If the United States cannot find an effective way to deter the aggressive behavior of North Korea, countries in Asia which have relied on the “international system” since the war must ask themselves two questions. First, is nonproliferation truly dead? Second, is America unwilling to defend its allies?
If the answer to both questions is yes, then Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore will eventually take steps to acquire nuclear weapons. It would be a moment similar to the realization that the British Empire’s “Singapore” strategy was a fiction and a sham and now every nation had to look to itself. The collapse of the American security guarantee would mean the only way to guarantee security would be to rely on one’s own deterrent capability rather than rely on the world of Barack Hussein Obama.
It would be a momentous step, one which most countries in the region would be unprepared to take. One cannot imagine Julia Gillard, for example, declaring nonproliferation dead. She is too politically invested in the fiction to readily embrace a contrary fact. New Zealand is probably in the same case. For the foreseeable future, nonproliferation will be openly dead only to North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran. All the rest will treat it as live even though it is moldering at the table at which it has sat immobile, inarticulate, the dishes placed and taken away from it like offerings before a waxen figure. Much of the world will cling to the hope it will speak again even if it has not spoken for some time, simply because they cannot bring themselves to accept the alternative.
But what can be acceptably done is to set a series of red lines coupled to a political process that can be invoked to determine whether and when nonproliferation has failed; and whether the U.S. defense shield is a broken reed. At some point even the most polite host must get up to pinch the corpse at the dining table and if it topples over be willing to declare with much regret that it is indisposed.
It is not impossible to build a political consensus around a group of clear metrics, which if transgressed, signals that yes, the nations must come to arms.
Those metrics might include a measurement of the number of warheads North Korea has, its delivery systems, and its behavior. In fact drawing the red lines may have utility in itself. If Australia and Japan say: past this line and we build — remembering that Australia has some of the largest uranium deposits in the world and Japan some of the most advanced technology — then even the maddest dog might be given pause.
Perhaps that time has not yet come. But politicians ought to describe what combination of circumstances might cause governments to recognize its existence. There is always the chance that Barack Obama is the Arthur Percival of the 21st century. Beaten before he starts. Too timid to go forward, too late to defend. When can he be justifiably regarded as a second-rater and not the Duke of Wellington come to life? Maybe now is too impolitic. But there must come a time — whatever allowances are made — when confidence is at end.