After North Korea tested what it has claimed is a hydrogen bomb, global attention once more focused on Pyongyang’s seemingly relentless desire for nuclear capability. In response, President Trump has castigated Seoul for its “appeasement” of Pyongyang, while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has threatened a “massive military response.” But successful de-escalation of the situation requires careful diplomacy, not knee-jerk military action.
States seek nuclear weapons for a host of reasons, including national security and a desire to demonstrate “greatness.” Responding to such proliferation threats has been a fraught process, one dependent on careful and pragmatic calculations. And military responses simply haven’t worked. Not only have Trump’s predecessors recognized the public backlash that could accompany aggressive responses to proliferation, but they have also understood that military intervention could increase the determination of a state’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, or at worst initiate a major war.
As a result, nonproliferation policy since 1945 has largely hinged on diplomacy, persuasion and coercion, not direct military confrontation. Although this approach has not prevented emergent nations from gaining nuclear capacities, it has contributed to preventing the vast expansion in the number of nuclear weapon states that was so often predicted, and helped certain states come into the international fold.
A half-century before the world worried about Pyongyang’s nuclear capacity, it feared China’s nuclear potential. In the 1960s, a Chinese bomb seemed to threaten vital U.S. interests in Japan and potentially limit American room to maneuver at a time when Asia was becoming a major Cold War battleground.
Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson’s administrations considered (to varying extents) pre-emptive action to halt Beijing’s nuclear program. In the end, the risks of going to war with China far outweighed those of simply allowing it to become a nuclear weapon state. Strategy became less alarmist and more pragmatic.
Military action was increasingly seen as internationally risky, probably unnecessary and domestically problematic (especially in the election year of 1964). Once China’s nuclear status was recognized in 1964, it became part of the process that brought a nation that had once been considered diplomatically unreachable (much like North Korea today) into the international fold. This newfound security allowed Beijing to display greater caution in foreign policy and a willingness to negotiate with Western powers.
For President Jimmy Carter, the greatest proliferation anxiety was Pakistan. Twin crises — defeat in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war and India’s 1974 test of an implosion device as a ‘“peaceful nuclear explosion” — had catalyzed Islamabad’s budding atomic program. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was an enthusiastic nuclear nationalist who saw “the bomb” as a deterrent against New Delhi and a route to power and status in the Islamic world.
After ousting Bhutto in a coup in 1977, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq did not slacken the pace of the nuclear program. Eventually, through skillfully planned purchasing on poorly regulated international markets, Zia’s scientists managed to construct the viable uranium enrichment centrifuges that would allow them — in 1998 — to make Pakistan a nuclear weapon state.
In dealing with Pakistan, Carter set the standard that his successors in both parties would follow in response to nations absolutely determined to acquire nuclear capability. His administration rightly concluded that no amount of pleading, bribery, coercion or diplomacy was going to halt Islamabad’s quest for “the bomb.” Bhutto and Zia were determined to meet the challenge of India and demonstrate that Pakistan was the technological and military equal of its neighbor. The best course, Carter’s advisers concluded in mid-1979, would be to mitigate the worst effects of Pakistan’s seemingly inevitable nuclear acquisition while maintaining global faith in the efficacy of U.S. nonproliferation policy.
While the U.S. intelligence and diplomatic communities attempted to dismember Pakistan’s clandestine purchasing program, they accepted the inevitability of the South Asian state’s eventual nuclear capability. Instead, they prioritized delaying eventual acquisition as long as possible and retaining Islamabad as a crucial regional ally. When journalist (and later diplomat) Richard Burt suggested in the New York Times that the United States was planning a strike against the Kahuta enrichment facility, such loose, inaccurate talk led to a diplomatic spat that contributed to a decline in relations. The Carter administration realized that even mentioning military action could potentially derail genuine nonproliferation efforts.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan was on the front line of a re-energized Cold War. Perhaps surprisingly given his ideological differences with his predecessor, when Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981, he maintained a commitment to Carter’s “mitigationist”approach. While action to slow Islamabad’s nuclear activities continued in the diplomatic and intelligence shadows, in public Pakistan was a staunch ally in the reinvigorated fight against the Soviet Union.
And in fact, Reagan learned quickly that military action could be counterproductive. During the 1980s, Iraq also captured the attention of the United States and its ally Israel because of its growing nuclear capacity. Israel’s June 1981 airstrike against Saddam Hussein’s nuclear facilities at Tuwaitha failed to halt the nuclear program. As recent research shows, the Israeli strike actually transformed the Iraqi efforts by increasing the resources made available to it and driving it forward with greater vigor. And it should be noted that neither the 1991 nor the 2003 invasions of Iraq were driven by nuclear proliferation concerns.
More recently, President Barack Obama once again showed how pragmatic negotiations and diplomacy work. Despite calls for military action against Iran by domestic political opponents and conservative international actors, the Obama administration instead pursued a policy of diplomatic engagement in concert with allies. That policy has paid demonstrable dividends. Iran’s program has largely been dismantled, and the Islamic Republic is being gradually reintegrated into the international mainstream.
The history of American engagement with nuclear proliferation demonstrates that the rejection of force and the foregrounding of diplomacy is key. Because it is unlikely that Pyongyang will give up its hard-won nuclear capabilities, pragmatism and understanding must win the day. The Trump administration should treat a nuclear-armed North Korea as a given, and make moves to bring it into the international mainstream. Not following the lead of previous presidents could plunge the world into a nuclear nightmare, all in the name of nonproliferation.