poland’s current government, has suggested developing a European nuclear arsenal to confront Russia.

The same question also has arisen in Asia. The Republic of Korea embarked on a nuclear program in the 1970s after President Park Chung-hee doubted the Nixon administration’s commitment to the ROK’s defense. Seoul later abandoned the effort under U.S. pressure, though in recent years the North’s nuclear advances have fed popular support for a South Korean bomb. A poll found two thirds of South Koreans in favor and some newspapers and politicians offered their support.

North Korea’s new pacific course has reduced the perceived necessity of a nuclear arsenal and leftish President Moon Jae-in last fall declared, “We will not develop or possess nuclear weapons.” However, the future remains uncertain. Indeed, few Korea analysts believe Pyongyang will ever fully disarm, and President Trump has shown disdain for America’s defense commitment to South Korea.

Even more controversial is the case of Japan. The idea of possessing nuclear weapons remains anathema to much of the Japanese population, but they also remain sheltered beneath America’s nuclear umbrella. Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to tie himself to President Trump, an increasingly burdened America may tire of protecting its wealthiest ally.

So far the proliferation door is “ajar, even if no one is leading the way through it,” observed Llewelyn Hughes of GR Japan. The idea of a Japanese nuke was studied (and rejected) by military and civilian policymakers as far back as the 1960s. During the conservative nationalist Abe’s earlier stint as prime minister a decade ago, he appeared to offer indirect support for a Japanese nuclear weapon, though nothing came of that gambit. In April 2016, Abe observed that the Japanese Constitution does not preclude the country from possessing and using nuclear bombs, which reaffirmed a position going back to Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi in 1957. The same reasoning allows Tokyo to field a “Self-Defense Force” despite the constitution’s Article Nine, which holds that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Most U.S. policymakers dismiss the idea of friendly proliferation in Asia, though analyst Ira Straus has proposed a nuclear loan by Washington to Japan and the ROK. Ultimately, however, there is no reason for the U.S. to remain entangled in those nations’ defense. Both are nuclear capable and could develop their own weapons if they desired. America should consider shifting—permanently, not temporarily—nuclear as well as conventional defense responsibilities onto its freeloading allies.

Uncle Sam has been profligate with his nuclear umbrellas. The 28 other NATO members—including Montenegro, President Trump’s bête noire—each received one. So did Japan and South Korea. Australia and Taiwan could also be seen as protected. Certainly Israel would be had it not developed its own arsenal. Perhaps Saudi Arabia would get one if Iran developed a bomb. Ukraine probably thought it had one after yielding its leftover Soviet nukes.

The presumption is that America’s commitments are costless since they will never be called in. Washington deters the bad guys while preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Whatever risk might exist, believes the Blob, it’s vastly exceeded by the dangers of proliferation. Under such assumptions, no wonder non-proliferation is one of foreign policy’s great sacred cows.

The problem with our promises to use nukes on behalf of other nations is that doing so costs nothing only so long as deterrence holds. And history is full of conflicts in which conventional alliances failed to prevent war. World Wars I and II are prime examples.

A nuclear guarantee that failed at deterrence would force either military action likely to result in destruction on the American homeland or humiliating retreat and a consequent loss of credibility and honor. What U.S. cities should be held hostage for Berlin, Taipei, Podgorica, Tokyo, Warsaw, and Canberra? Only an interest most compelling could justify taking such a risk. Yet Washington has opened its nuclear umbrellas casually, even thoughtlessly, without much regard for the consequences.

In fact, most of America’s nuclear guarantees are leftovers, tied to antiquated alliances created during a different time. But for those commitments, the U.S. would not be a nuclear target of so many opposing regimes. Through its alliances, Washington has needlessly turned itself into an adversary of nuclear-armed powers.

Hence last year’s bizarre nuclear scare involving North Korea. No serious analyst believed the DPRK planned to start a nuclear war with America. Nothing suggested that any one of the three Kims who ruled the North were suicidal. Yet in the event of a conventional war, Pyongyang could still be tempted to either strike out in desperation or threaten attacks on civilian targets to halt an allied advance. With South Korea well able to defend itself, Washington is risking nuclear attack for no good reason.

The dangers are exacerbated by the potential impact of nuclear guarantees on allied behavior, which can encourage intransigence and even recklessness. Conventional commitments are dangerous enough. In the early 2000s, Taiwan’s independence-minded Chen Shui-bian government appeared to provoke Beijing in the belief that the U.S. would deal with any consequences. In 2008, Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili triggered a disastrous conflict with Russia, bombarding Moscow’s troops in the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, apparently expecting Washington to enter any war on his government’s side.

