Extending Nuclear Umbrella Is a Bad Idea

The hawks are at it again. During the debate on ratification of the new START treaty, some implied that reducing the number of U.S. nuclear warheads and launchers would undermine America’s ability to extend its umbrella of nuclear protection over more countries in the Middle East. They said this was required to obviate the need for Iran’s neighbors to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, if the Iranians get one.

Of course, the hawks would like to bomb Iran to prevent that from happening; but after all, in the chess game of international affairs, the jingoists are always thinking many moves ahead—usually getting us into all sorts of quagmires abroad to combat murky threats of low probability. So no matter what happens with Iran’s alleged nuclear effort, U.S. intervention—and lots of it—will be needed.

The hawks’ ultimate planning for the day when Iran gets nuclear weapons may also be because they know that their military option won’t solve the problem. Given America’s poor luck in sizing up Saddam Hussein’s efforts (really non-efforts) in obtaining “weapons of mass destruction,” U.S. intelligence seems not to know where all of Iran’s nuclear sites are located. So bombing would likely just delay, but not end, Iran’s nuclear efforts. In fact, any attack may kick the Iranians into high gear to get a nuke as a deterrent to further U.S. military action (the U.S. invasion of Iraq seemed to spur Iranian nuclear efforts).

But what about extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Iran’s enemies—Israel and Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt—in the event that Iran eventually gets the bomb? Bad idea.

The conventional wisdom during the Cold War (and even now) was that it was a good idea to extend the U.S. nuclear shield over the wealthy countries of Western Europe, so that they had no need to expand their nuclear weapons capacity (strange, since the U.S. helped Britain and France get nuclear weapons in the first place) vis-à-vis the Soviet Union/Russian threat.

Despite the conventional thinking, it seemed to make no sense, even during the height of the Cold War, to risk annihilation of U.S. cities to save European ones. Although a Western Europe overrun by Soviet tank armies would not have been a good thing, the incineration of America would have been much worse for U.S. security. Of course, the bet was that the Soviets would never call America’s bluff, and thus be deterred from attacking Western Europe by U.S. nuclear weapons.

Even though the Soviet Union has long collapsed, the U.S. now extends its nuclear umbrella over an expanded group of European nations, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and probably some other countries more secretly (maybe even Israel). Right now, sacrificing American cities to save the Taiwanese from a Chinese onslaught or the South Koreans from a North Korean invasion seems even less intelligent than protecting the much larger GDP of Western Europe during the Cold War.

And extending the U.S. nuclear shield to the much more unstable and violent region of the Middle East seems supremely foolhardy. The U.S. could more easily get dragged into an unplanned and unneeded future nuclear exchange there than in any other area of the world.

The best argument that can be made for U.S. interventionism abroad is that if the U.S. doesn’t extend its nuclear shield to these friendly nations, they will get nuclear weapons to deter new “rogue” nuclear powers, such as Iran and North Korea. Yet even this proliferation argument is found wanting. Since all of the nations currently under the American umbrella are friendly or allied countries, the U.S. should worry less about them getting nuclear weapons than the rogues. In addition, some academic scholars argue that the proliferation of nuclear weapons to more nations would make the world safer by cutting down on cross-border aggression. Lending credence to this line of thought: Since nuclear weapons were invented in 1945, the number of cross-border wars has plummeted.

In reality, the U.S. doesn’t want even friendly and allied countries to get such weapons, because they make these countries less easy to dominate and are a shield against any possible future American intervention. Remember, friends can become enemies—as the experience with Iran has shown. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger helped the shah of Iran with his nuclear program, and look how things ended up.

Ivan ElandThe United States is also concerned with nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea mainly because they would give these countries the same shield against U.S. military action. After all, a nuclear attack against the U.S. from either of these nations is extremely unlikely. The most the Iranians and North Koreans will ever have is a few warheads, compared with America’s globally dominant nuclear arsenal, containing thousands of warheads. The U.S. can easily deter an attack from these two nuclear pygmies.

Therefore, the United States should not only refrain from extending its nuclear deterrence over nations in the volatile Middle East, but also retract it from friends and allies. No adverse overseas development is worth deterring—during the Cold War or after it—if the price is incineration of the U.S. home territory.

Ivan Eland

Republished from The Independent Institute with permission.


  1. Joe Weinstein says

    Eland’s Conclusion: “No adverse overseas development is worth deterring—during the Cold War or after it—if the price is incineration of the U.S. home territory.”

    This conclusion may be right, but it contradicts one of Eland’s arguments and is made totally irrelevant by another.

    Eland notes that now-friendly regimes could turn unfriendly. Contrary to his own plea for a no-umbrella policy, this claim quietly implies that the friendly regimes we don’t give an umbrella to, but instead allow to develop their own nukes without any attempt to deter them from that course, could end up being real threats to us. So, contra Eland’s statement above, possible ‘incineration of the US home territory’ would result not from deterrence but rather from the opposite, non-deterrence!

    To support his claim that our allies don’t need our nuke umbrella to protect them from rogue nuke states, Eland claims that those rogues anyhow won’t have any notable capacity to hurt anyone, let alone us. So why at the end his worry about possible “incineration of the U.S. home territory”??

    Eland also pretends that two quite different policies toward Iran are adequately discussed and dismissed by simply labeling both as ‘hawkish’. In truth it’s quite a different approach – in my opinion far safer and less problematic – to utterly deny nukes to the present Tehran terror regime, as versus trying to set up all kinds of Mid-East after-the-fact supposed ‘deterrence’ schemes to that regime’s use of their nukes.

    Once again Eland fancies a version of his ‘blowback’ theories, according to which nasties and terrorists really have no big agendas of their own, and so they take it easy unless you fight them. That alleged fact in turn is taken to imply that, because they will then fight harder, therefore there’s no sense fighting them at all.

    According to his latest version of these theories, an attack on Iranian nukes would only spur the regime to get nukes faster. Well, they’re trying to go as fast as they can now, and pursuant to a long-held agenda. (In fact, as some historians have lately reminded us, already 33 years ago the Shah had got going a big Iranian nuclear program, and only his last few months of troubles sufficed to derail that effort.)

    Eland also has unrealistically wimpy and designed-to-fail notions of what US action against the Iranian regime – and its nuke program – could mean. He seems to assume falsely that there could only be a risky one-time mere-delaying action against the nuke program. In fact, a designed-to-succeed series of attacks – by air, not by ground forces – would be aimed primarily at destroying the props of the unpopular regime, if that regime fails to agree to fully verified stoppage of any hint of a nuke weapons program. A first wave attack would take out potential retaliatory air and naval forces. Only then would later waves use air supremacy to go for nuke installations and to attack Revolutionary Guards bases. If the regime or the nuke program persisted even a few months, repeated attacks would be conducted to set them back further.

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