Is Washington prepared to confront allies and friends who might decide to develop nuclear weapons? Should it do so?
Traditionally the U.S. has focused nonproliferation enforcement against perceived adversaries, most notably Iran and North Korea. Washington made half-hearted, and ultimately futile, efforts to prevent India and Pakistan from developing nuclear weapons.
The U.S. was less concerned about friendly governments. The United Kingdom developed an atomic arsenal early in the nuclear era; France and Israel followed. American officials never considered breaking relations or bombing proliferators.
However, Washington might soon face an ally or two moving down the nuclear road. Saudi Arabia has been the most vocal. Two years ago, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) bluntly insisted that if Iran “developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
Riyadh’s request to purchase nuclear plans from the U.S. looks like an attempt to create a turnkey nuclear program, ready to produce weapons at a moment’s notice. The New York Times reported back in November, 2018 that MbS’s “negotiators stirred more worries by telling the Trump administration that Saudi Arabia would refuse to sign an agreement that would allow United Nations inspectors to look anywhere in the country for signs that the Saudis might be working on a bomb.”
The Kingdom is not the first U.S. ally to indicate an interest in possessing nuclear weapons. In the 1970s South Korean President Park Chung-hee, a general who seized power in a coup, initiated a nuclear program, which he abandoned only under great pressure. The idea has since resurfaced. Cheong Seong-chang, Director of the Unification Strategy Studies Program at the Sejong Institute, observed: “If we have nuclear weapons, we’ll be in a much better position to deal with North Korea.”
Some National Assembly members have backed the idea, as did Chung Mong-joon, heir to the Hyundai industrial group, chairman of the ruling party, and 2012 presidential candidate. He urged the Republic of Korea to leave the nonproliferation treaty and “match North Korea’s nuclear progress step by step while committing to stop if North Korea stops.” A Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey last year found a majority of South Koreans backed the idea of developing nuclear weapons.
Despite the obvious obstacles to such a development, former South Korean foreign minister Song Min-soon warned that one “widely touted” response to the North was “the Republic of Korea taking its own measures to create a nuclear balance on the peninsula.” Byong-Chul Lee of Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies and former special assistant to the National Assembly Speaker, suggested that “If these trends continue, a nuclear South Korea is a question of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’”
There is less overt support for exercising the nuclear option in Japan. Nevertheless, the idea has been suggested from time to time by senior officials. Indeed, more than 40 years ago Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda argued that Article 9 — the clause in Japan’s Constitution that outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes — does not “absolutely prohibit” the country from possessing nuclear weapons. Three years ago Shigeru Ishiba — one-time secretary general of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, defense minister, and prime minister hopeful — declared that “Japan should have the technology to build a nuclear weapon if it wants to do so” and that North Korea had made a debate over the issue inevitable.
Another potential nuclear aspirant is Germany. When West Germany rearmed and joined NATO, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer advocated relying on U.S. tactical nuclear weapons but suggested creating the capability to make German warheads. That idea has remained dormant for decades. However, the perception of an increased Russian threat has spurred concern for enhancing Europe’s nuclear deterrence, perhaps by creating a German deterrent.
After Donald Trump’s election, Roderich Kiesewetter, a Christian Democrat and Bundestag leader on foreign policy, opined that “Europe needs to think about developing its own nuclear deterrent." He proposed a joint European military budget to finance a Franco-British nuclear umbrella: “If the United States no longer wants to provide this guarantee, Europe still needs nuclear protection for deterrent purposes.” However, there are forthright advocates of a German nuclear arsenal, such as Berthold Kohler, a publisher of the leading conservative paper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Academic. Henrik Mueller, an opponent of the idea, acknowledged that if America’s nuclear guarantee ended, then “Even a debate about indigenous German nuclear weapons would then be conceivable.”
These disparate countries all realize that America’s promise of so-called extended deterrence is growing less credible. There is less reason to defend allies able to defend themselves and no longer threatened by a hegemonic competitor of the United States. More important, the potential of additional nations targeting the U.S. homeland raises the costs of promising to protect allies. Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations noted: “The trouble is, the United States has far less incentive to intervene on behalf of South Korea or Japan if North Korea can respond with a nuclear strike against the U.S. homeland.”
During the Cold War, Washington did its best to convince both the Europeans and Soviets that it was prepared to risk the incineration of American cities to protect European cities. However, noted Rapp-Hooper: “Few of the assurance strategies the United States used with NATO are available for contemporary Asia.” And those arguments don’t work as well even for Europe today, since Moscow no longer poses a globe-spanning hegemonic and ideological threat to the U.S.
