Saturday, March 26, 2005
Pre-emptive Deterrance

The foreign policy of the United States has been criticised for its unilateral and aggressive actions in recent years. These criticisms, often based upon moral support for international institutions, disregard useful analysis for labels and hysterics over 'neo-conservatism'. Yet the turn towards 'pre-emptive action' was the response of a rational actor in a world where the proliferation of nuclear weapons has becoming increasingly common. If a superpower expected an uncertain future with an additional number of uncontrolled and uncontrollable mid-range powers holding nuclear weapons, then the bar for nuclear retaliation would have to be lowered in order to ensure that deterrance was factored into the strategic equation for such middling states.

Areas where rival powers have fought wars over disputed territories are more likely to acquire nuclear weapons, if one of the strategic parties already holds such power. The breakthrough flashpoint was China-India-Pakistan in 1998. The actions of the United States has also increased the pressure by flushing prey out of the undergrowth. This reputation for aggression has reduced the timescale that anti-American nations could use to secure their arsenals and forced their hands, leading to North Korea's admission of nuclear weapons (possibly). As such, the policy has had short-term problems compared to the preparation for long-term uncertainty. It could be criticised for encouraging rather than preventing proliferation.

The major problem with those who support international efforts, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons is the realistic evidence of failure. Nuclear weapons have spread to both desirable and undesirable regimes. They are used for deterrance, especially if a state, such as Israel or North Korea, feels that it is under existential threat. Where states have not 'gone nuclear' in response to antagonistic threats is because they have outsourced their right to use overwhelming force against an opponent to the United States. We can identify the three East Asian states that fall into that category: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. This is an additional pressure for the United States to consider; its own role as a security umbrella preventing proliferation in East Asia - a game of deterrance that China's military build-up places under increasing tension.

To sum up, whatever the short-term motives for constructing a doctrine of 'pre-emptive action' were, this foreign-policy shift is a useful tool in providing clear boundaries for new state actors which acquired nuclear weapons. We can anticipate that as a the United States shifts towards recognition of a world where nuclear weapons are held by a larger number of countries. 'pre-emptive action' will prove to have deterrent value. There is a good case for shifting British foreign policy down this path, especially as we have a need to ween ourselves off nuclear dependence upon the United States.


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