Let’s Make a (Nuclear) Deal

January 18, 2017

Donald Trump’s transactional view of alliances is, perhaps by accident, largely compatible with the traditional narrative about what extended deterrence is: The United States supplies a “nuclear umbrella” that non-nuclear allies passively receive.  Even the term “extended deterrence” itself implies the one-way provision of capabilities and commitments to deter. In a new article in Contemporary Security Policy, I tackle the weighty issues surrounding nuclear defense cooperation.

New research argues for thinking differently about extended deterrence.  Scholars like Stephan Fruhling and Andrew O’Neil note that U.S. alliances are security institutions and as such have many of the trappings associated with institutions: standardized consultation procedures; joint decision-making processes; and venues for sharing ideas, airing grievances, and renegotiating terms.

This larger institutional context, they assert, empowers America’s non-nuclear allies to bargain more effectively with the United States about how extended deterrence commitments are implemented.  The result of that empowerment is a great deal of variation in the particulars of nuclear policy and deterrence when you compare U.S. nuclear cooperation with NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.  Often, how the so-called nuclear umbrella was implemented had less to do with nuclear deterrence than it did with bolstering the domestic legitimacy of host nation leaders, or adapting to certain cultural or political constraints.

That alliance managers in the United States and allied states are coming around to an institutional view of extended deterrence lends credence to Fruhling and O’Neil’s claim.  The alliance between South Korea and the United States, for example, has evolved from hosting a regular “Extended Deterrence Policy Committee” (of which I was an early architect in 2010) to a “Deterrence Strategy Committee.” This change should be welcomed as it rightly implies a more holistic emphasis on deterrence as a public good within the alliance, requiring contributions from both sides. Non-nuclear allies are partners, not customers.

But just as Donald Trump’s presidency represents a once-in-a-lifetime experiment for big questions in international relations theory, so too is it likely to test narrower questions about bargaining, credibility, and beliefs about deterrence.  This is where my new article comes in. During a Trump administration, the value of an institutional approach to alliance deterrence is likely to be more modest and constrained—but also potentially more relevant—in several specific ways.  I offer a series of questions for both scholars and alliance managers everywhere to help map the way ahead.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks, an associate professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, and host of the podcast series Pacific Pundit.  He is also the author of the new book Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations (Cambridge University Press). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, DKI-APCSS, or the U.S. government. 

Image: White House