Confidence in Washington’s promises has waned further with the Trump presidency. Even some members of his administration recognize the challenge. In September Stephen Biegun, then special representative for North Korea, now deputy secretary of state, asked “at what point will voices in South Korea or Japan and elsewhere in Asia begin to ask if they need to be considering their own nuclear capabilities?” The answer, of course, is they already are.
This is widely seen as a problem. Journalist Pete McKenzie observed that as America decides on President Trump’s reelection, “the answer it chooses may require it to confront a newly pressing nuclear challenge: holding back its friends.”
But why hold them back? Or at least all of them? Proliferation risks the use of nuclear weapons, both intentional and accidental. The more states with nukes the greater the likelihood of leakage to non-state actors. Nevertheless, the nations currently possessing nuclear weapons have made minimal efforts to disarm even as they attempt to keep the nuclear club’s door closed. They obviously believe the benefits of possessing nukes exceed the costs.
Moreover, for more than seven decades, Washington’s alternative to proliferation has been a growing number of nuclear umbrellas, many explicit, some implicit, and a few ambiguous. South Korea and Japan are in the first category, but the Europeans dominate. Every NATO expansion theoretically increases Washington’s nuclear obligations: now Americans are pledging to risk their nation’s incineration to protect North Macedonia. Before that was Montenegro. Next up might be the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
The second category introduces uncertainty. Israel, presumably, is covered, though it has its own nuclear force. Maybe Saudi Arabia. The third category includes Taiwan and Australia. New Zealand, less so, since it left ANZUS. Perhaps the other Gulf states? What would Washington do if they confronted a nuclear power.
Nuclear deterrence works well for the American homeland. The further it extends the weaker it becomes. Protecting allies is less important than protecting the U.S., which is put at risk by opening a nuclear umbrella. Some allies are less important than other ones: compare Japan with Bahrain. At some point the threat to use nuclear weapons loses credibility to potential aggressors, especially in controversies of much greater interest to other states — such as Taiwan to China.
A nuclear umbrella also encourages allied states to take greater risks in the belief that Washington will back them. And if deterrence fails, America’s unpleasant choices are abandoning a commitment by staging a humiliating retreat or suffering likely retaliation after initiating nuclear strikes. Indeed, the U.S. would even face the risk of a preemptive strike to prevent or limit Washington’s threatened retaliation.
Saudi Arabia may be the best case against proliferation. The regime is totalitarian, murderous, and aggressive. It invaded Yemen, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, funded jihadist insurgents in Syria, promoted civil war in Libya, and backed repressive regimes in Bahrain and Egypt. MbS, who effectively rules, is impulsive, irresponsible, and brutal, having increased political repression, closing the once small space open for political dissent. Untrustworthy today, the regime likely would be even more unpredictable and dangerous if it possessed nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, North Korea makes the case for counter-proliferation. In 1950 the North attacked South Korea. The U.S. intervened and was on the brink of victory by the end of the year. Then the People’s Republic of China joined the fray and the war raged until July 1953, ending in an unsatisfactory ceasefire roughly where the fighting started.
If war erupted today, Beijing would not come to North Korea’s rescue. But because Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, it could threaten to strike unless America withdrew from North Korean territory. And the North’s regime would have nothing to lose in doing so, since total defeat would be the alternative. Under what circumstance could Washington risk intervening in a second Korean War, which would pose no direct threat to the United States, if the incineration of U.S. cities was the possible, even likely, result?
More seriously, does Washington want to forever be in a possible nuclear standoff with China in Asia? Assume Beijing amasses a nuclear arsenal equal to America’s, would a U.S. president risk Los Angeles for Taipei, as a Chinese general once challenged an American official? Or for Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, Sydney, and Auckland? Even if the risk is small, how much risk of existential destruction should Washington take for the independence of friendly but not essential states. Especially knowing that China has a greater interest in its region than the U.S. does, and Beijing authorities, knowing that, might dismiss the likelihood of the nuclear umbrella being opened.
A sensible alternative might be measured proliferation. The U.S. always has accepted, sometimes formally, sometimes informally, the growth of the nuclear club. But others have won America’s opposition. Today Washington could reasonably oppose Saudi Arabia while accepting Germany and South Korea, for instance.
A good solution, no, but only second bests exist. The U.S. government’s chief responsibility is to its people. Doing more to protect others while endangering Americans is bad policy. Allowing, if not necessarily encouraging, others to build their own deterrent, would help constrain China. The impacts would be many, but the issue deserves to be debated rather than dismissed. The other options look worse.
