North Korea celebrated Memorial Day with an underground test of a nuclear weapon reportedly the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. When combined with a series of missile launches that day and subsequently, the regime in Pyongyang has sent an unmistakable signal: The Hermit Kingdom has nothing but contempt for the so-called "international community" and the empty rhetoric and diplomatic posturing that usually precedes new rewards for the North’s bad behavior.
The seismic waves precipitated by the latest detonation seem likely to rattle more than the windows and members of the UN Security Council. Even as that body huffs and puffs about Kim Jong-il’s belligerence, Japan and South Korea are coming to grips with an unhappy reality: They are increasingly on their own in contending with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Until now, both countries have nestled under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This posture has been made possible by what is known in the national security community as "extended deterrence." Thanks to the credibility of U.S. security guarantees backed by America’s massive arsenal, both countries have been able safely to forego the option their respective nuclear power programs long afforded them, namely becoming nuclear weapon states in their own right.
A blue-ribbon, bipartisan panel recently warned the Obama administration that extended deterrence cannot be taken for granted. In its final report, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States unanimously concluded that: "Our military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, underwrite U.S. security guarantees to our allies, without which many of them would feel enormous pressures to create their own nuclear arsenals….The U.S. deterrent must be both visible and credible, not only to our possible adversaries, but to our allies as well."
Unfortunately, the Obama administration is moving in exactly the opposite direction. Far from taking the myriad steps needed to assure both the visibility and credibility of the U.S. deterrent, Mr. Obama has embraced the idea of eliminating that arsenal as part of a bid for "a nuclear-free world."
The practical effect of such a policy direction is to eschew the steps called for by the Strategic Posture Commission and, indeed, the recommendations of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the commander of Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton and the director of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Thomas D’Agostino. Each has recognized the need for modernization of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, enhanced "stewardship" of the obsolescent weapons that will likely continue to comprise the bulk of the arsenal for years to come and sustained investment in the infrastructure – both human and industrial – needed to perform such tasks.
The Obama administration is, nonetheless, seeking no funds for replacing existing weapons with designs that include modern safety features, let alone ones that are more suited to the deterrent missions of today – against states like North Korea and Iran, rather than the hardened silos of the Soviet Union. It is allowing the steady atrophying of the work force and facilities of the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex.
Arguably worst of all, Team Obama is pursuing an arms control agenda that risks making matters substantially worse. Using the pretext of the years’ end expiration of the U.S.-Soviet START Treaty, the President has dispatched an inveterate denuclearizer, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, to negotiate in haste a new bilateral agreement with the Russians. By all accounts, she is seeking a deal that will: reduce by perhaps as much as a third what is left of our arsenal (leaving as few as 1500 nuclear weapons); preserve the Kremlin’s unilateral and vast advantage in modern tactical and theater nuclear weapons; and limit U.S. ballistic missile defenses.
The administration is equally fixated on another non-solution to today’s threats: ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) rejected by a majority of the U.S. Senate a decade ago. That accord would permanently preclude this country from assuring the viability of its arsenal through the one means absolutely proven to be effective – underground nuclear testing. Meanwhile, non-party North Korea and its partner in nuclear crime, Iran (which has signed but not ratified the treaty), would not be hindered from developing their arsenals. And Republican members of the Strategic Posture Commission, who all opposed CTBT ratification, believe the Russians are continuing to do valuable underground testing, as well.
The Obama agenda will not make the United States safer. If anything, it will increase international perceptions of an America that is ever less willing to provide for its own security. States like Russia and China that are actual or prospective "peer competitors" are building up their respective nuclear arsenals. They and even smaller powers like North Korea and Iran increasingly feel they can assert themselves with impunity.
In such a strategic environment, America’s allies will go their own way. Some may seek a more independent stance or try to strike a separate peace with emerging powers like China. Others may exercise their option to "go nuclear," contributing to regional arms build-ups and proliferation.
If President Obama wishes to avoid such outcomes, he would be well-advised to heed the advice of the Strategic Posture Commission: "The conditions that might make the elimination of nuclear weapons possible are not present today and establishing such conditions would require a fundamental transformation of the world political order." Until then, we better do all that is needed to maintain a safe, reliable, effective and, yes, extended deterrent.