President Barack Obama’s 2009 Prague speech called for greater moral leadership on nonproliferation, and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review pledged to put nonproliferation “atop” the U.S. nuclear agenda. But a little-noticed recent agreement with South Korea is the latest example that, in practice, this administration has done neither well, both on and off the peninsula.
In late October, the administration substantially modified a longstanding bilateral arrangement curtailing the range of South Korean missiles. Originally limited to 180 kilometers in 1979, and increased modestly to 300 kilometers in 2001, the recent deal permits missiles of 800 kilometers, putting all of North Korea into range and parts of China and Japan.
While this benefits South Korea’s military, it undermines nonproliferation, threatens stability and signals doubt about extended deterrence.
For decades, the U.S. has pressured South Korea to moderate strategic programs, with good cause. Alliances are not one-way conveyer belts for foreign assistance. We ask allies to make sacrifices and share burdens for larger strategic goals. The South Korean deal undercuts the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a nonbinding arrangement whereby like-minded governments coordinate export controls. Since 1987, MTCR has helped roll back Brazilian and South African programs, moderate South Korean and Taiwanese development, and end Argentina-Iraq-Egypt cooperation.
The MTCR also created a de facto norm against missile transfers and missile programs capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload more than 300 kilometers. As with the 2001 South Korean update, MTCR criteria provided a threshold when Libya agreed in 2004 to forgo longer-range missiles. The Obama administration commemorated the regime’s 25th anniversary this year by green-lighting Storm Shadow cruise missile sales to Saudi Arabia. It was a small scandal when those missiles were sold to the UAE in 1998.
Nearby, the White House’s signature nonproliferation effort with China is to assist with internal nuclear security, a sort of fig leaf allowing China to look busy, attend nuclear summits and distract from actual proliferation.
“I’m sure there has been some help coming from China,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, when last year North Korea paraded new ballistic missiles on Chinese-built launchers. Meanwhile, the administration quietly accepts China’s contention that building Pakistan (yet another) heavy water reactor at Khushab is no big deal.
Finally, the Obama administration abandoned the U.S. commitment to “gold standard” restrictions on third-party transfers and reprocessing for civilian nuclear-sharing arrangements (the so-called 123 agreements). The administration even opposed a bipartisan measure to amend the Atomic Energy Act to codify such restrictions, although supported unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
One way to reassure our South Korean allies is by encouraging them to focus on defensive systems. The administration’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review emphasized the contribution of defenses for regional deterrence and praised the SM-3 interceptor family as effective. The SM-3 Block IA is the foundation of the European phased adaptive approach (EPAA).
While EPAA is insufficient, cuts to new SM-3 interceptor purchases fall short of even the administration’s plans. Observers still await details of the promised Asian PAA. Given North Korea’s successful December launch and the certain sharing of the missile’s telemetry with Iran, perhaps the White House should consider actually submitting to Congress its long-overdue strategy to hedge against long-range missile threats.
Another step is to modernize our deterrent, as recommended by the bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission. After committing to do just this in late 2010, prior to the ratification by Congress of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the administration brazenly cut promised modernization funding in fiscal 2013. Facing what the commission called an “atrophying” U.S. nuclear infrastructure, allies may begin to hedge against a future without extended U.S. deterrence.
Notwithstanding Obama’s announced “Asian pivot,” India’s test of a 5,000-kilometer-range Agni-5, reported new South Korean cruise missiles and growing nuclear whispers in Japan may reflect doubts about American security commitments. Similar murmurs are heard in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, anticipating a nuclear Iran.
Allied proliferation would not benefit America’s strategic posture. Preventing it takes moral leadership and robust U.S. capabilities. Last fall, Panetta felt it necessary to reaffirm America’s “commitment to provide and strengthen extended deterrence for [South Korea].” But actions deter more effectively than words.
Sensible nonproliferation should not be divisive. Democrats should clamor for the president to honor his pledges, and Republicans should remember that Ronald Reagan created the MTCR in tandem with the Strategic Defense Initiative. Unfortunately, some Republicans see nonproliferation as a dovish substitute for more kinetic forms of interdiction, pre-emption and missile defense. Those on the right who praise the South Korean deal should re-read the 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, which calls nonproliferation, counterproliferation and missile defenses mutually reinforcing.
President Lyndon Johnson once quipped that “good nonproliferation policies make for bad politics.” It’s not surprising that the Obama administration has gone soft on nonproliferation when a hard line proves inconvenient. But this administration asked to be held to a higher standard, so its nonproliferation failures must be tallied with candor.
Thomas Karako directs the Center for the Study of American Democracy at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio. These opinions reflect only those of the author.