North Korea threatened to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack against the U.S. last week. On Monday, Pyongyang turned up the heat, declaring that it was scrapping the armistice that ended the Korean War 60 years ago. It seems the Kim regime would have us believe it is serious about posing a nuclear threat to us and our allies.
In 2009, the same year when North Korea last announced it was nullifying the armistice, then-Senator Chuck Hagel raised what he assumed was a rhetorical question: “How can we preach to other countries that you can’t have nuclear weapons but we can and our allies can?” I would assume now Defense Secretary Hagel would get an enthusiastic“amen” on this point from Kim Jong Un.
But rather than suggest the U.S. disarm before “preaching” to North Korea to refrain from using nuclear weapons, the administration reassured South Korea and Japan "at the highest levels" of its commitment to deterrence, through the U.S. nuclear umbrella and missile defense.
The administration finds itself in a quandary. By the president’s own admission, he has “changed our nuclear posture to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”
Indeed, he signed the New START Treaty with Russia which requires significant cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, while requiring none from Moscow. Then, before anyone could possibly know the effects of the treaty, he committed to further reductions. The president also has yet to make good on his promise to the Senate to modernize the weapons we have.
Moreover, in 2001, while campaigning for White House, he famously said “I don’t agree with missile defense.”
In his first year in the Oval Office, he cut more than a $1 billion from the Missile Defense Agency and cancelled programs designed to significantly improve the system.
Now, the administration suddenly finds it needs a convincing homeland missile defense system and the nuclear weapons it is determined to vanquish. Most urgently, it is scrambling to persuade friends and foes of its resolve and ability to successfully employ them, if needed. Committing 3,000 U.S. troops to military drills with Seoul in the face of the bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang is part of this.
But it may be too late.
Deterring conflict requires much more than promises, even at the “highest levels.” Nuclear deterrence is nothing without credibility. Friend and foe alike must believe that nuclear force will be brought to bear if necessary to preserve our security and that of our allies.
Yet it seems as though our allies have begun to seriously doubt the president’s commitment to their security. We know this because they are having domestic discussions about acquiring nuclear weapons.
It’s hard to blame them.
While the U.S. has been openly limiting its strategic forces, both South Korea and Japan have faced serious aggression. Despite U.N. sanctions, North Korea has pressed full speed ahead with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
Pyongyang has also spent the last several years harassing the South. In 2010 Pyongyang torpedoed the South Korean Navy ship, the Cheonan, killing 46 seamen. It killed more South Koreans in an attack on Yeonpyeong Island.
The U.S. military conducted joint military exercises with Seoul right after the attacks to show solidarity. But when China objected to having the USS George Washington participate in the exercises, and the U.S. canceled he aircraft carrier’s deployment.
So much for solidarity.
China, of course, has a history of blocking meaningful sanctions against North Korea. And former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified that North Korea’s missile program had “some help coming from” Beijing.
Meanwhile, Beijing has mounted an increasingly aggressive campaign against Japan in the East China Sea. A U.S. intelligence naval officer recently described China’s maritime surveillance agency as “a full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organization.”
As for Beijing’s nuclear ambitions, General Robert Kehler, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command said, “It is not possible to accurately determine the precise level or conditions at which the PRC leadership might elect to attempt to match the U.S. nuclear inventory.” In other words, should the U.S. continue to decrease the number of nuclear weapons in its inventory, China might be tempted to build up, if it isn’t already.
Additionally, Beijing appears willing to employ nuclear weapons even in conventional conflicts. According to China’s Arms Control Ambassador, Beijing’s “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy does not apply in a situation in which the U.S. might intervene in Taiwan.
What the president and Secretary Hagel have seemingly failed to understand is that the superiority of the U.S. nuclear force has contributed greatly to the prevention of major war and the preservation of peace since World War II.
Haphazardly lowering the U.S. nuclear force due to an ideological opposition to nuclear weapons themselves—especially when combined with weak responses to aggression—risks a cascade of nuclear proliferation. Moreover, an effective missile defense is necessary not only for intercepting missiles, but also for convincing foes that it isn’t worth launching a missile at the U.S. to begin with. It requires committed investment, testing, and sustainment over an extended period of time.
Today the rest of the world is watching the U.S. disarm and—rather than do the same—it is making the calculation that it’s time to arm up.
President Obama should stop his hasty drawdown of the U.S. nuclear force, commit to its modernization, and strengthen the U.S missile defense system. Otherwise, the path to nuclear zero will lead to only greater nuclear proliferation.
Rebeccah Heinrichs is a fellow at the George Marshall Institute and the former manager of the House Missile Defense Caucus.