North Korea is the sole country to have acquired a nuclear weapon over the past 30+ years.
Concerted effort by numerous international organizations is one reason that is true. An equally important reason is that the US has mutual defense pacts with many nations which might otherwise feel the need to acquire a nuclear weapon. That’s why we have nine nuclear powers (USA, Russia, China, UK, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea), rather than nineteen.
Americans are reeling from one Trump/Bannon induced disinformation/disorientation campaign to the next every day. Let’s stop for a second and think about how the GOP/Trump administration has been seen by our allies overseas. Specifically when it comes to the question of mutual defense treaties and their role in reducing nuclear proliferation in the post WW-2 world.
Senator Obama made nuclear disarmament a cornerstone of his career in the Senate, working with Dick Lugar to secure weapons, including WMDs. President Obama tried to do the same with varying success. It’s unclear that President Trump can see two moves ahead to where his ill-considered statements lead.
Our allies are re-evaluating their dependence on the US nuclear deterrent. To non-American ears, especially those which have tacitly depended on our nuclear umbrella, America-first feels like a body blow to our mutual-defense treaties. Rumors, unsubstantiated though they may be, about Russian influence on the current administration have further undermined our allies trust in us and our commitments.
We have mutual defense pacts with NATO members (and parties to the Rio Treaty) which oblige us to treat an attack on them as if it were an attack on us. We have slightly weaker agreements for mutual defense with several other countries. I’ve tried to rank our allies in rough order of concern from least to most. I arrive at a list of countries that I think are relatively sanguine:
- Canada (NATO): Canada’s proximity to the US make it virtually unthinkable that the US would abandon Canada.
- United Kingdom (NATO): Historic ties with the UK make it unlikely that the US Congress would leave the UK defending its borders alone. Since the UK already has nukes, they’re less dependent on our deterrent.
- Western Europe (NATO): The EU is considering re-deploying French nukes to other member states, and possibly expanding the program.
- Australia, New Zealand (South-Asia Treaty): We have very high levels of military co-ordination with these nations and they’re members of the Five Eyes. I don’t see the Trump administration abandoning Australia and New Zealand (white pan-nationalism).
Higher levels of concern:
- Eastern Europe (NATO): This is where things begin to get really hairy. Former Warsaw pact states that are now part of NATO are very concerned after what they’ve seen in Georgia and Ukraine.
- Thailand, Philippines (South-Asia Treaty): With the US withdrawal from TPP and an anticipated lack of engagement with South Asia, these nations should be worried.
- Japan (bilateral treaty): High level of concern since Japan remains largely de-militarized and relies almost entirely on US mutual defense pacts.
- South Korea (bilateral treaty): Much higher level of concern due to proximity to North Korea.
- Turkey (NATO): Much higher level of concern due to location and since Turkey is a Muslim majority country.
I’ve side-stepped the issue of the Rio treaty. It is, on paper, a mutual defense pact as clear as NATO. However, in the eyes of most South American participants, we undermined it during the Falklands war by siding with the UK. Mexico withdrew from the treaty. The Trump administration’s visible animosity towards Mexico and by extension, Central/South America is likely concerning to all states in the hemisphere. Then again, most South American governments view the US skeptically at best and are not overly concerned about threats originating outside the Americas. So I think the risk of proliferation on the South American continent is low. That cannot be said about mainland Europe or Japan, which have relied on US security guarantees since the end of the second World War. There are signs of new levels of concern across Europe:
A vermilion-colored locomotive slowed to a halt, its freight cars obscured in the blinding snow. A German captain ordered his troops to unload the train’s cargo. “Jawohl!” — “Yes, sir!” — a soldier said, before directing out the first of 20 tanks bearing the Iron Cross of the Bundeswehr, Germany’s army.
Evocative of old war films, the scene is nevertheless a sign of new times. Seven and a half decades after the Nazis invaded this Baltic nation, the Germans are back in Lithuania — this time as one of the allies. — WaPo
Much of the Japanese population and governing class has a deep aversion to nuclear weapons. The subject is almost taboo because Japan remains the only nation to have been subjected to nuclear attack in a heavily populated area. The resulting aversion colored the 1969-71 discussions to return Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty. A major sticking point was the continued presence of US nuclear weapons at the base there (they were removed in 1972).
That might have begun to change. Japan faces real security threats from three nuclear powers in its immediate neighborhood, China, Russia and North Korea. The wholesale changes occurring at the State Department, our president’s loudly stated America-First policy, and the general unreliability of the Trump administration is deeply unsettling to Japanese strategic thinkers.They are being forced to reconsider deeply held expectations and assumptions about the US. The Japanese defense establishment has had to consider the prospect that Trump is not a one-off, that a similar personality could be elected to the US presidency again. In a world of America-first, Japanese leaders might easily be persuaded to adopt a Japan-first policy. If that happens, it could be enough to overcome any aversion to building or even storing nuclear weapons in Japan.
Though Japan has all the technical knowledge to build a crude weapon rather quickly, it is unlikely they would go down that route.
That’s because the Japanese would not jury-rig a tiny arsenal out of civil plutonium. They could do it, sure, but why? Why completely alter the structure of Japanese security policy for a handful of makeshift bombs that might not work? If Japan goes nuclear, it will do so only as part of a fundamental change in how the Japanese look at their security environment. In that case, Japan would build nuclear weapons like they do everything else, down to the beer machine at Narita — with meticulous care. Japan would construct dedicated plutonium production reactors and facilities to separate weapons-grade plutonium, probably conduct nuclear tests, and deploy modern delivery systems, such as missiles.
— Foreign Policy
Any Japanese nuclear program would take many years to come to fruition. Which of course means it would have an impact far beyond Trump’s term. Once Japan heads down that road, it is likely game over for the non-proliferation treaty.
Over the past few years, there have been discussions in the UK about the value, purpose and morality of it’s nuclear weapons program. In particular, there have been concerns about the aging submarine based Trident program (the missiles are made by Lockheed). That discussion seems to have been shelved with the new UK government now pushing for additional investments in the Trident program. A recent failed test created enormous controversy, but the PM did not back off the proposal to renew Trident:
Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain found herself in political hot water on Monday over reports that an unarmed Trident missile went astray during a test at sea in June, and that the government kept the incident a secret. Ms. May was initially unwilling to acknowledge that she was aware of the test when she urged Parliament in July to invest in new Trident-armed submarines. Here is a look at the weapon and concerns about a possible cover-up. — NY Times
In Germany and the EU more broadly, concerns arose immediately after Trump’s victory. These have led to discussions about adapting and expanding the French and British nuclear arsenals across the EU:
The discussion surrounds nuclear deterrent. For decades, the final line of defense for Europe against possible Russian aggression has been provided by the American nuclear arsenal. But since Donald Trump's election as the 45th president of the United States, officials in Berlin and Brussels are no longer certain that Washington will continue to hold a protective hand over Europe. — Der Speigel
We should all be concerned by this potential proliferation, even if it is across “developed” countries to begin with. Even a well trained military with a long tradition of civilian control can struggle to adopt the safety procedures necessary to operate a nuclear deterrent safely.
Our allies are well aware that the American nuclear arsenal is virtually under the sole control of the president. The fact that we have managed to elect a person capable of casually suggesting that Japan and South Korea “might be better off” with their own nukes sends the message that they cannot depend on the US. For any government committed to the safety and security of its own population, the next step will be to seriously consider developing their own nuclear deterrent.
Yes, words, and tweets can have real long term consequences for the safety of the world. Especially when made by the person occupying the White House.