While friendly proliferation could create instability and encourage competing arms build-ups, it would also be the most effective way to constrain China without forcing the U.S. into a military confrontation over primarily allied interests with what will be soon a great power, perhaps eventually even a superpower. Enabling more nuclear states would be unfortunate, but it still might be the best among bad options.

If nothing else, Americans should debate Washington’s multiple nuclear guarantees. Recipient nations increasingly recognize that the nuclear umbrella offers an imperfect defense at best. And the U.S. government’s nuclear commitments create enormous, disproportionate costs and risks for Americans. When the issue is nuclear war, without question America must come first.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Why America’s Allies Should Develop Nuclear Weapons"

#1 Comment By Louism On August 8, 2018 @ 11:37 pm

I think France and Britain already have nuclear weapons so its a moot point for them. Its only fair to allow Germany to have nuclear weapons if they choose.

Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and the other western European nations are too poor or too small. You can forget about the Scandinavian nations. They don’t want them.

Western Europe is so deluded with socialist / leftist insanity that they cannot even question the facts and the reality of feminism, transgenderism, islam, open borders, mass migration, etc. I THINK PART OF THE REASON FOR WESTERN EUROPES INSANITY IS THE US DEFENSE UMBRELLA. EUROPE AND CANADA HAVE ENGAGED ON A DELUDED UTOPIAN FOLLY. THEY HAVE REDIRECTED FUNDS FOR THEIR MILITARY TO UTOPIAN LEFTIST SOCIAL PROGRAMS WHICH THEY WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO AFFORD IF THEY HAD TO FINANCE THEIR OWN DEFENSE. WESTERN EUROPE WOULD NEVER ACCEPT REFUGEES, MIGRANTS MASS MIGRATION, ISLAM, TERRORISM, ETC IF IT WERE CONCERNED ABOUT THE DEFENSE OF ITS NATION, CULTURE, BORDER, VALUES, ETC. SO IN A SENSE, ANYTHING THE US DOES TO BACK OUT OF COMMITMENTS TO WESTERN EUROPE WOULD FORCE WESTERN EUROPEAN NATIONS TO CONFRONT THEIR EXISTENTIAL REALITY.

HOWEVER, FOR THE SAKE OF A FUTURE PEACE WITH RUSSIA I WOULD RECOMMEND CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPEAN NATIONS PURSUE SMALL SCALE TACTICAL AND BATTLEFIELD NUCLEAR WEAPONS. THEY ARE MORE DEFENSIVE IN NATURE AND WOULD REPRESENT LESS OF A THREAT THAN FULL SCALE NUCLEAR WEAPONS NEAR RUSSIAS BORDER IN POLAND AND HUNGARY (THE ONLY 2 NATIONS WITH THE FINANCIAL AND TECHNOLOGICAL CAPABILITIES TO AFFORD A NUCLEAR DETERENT).

NUCLEAR WEAPONS IN EUROPE IS A LOW PRIORITY ISSUE BECAUSE THE THREATS TO WESTERN, CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE AND RUSSIA ARE DEPOPULATION, CULTURAL MARXISM/LEFTIST IDEOLOGIES AND AFRICAN/MUSLIM & 3RD WORLD MIGRATION.

THE NATIONS THAT TRULY NEED NUCLEAR WEAPONS ARE JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA, TAIWAN AND AUSTRALIA/NEW ZEALAND AND I WOULD GO SO FAR AS TO SAY THAT DUTERTE WOULD BE WISE TO RE-OPEN US MILITARY BASE AND ALLOW A NUCLEAR DETERENT TO BE BASED ON ITS SOVEREIGN SOIL.

THE US ALLIES THAT I WOULD NEVER ALLOW TO HAVE NUCLEAR WEAPONS ARE ISLAMIC PARTICULARLY EGYPT AND TURKEY.

#2 Comment By Anne Mendoza On August 9, 2018 @ 3:52 am

So the solution to excessive U.S. defense commitments and the defense budgets bloated to bursting which pay for them (and disastrous U.S. military adventurism) is nuclear proliferation by the right sort of people who can then drop their own weapons of mass destruction. Unbelievable.

