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Eagle-eye RealityChek followers may have noticed the lack of a post Wednesday. Here’s my “note from home.” I spent much of the day doing something I hadn’t done for quite a while: attend a policy conference in downtown Washington, D.C.

I’ve been avoiding such events lately (unless I’m invited to speak) because usually I know ahead of time what all the participants are certain to say. (Yes, the policy scene in the nation’s capitol is indeed that stale, at least in the fields I know best.) So why waste time at such utterly predictable, formulaic exercises?

But last Wednesday’s event, sponsored by the private The National Bureau of Asian Research, was a little different. It dealt in large part with a subject I’ve posted on several times: the dramatic improvement in Chinese and North Korean nuclear weapons capabilities and what it could mean for American alliance strategy in the region and America’s own security. I wasn’t familiar with the speakers. And the foreign policy establishment has been pretty silent on this issue so far, so it was a chance to sample some representative views.

I’m glad to report that the presentations, especially by the lead speaker, Georgetown University political scientist Matthew Kroenig, helped me refine my thinking on these matters further. But they didn’t prompt any significant changes and, if anything, further convinced me that the nation’s foreign policy professionals still need a major wake-up call on how U.S. strategy in Asia is increasing the nation’s vulnerability to nuclear attack.

To review quickly: Since the end of World War II, the United States has promised to use nuclear weapons if necessary defend allies in Asia – specifically Japan and South Korea – from aggression. That strategy arguably made lots of sense when America possessed the world’s only nuclear weapons, and when, even after this monopoly was lost, it enjoyed a major nuclear edge over regional rivals. After all, Washington could not only hope to prevail in any conflict. It could reasonably hope to deter any such confrontation through the ability to threaten adversaries with nuclear destruction while keeping the American homeland completely safe.

Today, the strategic situation in Asia is substantially different. The United States retains substantial nuclear superiority over China and especially North Korea. But in addition to continuing to close the gap, as I’ve been reporting for years, both China and North Korea have made important strides towards developing what the specialists call secure retaliatory capabilities. That is, they’re developing forces that can be mobile enough, or easily enough hidden (mainly by putting them on submarines), to make sure that Beijing or Pyongyang can hit American targets with nuclear-tipped missiles as soon as Washington brings its own nuclear forces into play. As a result, U.S. leaders could (understandably) be deterred from intervening in Asian conflicts for fear literally of losing Los Angeles, or Denver, or….

At the conference, the presentations did deal with these developments, but they were unmistakably treated largely as abstract, long-range hypotheticals – not as concrete challenges bearing down on America very quickly. Just look at the event’s title: “Approaching Critical Mass: Asia’s Multipolar Nuclear Future.” Nothing in it about the United States. I tried to bring the discussion closer to earth by asking whether they thought that any American president would defend Asian allies knowing that the explosion of even a single nuclear warhead over a major U.S. city was a live possibility.

Georgetown’s Kroenig responded and made some strong points. First, he noted, American leaders have continued the policy of “extended deterrence” in Asia despite the Chinese and North Korean improvements, and the peace has been kept, meaning that Beijing and Pyongyang apparently remain deterred. Second, he pointed out, it’s not beyond America’s capacity to strengthen its own nuclear forces, and at least restore some of its diminished nuclear margin – even to the point of restoring high confidence of taking out rival nuclear forces in a preemptive strike.

Third, as Kroenig correctly observed, deterrence calculations are usually not black and white, either-or propositions. In America’s case, once it lost that monopoly on delivering nuclear weapons across oceans, it’s experienced some vulnerability to nuclear attack. As a result, the real challenge U.S. leaders face is continuing to convince potential enemies that nothing they could conceivably hope to gain from attacking American allies could approach what they could conceivably lose.

But if I’d had the chance to follow up aggressively (which is considered bad form at such events – another reason I’ve been passing them up), I would have made the following responses:

First, although both China and North Korea have so refrained from making dramatic military moves in Asia, that’s not to say that they’ve been deterred. After all, the North keeps conducting nuclear weapons tests. And with increasing boldness, the Chinese keep asserting territorial claims in the East and especially the South China Sea. Moreover, as I’ve reported, the Japanese and South Koreans seem less and less impressed with the credibility of America’s commitments, and seem increasingly eager to acquire nuclear weapons themselves.

Second, even if abundant resources suddenly became available, it’s far from certain that more and better U.S. nuclear forces will restore enough American superiority to offset Chinese and North Korean gains – much less be able to threaten their nuclear forces adequately. As I reported in May, a highly regarded defense consulting firm has recently contended that “the United States and its allies are already at a point where they cannot guarantee the complete removal of the threat of a North Korean nuclear attack.” And without “complete removal,” Pyongyang could still have Washington over a barrel.   

Third, precisely because of this risk, and precisely because Washington has never leveled with the American people about the (growing) dangers of its Asia strategy, there’s a real chance that U.S. leaders could find themselves in a showdown with Asian adversaries without the full support of the public. President Obama found out how painful that experience could be – and the kind of hit American credibility could suffer – when he backed down from his threat to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.  Imagine the impact of an Asian nuclear crisis taking this turn.  

In fact, as I remarked to some fellow conference attendees as we were filing out, if Americans were fully aware of their leaders’ Asia intentions, they’d probably get angry enough to vote cast their presidential ballots for a rank political and policy amateur with an apparently hot-headed personality. I was only half-kidding.

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