Washington has found it difficult enough — meaning almost impossible — to prevent hostile regimes from developing nuclear weapons. It should not waste time trying to stop allies from doing so. To the contrary, friendly proliferation might be the best strategy to constrain dangerous powers in the future without risking U.S. involvement in multiple unnecessary wars.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He previously was affiliated with the Heritage Foundation and Competitive Enterprise Institute. He writes a weekly column for the American Conservative online and Antiwar.com.
There’s no question that war leaves behind its lingering destruction. This includes both harm to people and to the environment. As the world marks the second year of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, we must reflect on the impact of war on Ukraine, the resiliency of its people and global response to resolving the issues of bomb contamination.
Roughly one-third of Ukraine's territory is contaminated. This is the size of an average country in Europe. Ukraine is currently experiencing the worst environmental disaster in terms of soil pollution per unit of time.
Toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury leach from ammunition and weapons into the soil. If potential areas of contamination are not identified and recorded in time, harmful substances can enter the food chain and become carcinogenic. This threatens global food security and export opportunities. Failure to act now could result in the deterioration of human health.
Prior to the war, about 400 million people worldwide relied on Ukraine for their food supply making this a large-scale problem. Spent ammunition and chemical weapons can contaminate soil for decades or longer. Land is not a renewable resource. Soils and their fertile layer are formed over thousands of years. Just 1 cm of soil is formed in 200-400 years, and 20 cm in 5,000-6,000 years. Military operations that take place for 2 years like in the case of Ukraine can destroy what has been formed over thousands of years.
Contaminations left behind from war are nothing new. We know this from wars in SE Asia, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and the list goes on. It’s no surprise then that at least 50 countries are impacted by landmines and other explosives. The good news is there are solutions to the long lasting impacts of conflicts like unexploded ordnance on humans, all living things and our planet.
One example is a project called “Assessing farmland and ecosystems damage in north-eastern Ukraine from the Russian invasion” (UA-UK-CH) led by this article's co-author Dr. Olena Melnyk. This project is a joint initiative with researchers from Ukraine, England and Switzerland aimed at enhancing the capacity for mapping, environmental monitoring, and managing the effects of war-induced damage on Ukraine's agricultural land, utilizing existing networks of scientists and field-based analysis to safeguard food security. The first component of the project involves gathering ground truth data on the damage inflicted on Ukrainian farmland, which is then utilized to analyze the extent of soil pollution and calibrate remote sensing data.
The second component focuses on developing an application for mapping farmland to document hazards and contamination and prioritize land for production and remediation.
The third aspect involves building up “citizen science” by training non-combatant experts to inspect and analyze contaminated farmlands and contribute to land mapping efforts.
The fourth component aims to facilitate the decontamination and remediation of Ukrainian lands to restore agricultural productivity while promoting post-war environmentally friendly agricultural practices to ensure sustainability and climate neutrality. This project will enable Ukrainian farmers to avoid dangerous areas and prioritize the land for targeted decontamination. The data collected from this research project will help inform government agencies, civil societies and other stakeholders.
The United States is the largest funder of global humanitarian demining. Since 1993, the U.S. has provided at least $4.2 billion to over 100 countries from Laos to Ukraine. Funding is invested in activities such as bomb clearance, victims’ assistance and explosive risk education.
Environmental research like the UA-UK-CH in Ukraine has proven to be necessary and important to the future of soil rehabilitation post conflict. This should be a norm and donor countries, funders, academic institutions can leverage the future findings from Ukraine and leverage it as a model that can inspire research in other war impacted countries — especially 50-year-old legacy contaminations in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—where no study has been done.
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Judge Nawaf Salam, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), speaks during a public hearing held by ICJ to allow parties to give their views on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories before eventually issuing a non-binding legal opinion in The Hague, Netherlands, February 19, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
The gulf between the United States and the rest of the world — in particular the Global South — on the Israel-Palestine conflict remains sharp and wide.
This was demonstrated yet again at The Hague last week, where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is hearing a case triggered by a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution in December 2022 seeking an advisory opinion on the “legal consequences” of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The case has taken on even greater significance in the current context of Israel’s military action in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli assault (in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack) has led to around 30,000 Palestinian deaths and widespread destruction of homes, mosques, churches, hospitals, and community centers with seemingly no end in sight. A BBC investigation at the end of January found that between 50% and 61% of the Gaza Strip’s buildings had been destroyed or damaged in the war, while over 80% of the population had been displaced.