#3 Comment By peter mcloughlin On August 9, 2018 @ 5:39 am

The problem with nuclear proliferation for the US is that it risks losing control of events, events it had a significant control over during the Cold War. As mentioned, there is talk of Germany developing its own nuclear arsenal.
What if Germany got into a European conflict with Russia at some point, and that war went nuclear? You have a regional war, where Germany would be destroyed by Russian warheads: Russia would be destroyed by German ones. As Putin has said, if Russia is destroyed he is prepared to bring down the rest of the world with him. And of course strategic missiles would be fired at the US. That is why it is in America’s own interest to stay in charge of global events.
Ultimately all wars are about power. The pattern of history is clear. Power (manifested as interest) has been present in every conflict throughout history – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war. Other cultural factors might change, but not power.
Power is the one thing we will destroy ourselves for, as well as everyone else. When core interests are threatened and existential threat looms nations go to war. There can be no compromise on these. As a result, in the past, every civilization/nation got the war it was trying to avoid: utter defeat. This applies as much today as any other time in history. Deterrence doctrine, made for the 20th century Cold War, is irrelevant in the 21st and will ultimately fail us, unless governments rethink.
Unfortunately, leaders and decision-makers delude themselves, thinking they can avoid this fate – they can’t. If survival is threatened, there is no alternative to war, however destructive.
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#4 Comment By Some Wag On August 9, 2018 @ 8:07 am

Well that settles it: “Realism” ain’t.

#5 Comment By Michael Kenny On August 9, 2018 @ 10:08 am

An independent European defence system is a logical part of the ongoing process of European integration. In addition, Trump’s constant threats of withdrawal and his grovelling to Putin have made the US an unreliable ally. Putin, of course, won’t last forever. He’ll be 66 years old in October and he may well not even survive in office until the end of his term in 2024. Thus, any future European defence system will, of geographical necessity, include post-Putin Russia but not include the US. That, logically, means the end of the American superpower.

#6 Comment By TJ Martin On August 9, 2018 @ 10:20 am

Oh yeah . Just what the world needs . More entities with nuclear capabilities . Golly thats so insightful ( sarcasm both intended and implied ) Kind of on the same level as suggesting making opioids more readily available in order to curb the opioid crisis . Or better yet making more guns available in order to diminish gun violence .

Sigh ..Such brilliant logic … straight outta the Alt Right ” ChickenHawk ” [ political idiom ] book of Wisdom

But then again looking at the authors credentials : No surprises here

#7 Comment By Kronos On August 9, 2018 @ 11:07 am

“And the U.S. government’s nuclear commitments create enormous, disproportionate costs and risks for Americans.”
A force of nukes is very low-cost compared to other weapons systems such as aircraft carrier task forces, or land-based formations. That’s why the idea of nuclear proliferation is so scary – many poorer nations such as N. Korea, Iran or Pakistan can afford them. Inspiring dictators the world over to emulate the US’ current allies verges on deranged policy.
A proper defense policy requires a willingness to downsize rather than a constant “vigilance” that is little more than applied paranoia. A country’s enemies need to be chosen with great care.

#8 Comment By Johann On August 9, 2018 @ 11:23 am

The conventional wisdom that NATO has kept the peace in Europe since WWII is actually another example of conventional ignorance. The fear of nuclear weapons has kept the peace.

I have been saying for some time that if Japan even just started musing over the idea of having their own nuclear weapons, it would scare the ___ out of China and North Korea. The US could then play good cop and promise China and NK that we will talk them out of it if NK gives up their nukes. China would then get very serious about denuking NK.

#9 Comment By b On August 9, 2018 @ 2:09 pm

The UK does not have a nuclear deterrent, they lend-lease-rent-purchase from the US, and they have trouble paying for it even so. If it weren’t for their contribution to the Manhattan Project, the UK would not be a nuclear power today.

France is the only genuine nuclear European power. Indeed, France has more nuclear weapons deployed than China. Unlike China, France does not have a policy of minimum means of reprisal.

It is plainly idiotic to propose the solve the problems with US nuclear “commitment” by replacing it with a French “commitment”.

It is equally idiotic to propose to resolve the problem of a nuclear existential threat by adding more nukes in the hands of more countries.

The most pressing existential threat to our survival are the nuclear arsenal of Russia and the US. Our priority – and that of the non-nuclear signatories to the NPT, first and foremost Germany – has to be to insist that all nuclear powers finally deliver on their NPT commitments and drastically reduce their arsenals. To get everybody to a per-capita warhead ratio close to China’s would be an acknowledgement of China’s nuclear restraint.

The second most pressing existential threat to all of us is the Mutually Assured Suicide that even a third tier arsenal – see a possible all-out nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan – represents to all of us. In the end, we are a world of suicide bombers wit global reach.

