How The Obama Administration’s Nuclear Policy Has Backfired

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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During this administration, the one perhaps most dedicated to moving toward “a world without nuclear weapons,” more, not fewer, countries are tempted to or are close to attaining them. Most of the world’s attention related to nuclear weapons is focused on Iran and the effect a nuclear Iran may have on the larger Middle East. But that’s not the only region at risk. Just today, Dow Jones reported that the South Korean president Park Geun-hye, said if North Korea moves forward with yet another nuclear weapons test, “It would be difficult for us to prevent a nuclear domino from occurring in this area.” The countries that are most tempted to nuke up are Japan and South Korea, of course.

This would be Pyongyang’s fourth illicit nuclear weapons test following the ones in 2006, 2009, and 2013. North Korea already has the ability to deliver nuclear weapons throughout Asia and is the world’s leader in the export of ballistic missiles, and has assisted countries like Iran and Syria in their nuclear programs. It isn’t just U.S. allies in Asia concerned about the regime that ranks among the most brutal. This year’s World Wide Threat report, said that North Korea “is committed to developing long-range missile technology that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States.” Towards this end, it has continued to test its ballistic missiles and has twice displayed its KN08 road-mobile ICBM. A road mobile ICBM is especially concerning because it can be rolled out and deployed quickly, giving the U.S. less time to respond.

It is a daunting task to try to deter a regime like the one in Pyongyang. Deterrence, at its most basic, is the ability to convince foes that the action they would like to take that you oppose, will result in consequences for them that outweigh any potential benefit they see to that initial action. Nuclear weapons are a powerful tool used for strategic deterrence, and if the South Koreans and Japanese are not completely convinced that the United States remains committed to extending the nuclear umbrella over them, they have every reason to seek their own nuclear force.

Nuclear weapons are certainly not the only tool to deter a strategic attack. International sanctions have squeezed the regime, but not without the constant heel-dragging and watering down from China, and the lasting impacts have been underwhelming. Conventional weapons and missile defenses also act as a deterrent and in the case of missile defense, can actually intercept an attack, or at least absorb some of the initial strike so it can effectively retaliate with a second strike.

But here again, China poses a big challenge for the U.S. and her allies. In the recently passed defense authorization bill, the House included a provision that requires the Secretary of Defense to conduct an assessment to identify opportunities for increasing missile defense cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and the South Korea. The South Koreans have been considering various U.S. missile defense systems like the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and the Arrow weapon system. Recent media reports have included South Korean officials denying its government’s plan to acquire these systems, however. But that’s almost certainly because of Seoul’s concern for upsetting China.

China immediately publicly rebuked the idea of moving missile defense systems to the region. Beijing, a careful student of the actions of other nations, has certainly noticed the success Russia has had in opposing U.S. missile defense systems in what it considers its “sphere of influence” and Beijing is now playing that card. Russia’s objections have resulted in the U.S. backing down on two major missile defense initiatives during the Obama administration’s tenure.

Perhaps most dangerously as far as U.S. security is concerned, this has engrained in U.S. policy for Washington a willingness to remain exposed and vulnerable to Russian strategic weapons in the name of “stability.” If it’s working for Russia, why not China?

This brings us back to our allies. The U.S. continues to formulate policies that do not adequately appreciate the contemporary intricate web of global power politics. The U.S. can’t merely depend on arms control treaties with Russia in hopes that this will move the world to “nuclear zero.” What the U.S. does with one major power ripples across the globe. For instance, an arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow might purport to limit nuclear weapons developments between those two countries, but it doesn’t restrict China or any other state power. And allies around the globe take note of America’s disarming, its inaction when Russia invaded Ukraine, and its refusal to punish countries like Russia for violating standing agreements and treaties. It should be no surprise then when American allies begin to lose confidence in the U.S. umbrella, they begin discussions about joining the Nuclear Club. Which raises the possibility that the only nuclear weapons the world will have less of under this administration are America’s.