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Decentralize the Nuclear Arsenals

Tags Decentralization and SecessionTaxes and SpendingWar and Foreign PolicyPolitical Theory


Military spending by the United States is higher now than it was during the Cold War. That means the US taxpayer is now on the hook to pay for more military personnel, bases, and weaponry than was the case when the Soviet Union controlled an area three times the size of the United States, and was an avowed ideological foe of the West.

Today, the US must spend even more, we are told, to fight an enemy like the Islamic State which has no navy, no air force, and certainly no intercontinental ballistic missiles.

To further buttress these claims that ever more spending is needed, America’s foreign policy establishment continues to insist that the United States — and thus, the American taxpayer — continue to provide the military defense for much of the planet, including countries such as South Korea, Japan, Germany, the Baltic States, Turkey, and many others.

Reflecting his populist and nationalist base, Donald Trump has wondered aloud as to why the United States should keep footing the bill for the defense of other large, wealthy, and technologically advanced countries — or for countries that offer no geopolitical advantages for defense of United States territory.

Specifically, Trump has also suggested that, rather than provide defense for Japan and South Korea, those two countries beef up their own military and nuclear capability. Trump has also expressed doubts about the need for the US, through NATO, to commit itself to World War III in case countries like Latvia and Turkey are attacked by an outside state (presumably Russia).

What Trump doesn’t mention is the larger problem with the status quo: it carries with it the potential of making regional conflicts into global ones. For example, if Japan and China go to war in North Asia, the US government has committed itself to devoting American lives and potentially trillions in taxpayer dollars for the benefit of the Japanese state. The same is true of South Korea.

Trump is right that the current policy is very costly in terms of dollars, but the cost in terms of human lives and treasure could be far greater if regional conflicts turn into world wars. 

The Media Reaction: Pretend There Is No Debate 

The collective reaction from the mainstream media and the political establishment has been to clutch their pearls and be aghast at the idea that anyone would ever suggest that the status quo of endless global military subsidies for foreign regimes should not continue indefinitely.

Perhaps the most hysterical reaction comes from Zack Beauchamp at Vox who has said that Trump’s position is essentially the equivalent to inviting nuclear war with Russia.

No deterrence against Russian nuclear capability is possible, Beauchamp claims, without the US as the guarantor of security in Eastern Europe. Beauchamp cites this study, quoting: “‘formal alliances with nuclear states appear to carry significant deterrence benefits.’ The US’s formal agreements, then, deter aggression against its non-nuclear partners (like Germany and the Baltics).”

What Beauchamp doesn’t mention is that NATO already includes nuclear states other than the United States (namely, the United Kingdom and France.) Both the United Kingdom and France possess advanced missile technology for delivering nuclear warheads, and it is widely accepted that Germany could convert to being a nuclear power in a short time frame. Perhaps even in a period of months. 

So, even if we accepted Beauchamp’s claim as true (which I’m not doing), the situation doesn’t require the participation of the United States. 

Secondly, if formal alliances with nuclear states create a deterrent effect, the same can be said of proliferation. That is, logic dictates if states can create deterrence by joining with nuclear states, they also create deterrence by becoming nuclear states themselves. 

Proliferation Brings Security 

The possibility that nuclear proliferation would increase deterrence and peace has long been forwarded by prominent scholars within the realist camp of the international relations world. Among the most influential of these is Kenneth Waltz whose 1981 paper The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” concludesthe slow spread of nuclear weapons will promote peace and reinforce international stability.” Waltz’s paper is still the subject of debate among students and scholars today

Waltz’s paper became a matter of real-world application in the 1990s when Ukraine abandoned its nuclear arsenal (left over from Soviet days) and fellow realist scholar John Mearsheimer concluded it would be a mistake for Ukraine to give up what constituted a solid deterrent to potential Russian aggression. A nuclear-armed Ukraine, Mearsheimer noted, would offer stability in the region and reduce the risk of conflicts in which other great powers were pulled into Ukraine-Russia conflicts to counter Russian expansion. 

Unfortunately, the anti-proliferationists succeeded, and their success has ensured that NATO and the US continue to insert themselves into the region, allegedly as a necessary balance against Russian weaponry. The risk for global conflict in this situation is significant. 

Decentralize and Regionalize Nuclear Power 

Thus, instead of decentralizing nuclear capability in that case, and keeping regional conflicts limited, the insistence on non-proliferation has instead ensured that virtually any nuclear conflict in that part of the world will carry a strong potential for becoming a much larger global conflict. 

Meanwhile, Germany, the wealthiest state in the region — with an economy more than double the size of Russia’s — continues to pass the buck to the American taxpayer. (“Buck passing” refers to a specific type of behavior in international relations.) 

This cannot continue indefinitely. In fact, writing in his 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer predicted that the established order in Europe would collapse by 2020, and Germany would then create its own nuclear arsenal. Mearsheimer’s prediction may have to wait longer than 2020 to come true, but his own analysis led him to believe, quite plausibly, that the status quo, in which Europe is expected to rely on American military spending and the American nuclear arsenal, has limited endurance. Whether we like it or not, it’s only a matter of time before a deeply-indebted American state begins to recede from its countless international guarantees, at which point proliferation of nuclear weaponry is inevitable — at least among wealthier states. 

