Today in the National Interest, Professor Harvey M. Sapolsky penned an argument arguing for what he deemed “tailored proliferation”, where he argued that in order to counter Chinese interest in East Asia, the United States should encourage Australia, Japan, and South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons. Calling nuclear weapons “the great equalizer” and arguing that nuclear weapons helped to prevent the Cold War from turning hot, Sapolsky claims that democratic institutions, civilian control of the military, and a lack of lobbing missiles at one another shows that the countries of East Asia would make reliable stewards of nuclear weapons. This policy would benefit the United States, Sapolsky argues, because the presence of nukes would mean that the United States would be able to draw down its substantial conventional forces in the region and thus save a great deal of money.
Sapolsky is not the only one I have seen these days who has been discussing not just the harms of non-proliferation, but the BENEFITS of active proliferation. In the aftermath of the Russian seizure of Crimea as well as their continued antagonism of Eastern Ukraine, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing, especially from the Ukranians themselves, about how Ukraine traded nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee of its sovereignty, and how this apparently broken agreement has shown that Ukraine should have kept the nuclear weapons after all. In Iran, apologists for the mullahs and those who fight against American hegemony to show that they are “well-informed” have in fact argued that an Iranian nuclear program would guarantee peace in the Middle East – because since the US could no longer invade Iran, this would encourage the disparate peoples of the Middle East to get along…somehow.
But reality is different. Nuclear weapons are not an end-all be-all. They are not a guarantor of world peace. They are a destabilizing factor, and every country, every group, every person who gets their access to nuclear weapons is just one more factor that has to be watched in order to ensure that no one goes mad. And frankly for Dr. Sapolsky’s argument, nuclear weapons would not ensure stability in the Middle East, as the British comedy series Yes Minister observed nearly thirty years ago:
For those who would prefer not to waste their time watching YouTube videos, a simple observation about Sapolsky’s argument: what will nukes do about the Senkakus? What will it solve? The idea of Japan and China actually fighting a conventional war over the rocks, even after the dispute began in earnest nearly two years ago, is just as absurd in East Asia as it is here in the United States. And if a conventional war is ridiculous enough, then what about nukes? Will Japan launch nukes over a Chinese intrusion on the Senkakus? Will the Philippines launch nukes over the South China Sea? The answer is clearly, whichever way this is answered, a losing proposition for the smaller states. If Japan does not launch nukes, it appears to be impotent. If it does launch nukes over an intrusion on a couple rocks, the shock at such an overreaction would mean that Japan would be massively diplomatically isolated at best, and at worst would repeat the experiences of 1944-45 again.
Nukes are only useful if one has a very strong reason to believe that its core territories are under a realistic threat of invasion, and sometimes not even then ( Ukraine is an example: as Tom Nichols noted, the reality was that no one in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, whether Russia or the United States, had the slightest interest in seeing a then highly-unstable Ukraine with nuclear weapons). Outside of that direct threat, they are useless at best, and a tool for nationalistic flag-waving which threatens to massively destabilize a crisis at worst. The states of East Asia and Oceania do not need nukes. They need conventional forces to handle smaller threats from China that are far more realistic to occur than a scenario straight out of Red Dawn. And there is no one who can handle that better than the United States, especially since even an amateur on the East Asia should know how nervous China will get over a Japanese conventional build-up, or North Korea over a South Korean military expansion.