Containing North Korean adventurism was always an element of a larger understood American security protocol: the United States would ensure the safety and territorial integrity of our postwar reformist Asian allies–Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan–which in exchange would not become nuclear powers and would not return to the destructive nationalist warring of the 1930s.
The advent of a small nuclear arsenal in North Korea and the ongoing translation of Chinese fiscal power into military growth unfortunately required the U.S. to reemphasize as never before, to both our friends and enemies, that extraordinary commitment. We were obligated to remind the increasingly tense region that a North Korean invasion or missile attack, or a major unilateral Chinese entry into the air space or waters of these four countries, would be met by a proportionate American reaction that would ensure such aggression would prove unwise.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not really done that, but instead loudly boasted about negotiations with Russia over reducing deployable nuclear weapons. Russia, of course, no longer has non-nuclear clients that look to it for a nuclear umbrella of security; it certainly is not so relevant to the Pacific as in the past. So the negotiations seem fossilized and pose more of a direct interest to those not involved in them than aimed at making the world a safer place.
Even more unfortunately, such talk about cutbacks in our deployable strategic arsenal coincides with sequestration reductions in the defense budget, and a sort of embarrassing paralysis in the Middle East. From the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf we have issued serial deadlines and redlines, but otherwise mostly watched as Americans perished in Libya and the “liberated” country turned into something like Somalia. Syria has become the Balkans of the 1990s. Egypt is a mess whose warring sides–Islamists, secular reformers, the military, and Mubarak hold-overs–all unite in sharing a common disgust for the benefactor U.S. Iraq is all but abandoned by the U.S. Iran ignores our nagging pleas to cease uranium enrichment. And the more we brag about al-Qaeda on the run, the more we seem to run from it.
The global fallout is not hard to predict. Over the next few years–if not sooner–either North Korea or China will probably gamble that a regional adventure is worth the risk. And in anticipation of that aggressive mindset, our allies will either make humiliating concessions, or, more likely, take the appropriate steps to become nuclear.
In this regard, a nuclear Japan or South Korea would quickly produce a nuclear arsenal analogous to our own rather than comparable to the unreliable weapons of North Korea. We should not, after all, expect successful states–that have played by the postwar rules, produced wealth and exported valuable products, and are model international citizens–to tolerate missiles flying over their airspace, or suffer periodic existential threats by nuclear powers, without making the necessary adjustments–if they sense that the overwhelming power of the allied U.S. is neither overwhelming nor necessarily allied.