Alliances and deterrence
Monday, November 25, 2002
Nuclear proliferation
HONG KONG The firm but un-panicked response of South Korea, Japan and the United States to the news that North Korea has been secretly pursuing nuclear weapons development and may even already have a bomb is not just common sense. It carries an implicit message about the best ways of dealing with the actual or potential spread of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear ones. The contrast between the mild response to North Korea, with its huge army and missile capability, and the obsession with Iraq, which has no nuclear capability and has limited other weapons at its disposal, is obvious. It probably says more about unfinished Gulf War business and broader Western suspicion of Muslim states than about current military or future nuclear threats. North Korea is a more significant security issue. The nuclear progress of North Korea, despite abject economic failings, has followed that of another impoverished developing country with a weak industrial base, Pakistan. The fact is that nuclear weapons technology is gradually becoming accessible to more and more states. Fortunately the vast majority will see no use in possessing the weapons even if they can make them and also acquire credible delivery mechanisms. However, more will seek them out of pride or desire for parity, as a bargaining chip or out of real fear of being overwhelmed by an enemy with greater conventional capability. Pyongyang, which mixes paranoia with skillful playing of its few cards, is probably motivated by defensive and bargaining chip objectives. That seems to be recognized by Seoul, which seems determined not to let Pyongyang’s provocation derail North-South dialogue. Is there much that can be done about proliferation, other than preemptive military strikes which, even if successful, are more likely to deepen hatreds and could well spark wider wars? The notion of preemptive rights of attack is fraught with assumptions of imperialism. South Koreans see no reason for preemptive attack. One reason why they are not terrified by the North’s revelation is their assumptions about Pyongyang’s motives. But the main reason for their comfort is the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which ensures that any nuclear attack would be met with instant annihilation. The balance of nuclear terror worked well in the Cold War, and implicitly works in Korea. It also works in South Asia. Fears that India-Pakistan tensions during the past year threatened nuclear war were always much stronger in the West than in the two countries. Both know that the consequences of a nuclear exchange would be out of all proportion to any gains. A rough nuclear balance now sustains an equilibrium that is not fundamentally threatened by localized clashes. Israel’s combination of nuclear weapons – a long established fact almost never criticized in the West – with conventional arms superiority has been at the root of its ability to avoid complete withdrawal to 1967 borders and to keep expanding its de facto territory through West Bank settlements. Further proliferation in East Asia is inevitable when eventually the United States winds down its commitments either in the region generally or to particular current friends. Japan most obviously is not going to sit idly by if China is the only permanent nuclear power in the region. Taiwan could go the same way if other countries were not prepared to help it determine its own future. Any future threat to U.S. hegemony will come not from proliferation but from the ability of China to give its nuclear weaponry global reach. In practical terms, only strong alliances with more powerful countries will deter those who feel threatened from developing a nuclear capability. Bilateral or collective security arrangements remain the key to limiting nuclear proliferation. Those who now fret publicly about Iran becoming nuclear should ask where the region might be if Iran had had an alliance (say, with the Soviet Union) rather than having to face alone a Saddam Hussein encouraged by the West. It is neither possible nor desirable to re-create a two bloc world, but the alliances that it fostered created a stability now lacking. Alliances and mutual deterrence remain the paths to security, with or without proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

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