With important debates unfolding on the power of the US president to use nuclear weapons, it is worthwhile to go back to basics. Terence Roehrig has written the best book I have read in a while walking through the dilemmas of extended deterrence in Northeast Asia, with a thorough treatment of the ballistic missile defense (BMD) issue as well. Japan, South Korea, and the United States Nuclear Umbrella goes through the history of extended deterrence (Chapter Three) and the threats from China and particularly North Korea that drive it (Chapter Four), with particularly good chapters on the sometimes fraught relations with Japan (Chapter Four) and Korea (Chapter Five). An important theme is the difference in threat perceptions between Japan—currently more isolated—and South Korea, which has a distinctive relationship not only with North Korea but with China as well. Roehrig rounds out his account with an analysis of the history of US force planning and the thorny problem of resolve (Chapter Six). For those in the academic community, the book is an excellent introduction for teaching purposes.
Roehrig’s conclusions capture the paradox of nuclear weapons well. On the one hand, he thinks it highly unlikely that the United States would ever use nuclear weapons, even in the face of nuclear attack. The reasons are multiple and run from moral aversion to the conflicting imperatives of nonproliferation policy, to collateral damage, to the fact that conventional capabilities are adequate to do the job. Yet Roehrig also reaches the paradoxical—but probably correct—conclusion that “while the credibility of the nuclear umbrella is low, the nuclear umbrella remains an important political signal that is an integral part of the regional security architecture.” Even if probability of use is extremely low, it is never zero and thus creates some useful uncertainty on the part of adversaries. More importantly, changing doctrine would run unnecessary risks with respect to allies who remain skittish—and probably more so under the current administration—about the integrity of American commitments. Not surprisingly, the Trump administration has reverted to past policy in this regard, although sometimes—most notably in the president’s UN speech—in hyperbolic form.
Roehrig basically thinks that we have achieved strategic stability on the peninsula: It is highly unlikely that nuclear weapons would embolden the North to undertake conventional action across the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Nor does he see risks of decoupling that are the current fear-of-the-moment, in which the North Koreans could hold US alliance relations hostage to a strike on the US mainland. Yet he rightly believes that nuclear weapons do little to deter North Korea from other bad behavior; in short, the stability-instability paradox is alive and well and will need to be handled by other more tailored means.
The one issue that deserves more debate is whether there is any utility in announcing a no-first-use policy. Since the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, and even extending back into the George W. Bush administration, there has been some movement in narrowing the purpose of nuclear weapons to deterring nuclear and perhaps chemical and biological weapons attacks. Would it be a step too far to move toward a declaratory policy of no first use? On the con side, the hope that this would change North Korean perceptions is probably fanciful; they can always claim that such declaratory policy is not credible in the absence of other more fundamental moves toward a negotiated settlement. And it may risk the sort of alliance upset Roehrig worries about. Yet to the extent that it reflects the underlying realities that Roehrig identifies, it would not only bring policy in line with likely behavior, it would also focus attention on the real issues in sustaining the deterrent: the nature of our joint conventional capabilities, the interoperability of which could still be strengthened with Korea in particular.
Other Academic Sources Posts
This series is designed to showcase academic social science work broadly relevant to the Korean peninsula even if not directly on it. Nominations are always welcome.