Friday, October 20, 2006

Playing the nuclear card?

Charles Krauthammer has a strongly worded op-ed in Friday's Washington Post wondering why the US is working to "quell any thought Japan might have of going nuclear to counter and deter North Korea's bomb."

Krauthammer's piece is typical of the hysteria that has greeted the North Korean nuclear test from all corners. Accordingly, Krauthammer naturally sees no problem with Japan's acquiring nuclear weapons in response to a test that, if anything, shows the KFR's weakness.

Granted, the time may one day come when conditions may require a Japanese nuclear arsenal. But in the mean time, Japan's acquisition of nuclear weapons at this juncture would be completely inappropriate. What is needed is steady resolve by the US and its allies, not hysterical saber rattling in the form of a Japanese nuclear weapon. And that is exactly what Secretary Rice has done on this trip to Asia. She has reassured Japan that the nuclear umbrella remains firmly in place, obviating the need for a Japanese nuclear deterrent for now.

Krauthammer -- like so many other American commentators who believe that it is time to play the ace in the hole that would be a Japanese nuclear arsenal -- for some reason believe that it is the US that is the primary reason preventing Japanese from nuclearizing. US discouragement may play some part in Japan's averring from acquiring nukes, but I don't think it's the most significant part. What matters is that the Japanese public has fully embraced the three non-nuclear principles -- by which Japan refuses to manufacture or possess nuclear weapons, or allow them on its territory -- and thus while the principles lack the force of law, they enjoy greater significance as a fundamental part of Japan's national identity. As a result, any decision by the government of Japan to nuclearize will be preceded by considerable national debate. And based on the response to Mr. Nakagawa's attempt to start such a debate, it seems that the Japanese people aren't quite ready yet. Mr. Krauthammer mistakenly assumes that remarks by Foreign Minister Aso and Mr. Nakagawa represent the whole of Japanese public opinion; they don't. The Japanese public remains leery not just of a nuclear deterrent, but even a conventional deterrent.

Thus the US should continue to do what it has been doing all along -- maintain the umbrella, strengthen the alliance, and wait for the Japanese to make their own decisions about nuclear weapons. Should Japanese public debate result in the conclusion that nuclear weapons are essential to the defense of Japan, Washington should be ready to give its imprimatur. But the US should not be too eager to play its ace, lest it be left holding nothing -- and lest the other players be holding hotter hands.
UPDATE:
  Tim makes a good point in the comments.

I had a different problem with the Krauthammer piece. Perhaps it's an obvious point, but the broader US counterproliferation rhetoric is probably the most important reason to not support Japanese nukes. As soon as we'd claim it'd be acceptable and within Japan's rights to develop a hedge against NK, we'd have to justify preventing others, such as Iran, from developing such weapons. We'd be caught in a rhetorical briar patch of offensive v. defensive nuclear weapons, and in the perception of the hostile audiences we most need to woo, there'd be no way out.
Absolutely right, of course.
Before the US could encourage Japan or South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, it would have to scrap completely its long-standing approach to non-proliferation -- which may be necessary, but that's a big step that has to be taken before the US can even begin to talk about encouraging its allies to proliferate. Instead the US continues to maintain the pretense that countries shouldn't acquire nukes at all. So in other words, rhetoric like Krauthammer's is not particularly viable in the short or medium term.

1 comment:

Tim Junio said...

I had a different problem with the Krauthammer piece. Perhaps it's an obvious point, but the broader US counterproliferation rhetoric is probably the most important reason to not support Japanese nukes. As soon as we'd claim it'd be acceptable and within Japan's rights to develop a hedge against NK, we'd have to justify preventing others, such as Iran, from developing such weapons. We'd be caught in a rhetorical briar patch of offensive v. defensive nuclear weapons, and in the perception of the hostile audiences we most need to woo, there'd be no way out.