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Our frenemies want nukes, what should we do?

A “frenemy,” Dr. Taliaferro instructs us, is a country that deceives, manipulates, evades and obstructs US interests, but with whom we maintain a security alliance because we need a friend in their particularly volatile region in the world. Frenemies maneuver not out of pique, but rather are driven by divergent interests. In each of the four case studies of his new book, frenemies pursue nuclear weapons in order to enhance their status relative hostile neighbors – Pakistan v India, Israel v the Arab World, Taiwan v China, and South Korea v North Korea.

Classically, nuclear proliferation theory focuses on nuke policy alone; Dr. Taliaferro corrects this narrow-sightedness. Nuclear domino theory explains US policy as driven by the fear that one country going nuke will motivate neighbors to do the same. Security commitment theory predicts that fear of abandonment by the US drives frenemies to pursue nuclear weapons as a security blanket. Credible sanctions theory says enforcing Congressional legislation drives non-proliferation policy. None of the above offer satisfying explanations of US-to-frenemy policies.

In contrast, Dr. Taliaferro’s neoclassical realist theory pushes us to think broadly. Policymakers consider whether threats to the US in the frenemy’s neighborhood are strong or weak, short-term or long-term. The more significant and urgent the threat, the more accommodative US’ stance. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, for example, propelled Pakistan to the top of the neighborhood watch list. In addition, when US officials weigh aid or sanctions, they must also consider American domestic politics. During the Cold War, Taiwan gained US Congressional support as a bulwark against Red China, blunting successive administrations’ ability to take a harder stance against Chiang Kai-shek and later Chiang Ching-kuo’s nuclear ambitions.

Defending Frenemies also reminds us that when technology competition crosses over into strategic competition, as with 5G technology today in the quest for Internet domination, the role of actual technology experts diminishes. This is a loss, I think, when the technology itself has potentially great benefits for public welfare and more cooperation rather than rivalry would realize its gains sooner. However, once foreign policy weaponizes technology, frenemies are vital, and we should expect them to take center stage both in US foreign policy and news headlines.

Defending frenemies: Alliances, Politics, and Nuclear Nonproliferation in US Foreign Policy by Jeffrey W. Taliaferro is published by Oxford University Press (2019).

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