Those that think that climate change is a more pressing problem would to well to consider what increased averages of temperature – and increased variation to extremes around those averages – means for the likelihood and severity of conflict. We are already living in a world where the response to self-inflicted crisis is military escalation. If we continue to derail our own civilization while maintaining – and expanding – the most expensive and most potent tool for ending ourselves, we are setting ourselves up for that Launch On Mistake – or worse, “winnable” war or just runaway escalation – that will end all our worries.

Given the conduct of the UK and France in Libya, it is stunning that we not only continue to accept their ownership of nuclear weapons, but are hearing proposals to fund their extension and expansion. Given the role of the UK and the US in Yemen – I say this in a Republic founded on the distrust of concentrated power – it is incomprehensible that any rational citizen would want any government, foreign or domestic, have at their disposal the original and only weapon of mass destruction, in arsenals sized for extinction level excursions.

On top of that, we borrow trillions to finance this idiocy.

Maybe Bandow would like to propose we lease nukes to Saudi Arabia? Or, why not, Iran? Given the precedence of the UK, maybe the best way to control nuclear proliferation is to profit from it. It would certainly fit all our other national priorities.

#10 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On August 9, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

Ah yes, if only we could return to the halcyon days of the first half of the 20th century when more countries took care of their own defense.

When the issue is nuclear war, without question America must come first.

Indeed, does increasing the chance of a nuclear war in Europe or Asia decrease our risk? The primary benefit of our allies spending more on defense is that we get to sell them more military equipment. It doesn’t seem to actually effect our own spending.

#11 Comment By Lenny On August 9, 2018 @ 4:26 pm

“And the U.S. government’s nuclear commitments create enormous, disproportionate costs and risks for Americans.”

I guess proliferation of these weapons is no longer a threat?

Do I actually have to explain that one to you ?

#12 Comment By Janek On August 9, 2018 @ 5:21 pm

I am all for Europe developing her own nuclear umbrella. That initiative would bring many benefits to the Europe and one of them would be that they wouldn’t have to listen to the whining some Americans about Europe and the would not have to endure ‘loose cannon’ presidents of the USA such as the current pres. D. Trump.

#13 Comment By Clyde Schechter On August 9, 2018 @ 6:15 pm

Today’s realities are too grim. Nuclear non-proliferation is dead. It has been for a long time. It was certainly moribund when everybody stood by silently while Israel and South Africa developed nuclear weapons. And with nukes in the hands of Pakistan (which is just one coup away from becoming the Pakistani Republic of AlQaeda), India, and North Korea, the game is simply over.

Moreover, the end of the Cold War has made the situation even more dangerous. Whereas previously the US and the USSR had a fair amount of control of events and could rein in their client states, the USSR is now defunct, and its successor, Russia, has markedly diminished influence. Meanwhile, the US has stomped over much of the world since then and is feared, but neither admired nor respected anymore. The US is in no position to persuade anybody to give up nuclear weapons, as doing so has proven to be the prelude to US-instigated regime change. Indeed, many countries rightly perceive the US as the greatest security threat they face, and, frankly, those that don’t, should. A nuclear deterrent is increasingly a necessity as the US grows more aggressive and belligerent with time.

So the reality is that over time more and more nations will take up nuclear arms. We need to be thinking about ways to try to create stability in that kind of environment, to assure that those weapons are never used. It won’t be easy.

#14 Comment By Nick Stuart On August 9, 2018 @ 8:20 pm

Germany and Japan remilitarized, with nuclear weapons.

What could go wrong?

#15 Comment By PAX On August 10, 2018 @ 10:35 am

We did lose control over nuclear technology when it was “gifted” to Israel. Kennedy greatly opposed such transfers. Johnson made Israel an equal partner, even disdaining to protect the USS Liberty against Israeli aggression. Rich countries like Australia and New Zealand should follow the Israeli model of arming to the teeth with nukes and high-tech defense systems. The Chinese will not risk a face-saving nuclear exchange. The USS Liberty syndrome must be subsumed by all allies. If you want something done, do it yourself.

#16 Comment By JR On August 12, 2018 @ 6:58 am

For which threat would Germany owning nukes serve any purpose? The Martians?

Remarkable how this article skirts the real issue and proceeds with arguing that lacking US nuclear guarantees Germany ‘needs’ its own nukes.

#17 Comment By j B On September 14, 2018 @ 9:18 am

the multiple decision centers of USA, France and UK and the possibility that local dual-key arrangements could be over over ridden presented the USSR with real problems.

The proposal to let RoC Taiwan, RoK, Japan etc develop deterrents would effectively deter PRC.

The danger would be during breakout and at that point US deterrent would have to be extended until national deterrents were complete