Almost every recent second-term president, burdened by the record of his failures, has sought a “Hail Mary” foreign-policy success to define his legacy: Bill Clinton sought successfully to normalize ties with Vietnam, but also wanted to shake hands with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and broker a final peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians, and the broader Arab world. And for all of George W. Bush’s talk about a war on terrorism, he effectively let North Korea off the hook, removing it from the state sponsor of terrorism list, because Condoleezza Rice thought a North Korea break through could change her boss’s legacy. Ditto the rushed 2007 Annapolis conference, which, as process for the sake of process, symbolized everything wrong with the approach of Bush’s predecessors. Like Clinton, Obama is turning to Middle East peace and Iran to reverse a legacy marred by the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Healthcare Act (“Obamacare”), the failure of the reset in Russia, and chaos in Syria. In neither case, however, will Obama see success. Neither he nor Secretary of State John Kerry recognize that their rhetoric does not sound as insightful or brilliant to outsiders as it does to their own ears or to those of their sycophantic aides. When it comes to strategy, determination, or pursuit of pure national objectives, Obama is simply no match for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, or North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un.
And so most U.S. allies now recognize that they cannot trust the United States. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, traditional American allies are increasingly concluding that they need a Plan B. Those Plan B’s could actually become Obama’s greatest foreign-policy legacy.
The notion of Japan armed with nuclear weapons might seem far-fetched or bizarre given that Japan remains to this day the only country against whom nuclear weapons were used. After World War II, the new Japanese constitution declared that its military would be for self-defense only. Regional states know, however, that if pushed too far—by a resurgent and aggressive China, an unstable and unpredictable North Korea, or a Cold War-fixated Russia—Japan could resort to a nuclear deterrent in order to protect itself. A number of other analysts have written openly about Japan’s nuclear option. Given how the American pivot to Asia has evaporated, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s acknowledgment that the American forces would scale back to pre-World War II levels, and the fact that the Japan-based carrier, the USS George Washington, will within a couple years need to be withdrawn for a multi-year refueling, it should become clear to Japan that any U.S. security guarantees are rhetorical and ephemeral rather than real. It should be hard for Japanese leaders not to conclude that if they want to defend their territory and people, the time is nearing when they will have to cross the nuclear weapons threshold.
How ironic it is that Obama campaigned on a nuclear zero option, but the weakness of his policies now convince states that they have little choice but to embrace nuclear weapons they once so disdained.