In other words, at some point the realities of geography and economics give way to the fact that — among other things — the US has limited resources, and nuclear deterrence works just as well with smaller states as it does with larger states. An enormous arsenal is unnecessary. All that is necessary is that potential adversaries are aware of the arsenal, and that it may be used. As Waltz noted, even small arsenals function as a deterrent thanks to the ever-present factor of uncertainty: 

States are not deterred because they expect to suffer a certain amount of damage but because they cannot know how much damage they will suffer.

Moreover, the use of nuclear weapons is relatively less expensive than maintaining a large conventional force. Waltz continues: 

Some countries may find nuclear weapons a cheaper and safer alternative to running economically ruinous and militarily dangerous conventional arms races. Nuclear weapons may promise increased security and independence at an affordable price.

(Indeed, this is precisely what President Eisenhower concluded when he chose to counter the Soviet Union’s Red Army not with with a comparable conventional military, but with a large American nuclear arsenal.) 

Similar realities exist in East Asia where the American taxpayer is also expected to cover the cost of local deterrence against both Chinese and Russian expansion. 

This demand that regional conflicts be made into a potential World War III has long been the modus operandi of the anti-proliferation movement and those who support the global status quo. For them, it is American citizens that are to foot the bill and up the ante to global war should any problems arise on the eastern frontier of NATO or in North Asia.

That trump has questioned this situation should be regarded simply as an outburst of common sense. Given the immense cost of maintaining the status quo, and the wealth enjoyed by states such as South Korea, Germany, and Japan, it continues to become less and less convincing that the United States is the only state that can provide stability in the region. 

This fact doesn’t stop The Atlantic’s Sam Kleiner, who relies entirely on the opinions of American politicians who have opposed proliferation, in asserting: ”American presidents of both parties have understood the simple arithmetic involved — that the more countries have nuclear weapons, the more opportunities there are for nuclear war to break out, whether by design or by accident.”

Waltz specifically addressed Kleiner’s overall approach long ago when he noted: “Much of the writing about the spread of nuclear weapons has this unusual trait: It tells us that what did not happen in the past is likely to happen in the future, that tomorrow’s nuclear states are likely to do to one another what today’s nuclear states have not done.” For his part, Kleiner presents no evidence as to why a world primed for global nuclear war — which is what you get when you centralize nuclear power among a few megastates with global aspirations —  is better than a world with more small and regional nuclear states. 

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why American politicians would agree on non-proliferation. Non-proliferation is good for the American state because it assists the American state (at a high cost to the taxpayers) in its effort to attain the position of global hegemon. (Mearsheimer defines a global hegemon as a country with “a capability to devastate its rivals without fear of retaliation.”) Although greater proliferation is likely to increase overall stability, it decreases the odds of the the US being able to obtain global hegemony. Of course, this same calculus applies to all large nuclear states. Naturally, the Russian state benefits from Ukraine giving up its nuclear power, just as the US state benefits from preventing the spread of nuclear power to other rival states. 

So, we should not at all be surprised that the US government agrees proliferation is bad. Those who foot the bill, however, should take a more skeptical view. 

It’s Too Late to Rely on Non-Proliferation 

In any case, talk of US global hegemony is idle talk since the US has never achieved global hegemony, and is unlikely to ever do so. The US cannot attack Russia, for example, without fear of retaliation, and if trends continue as they do, China will continue to develop greater delivery capability both in terms of ground-based missiles and in terms of nuclear submarines. Once developed, nuclear armed subs can patrol the waters of the US coast to obtain short delivery time for nuclear missiles. Moreover, nuclear-armed India is developing missiles that can deliver payloads up to 10,000 kilometers. Thus, the US will soon be facing multiple large rivals with significant delivery capability, not counting the nuclear arsenals of “friendly” states such as France and the UK. 

The American dream of containment of all other nuclear powers has long since become unrealistic.

Not surprisingly, more adroit observers of the situation have taken a more sanguine view toward proliferation. Eric Margolis, for example, suggests the more reasonable option is to let South Korea and Japan “go nuclear”:

Ending the pretense of nuclear virginity would make North Asia safer. China and North Korea would be much less likely to threaten Japan and South Korea if these latter nations had nuclear retaliatory forces and anti-missile systems. 

Anyway, why can’t these grown-up democracies in Japan and South Korea have nuclear weapons when Washington has secretly allowed India and Israel to build powerful nuclear arsenals? 

And yet, old habits die hard. The American military establishment is built on doctrines, ideas, and notions that come out of a world that existed in the 1950s and 60s when countries like China and India were dirt poor, and central Europe was still reeling from the Second World War. That world is gone. Nevertheless, modern American foreign-policy ideology continues to assume that the United States can hope to attain a lopsided superiority in weaponry that will allow it to manage regional conflicts across the globe with minimal risk of retaliation. 

It remains to be seen if Trump has any awareness of these realities himself, or if his comments are simply campaign rhetoric. At the very least, Trump has accidentally stumbled upon a very real problem for the American state: it can no longer afford to manage the entire international order, especially in an age when numerous other states continue to expand their own ability to respond forcefully to American meddling.



Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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