This case also comes on the heels of last month’s ICJ hearing in a separate case brought by South Africa alleging serious violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention by Israel in its current assault on Gaza. In that case, the ICJ issued a provisional order that Israel’s actions in the current war against the Palestinians could plausibly be considered genocide. Other Global South states have initiated measures at the International Criminal Court. Overall, states representing close to 60% of the Global South’s population have either directly or indirectly backed international legal action on Palestine, as our previous analysis showed.
Last week’s proceedings were the early stage of the UNGA-triggered case, in which the oral arguments focused on whether the court has jurisdiction over the matter. Of the 49 countries and three international organizations (the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the African Union) that argued before the court’s judges — the most of any case in the ICJ’s history — only four argued that the court lacked jurisdiction and should therefore not render an opinion: the United States, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Fiji.
Although this round of argumentation centered around the question of the court’s jurisdiction, the representatives who spoke on behalf of their respective countries presented their view of Israel’s occupation as well as current and past military activity in Palestine. Cuba went as far as to explicitly argue that Israel’s military aggression in the current war amounts to a “genocide.” Several others, including Bolivia and Chile, argued that the occupation violates international law, and should therefore end.
The extent to which this issue resonates across the Global South is evident in the fact that Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country and a U.S. partner, so strongly supports the Palestinian cause that the country’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, left the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brazil to personally present Indonesia’s argument before the court. She argued that Israel’s “unlawful occupation and its atrocities must stop and should not be normalized or recognized.” Indonesia sees Palestine as the last unresolved issue of decolonization, which it is mandated to oppose according to its constitution.
Bangladesh spoke of violations of three basic tenets of international law: the right to self-determination; the prohibition to acquire territory by force; and the prohibition of racial discrimination and apartheid. Namibia also cited apartheid in its arguments, while The Maldives spoke of appropriation of water resources for Palestine, among other things. The African Union, collectively representing 54 African states, described “an asymmetrical situation in which an oppressed people is confronted with an occupying power.”
Other Global South states arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in this case even called out the United States by name. Guyana, for example, said that the U.S.’s argument fails because the U.S. wrongly claims that there is an ongoing peace negotiation between Israel and Palestine, therefore leaving no legal authority for the ICJ to deliver an opinion on this issue.
Algeria also explicitly said that this case not only stains Israel’s image, but also hurts that of the United States, as the U.S. government continues to support Israel despite its continued violation of international law.
Fiji was the only Global South state in the hearings to broadly align with Israel and the United States in its arguments. It argued that a two-state solution could only come about when (Palestinian) terrorism ended. It also stated that Israel had not agreed to the case, the ICJ approach circumvents the Oslo process, and the information available to the court was one-sided. Additionally, Zambia struck a cautious tone, supporting a two-state solution but also saying that a solution should not “squarely blame one party.”
The deep opposition to U.S. and Israeli positions was not just confined to the Global South. Most core U.S. allies in the Global North were also opposed. For example, France argued that Israel’s settlements in Palestine are illegal. France also asked the court to render an opinion on the extent to which the Palestinians have suffered damages, and asked that the court consider how much restitution or compensation is appropriate for the damages suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Even the United Kingdom — the lone core U.S. ally aligned with American and Israeli positions in the case — called out Israel’s occupation. The country’s representative stated that although the UK opposes ICJ jurisdiction in this case, in part because the scope of a fact-finding mission would be too broad in the context of an ongoing conflict, Israel’s continued and expanding occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law.
China and Russia, the two great power rivals of the United States, both supported the majority opinion, arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in the case and against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
This comes as growing security, economic, and political ties are being formed by the Chinese and Russians with states across the Global South. The Russian mercenary group known as the Wagner Group — recently rebranded as Africa Corps — has tapped into strong anti-Western sentiment to form military and security ties with states across central and west Africa, largely replacing unpopular and outdated U.S. and French security projects in the area.
Both China and Russia are also leading members of BRICS, in which they are in a de facto coalition with leading middle powers of the Global South looking to plug existing and major gaps in the current international system as well as prominently project their voice on the global stage.
Washington’s isolation on Palestine may not have mattered much if we were still in a unipolar world. But with relative power slowly diffusing away from Washington, the United States may benefit from shifting its policies and bridging its position with the rest of the world on the highly emotive issue of Palestine that is causing enormous human suffering and already beginning to destabilize the wider region.
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.