As North Korea’s continued missile launches demonstrate, a country with an advanced missile program in tandem with a nuclear capability can operate at a high level of impunity in defiance of the international community, global sanctions notwithstanding.
What North Korea seems to have discovered, based on lessons from places such as Libya and Iraq, is that the best leverage any state could have against regime change, or international pressure aimed at changing regime behavior, is the possession of nuclear weapons combined with a delivery system that allows such weapons to be deployed against the United States and other Western states. As Dan Coats, President Donald Trump’s director of national intelligence, said:
[Kim Jong-un] has watched, I think, what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability…..The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes…is, unfortunately: If you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them.
Could North Korea’s example form the template of future actions by Iran and Pakistan? Both states are now under renewed pressure by the United States, and may thus deem it in their interests to acquire a deterrent against the United States. There is indication that U.S. President Donald J. Trump has been looking for a way to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal for a while, a deal he has repeatedly denounced as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
Trump recently accused Iran of hiding behind a “false guise of a democracy,” and said on Tuesday that “it is far past time for the nations of the world to confront another reckless regime, one that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing ‘death to America,’ destruction to Israel, and ruin to many nations and leaders….”
As Ted Galen Carpenter points out in The National Interest, such rhetoric could push Iran toward the very scenario the nuclear deal has been seeking to avoid; that is, Iran could go nuclear: “If Pyongyang causes the United States to back down, the reasoning goes, Iran will actively pursue the same ambition, regardless of any agreement to the contrary.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indicated that if the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, Iran could reactivate its nuclear activities: “One of the options and choices were one of our counterparts not to remain in the current framework would be to go back to previous activities… This is one option. And that’s not difficult. We can easily go back to previous conditions if counterparts were to not live up to their commitments.”
Pakistan, too, has reason to pursue enhanced nuclear and missile capabilities, though the United States would be more justified in putting pressure on Pakistan, given its record of playing a double-game against American interests in South Asia. Lately, it appears as though Pakistan is at risk of gradually becoming more and more isolated, internationally. The United States is “considering stripping Pakistan of its status as an ally because of a perceived failure to tackle terrorism,” according to reports. Additionally, the United States could designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terror, and conduct unilateral drone strikes on Pakistani territory. All of this could serve to gradually antagonize Pakistan, which has already threatened to retaliate in minor ways, and drive it toward pursuing ICBM range-missiles to complement its nuclear arsenal, just in case; the country moved toward establishing a credible nuclear triad earlier this year.
Although the foreign policy of the United States is partially responsible for North Korea’s rogue actions, and potential future nuclear blackmail from Iran and Pakistan, the United States should nonetheless take active measures toward protecting itself from a nuclear attack from these states. The United States cannot wait for the right alignment of politics, sanctions, diplomacy, and geopolitical alignments to at least take active measures toward negating threats from Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. While some policy-figures in the United States, such as John Bolton, call for a military option against North Korea; such an option would likely be so costly as to be almost unacceptable, as The Diplomat’s Senior Editor Ankit Panda has argued in The Atlantic.
Instead, it would be both more effective, and economic, in terms of blood and treasure, for the United States to further invest in effective missile defense, in order to neuter any attempt at nuclear blackmail emanating from states that would threaten the American homeland. The purpose of this should not only be to protect the U.S. homeland from an attack, but to decrease the likelihood of other states using their nuclear weapons as shields behind which to hide. For example, terrorist groups based in Pakistan are generally seen are safe from massive retaliation from India, should they be implicated in a terrorist attack there, as Pakistan has made it clear that a conventional attack on it could be met with a nuclear response.
Investing further in missile defense would go a long way toward preventing the United States from being susceptible to such a scenario, should it arise. As a report by CSIS indicates, investing in missile defense against new threats is the best solution against missile threats from North Korea, Iran, and potentially Pakistan, should diplomatic solutions not be found. A successful missile defense strategy requires more investment and modernization, such as the expansion of the United States’ ground-based midcourse defense (GMD), developed specifically to combat against potential threats from North Korea and Iran.
The GMD system currently allows the United States to destroy missile threats in space. The United States should also consider adding a space-based interceptor layer, an option that has been explored by both lawmakers and the Pentagon. Finally, the United States should also place GMD missile batteries on its east coast, in addition to those on the west coast, which already has several dozen interceptors at a GMD battery that covers Alaska, Hawaii, and the west coast. Missile defense on the east coast would better combat threats from the Middle East in particular, in addition to North Korean provocations against major eastern cities. All of these measures would allow the United States to shore up its missile defense and make it more robust.
While the United States should do its utmost to implement policies that conciliate rather than antagonise states in Asia and the Middle East, it should also take precautions if these states decide to embark on the route of blackmail. Investing American money in ways to defend the United States against missile threats is a far wiser strategy than John Bolton’s strategy of starting a war with a nuclear armed power.