In the post-Cold War order, many states have relied on American power and influence to guarantee their security. Through alliances, agreements, and the United States’ desire for global stability to advance its interests, the United States has used a combination of its military and economic might to deter aggression and promote stability. This ability has largely hinged on American credibility in the eyes of foreign nations, which has traditionally been high. However, through the course of the past six years, the Obama Administration has brought American credibility to a new low. This lack of credibility is most dangerous due to the damage that President Obama has brought to its nuclear umbrella and the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
For this regime to function, states must have confidence that the international community, led by the United States, will not allow a state to acquire a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, American allies must have confidence that in the event of a nuclear attack, the United States will retaliate with nuclear weapons against the aggressor.
The damage caused by President Obama to the United States’ nuclear umbrella and the nonproliferation regime does not come per say from his dubious attempt to craft a lasting nuclear deal with Iran. Rather, it stems from his decision to cancel a missile defense system stationed in the Czech Republic and Poland, the limited consequences for Bashar al-Assad crossing President Obama’s “red line” with chemical weapons, and continued reductions to the United States’ defense budget. It also comes from Obama Administration’s failure to uphold Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States guaranteed the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine relinquishing its nuclear stockpile. However, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continued support of the insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, the United States mounted at best a lukewarm response to Russian aggression. Therefore, American allies must be wondering whether or not the United States will come to its defense in the event of attack.
Under the Obama Administration’s watch the nuclear nonproliferation regime has been further perverted. The lesson learned from the Ukrainian experience has been if a state gives up its nuclear weapons, the international community will not necessarily protect it if under attack. The most important lesson learned: Obtain nuclear weapons to prevent stronger powers from taking aggressive actions.
So far, these events have merely poked holes in the nuclear umbrella; holes that may leave doubts in the minds of American allies from Riyadh to Warsaw to Tokyo, but can likely be mended after President Obama. The real issue that threatens to catalyze the umbrella’s destruction is the ongoing negotiations with Iran. The framework deal announced yesterday is designed to limit Iran’s nuclear program for up to 25 years and leaves one year of breakout time should Iran attempt to develop a nuclear weapon. Given the potential that the deal may be violated, many politicians and pundits have asked the question of ‘will this deal prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon?’
The answer to that question does not really matter. The better question is does the international community, particularly the Middle Eastern states, believe that the deal can prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon? Whether or not Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon does not ultimately matter. If actors in the Middle East believe that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon either during or after the 25-year period, those states will move to acquire nuclear programs of their own. Furthermore, since many Middle Eastern states have lost faith in America’s credibility, certain states, notably Saudi Arabia, may acquire nuclear weapons to assure their own security in the face of the Obama Administration’s withdrawal from the region. If this happens, the nuclear deal will become irrelevant, as the major Middle Eastern states will rush to acquire nuclear weapons to assure their security.
The Obama Administration faces a daunting task. While ill-advised and potentially unconstitutional, bypassing the United States Senate will be the easy part. For the deal to actually prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, it must convince its Middle Eastern allies of two elements: The deal will actually prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and that the United States is not attempting to normalize relations with Iran at the expense of the Sunni-led Gulf States. However, accomplishing the first seems unlikely and the second appears near impossible, which leaves the fate of the American nuclear umbrella and the international nonproliferation regime in an unsteady state at best.