The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

5.2 Nuclear proliferation

The mixed patterns of cooperation and conflict between the United States and Russia and China are well illustrated by one of Obama’s key foreign policy problems – nuclear proliferation. Here, North Korea and Iran, key states in President Bush’s infamous ‘axis of evil’, are the focus of a long-running confrontation.

For the United States the strategic logic is clear – small states’ possession of nuclear weapons acts as a counter to US military unipolarity and has the potential to frustrate its deployment of conventional forces in regional theatres. And although some analysts argue that a generalisation of nuclear weapons could stabilise the international system by generalising the principle of deterrence, such a scenario does not account for the instability inherent in the very process of diffusion, nor the increased prospects for nuclear mistakes and miscalculation.

Nevertheless, both China and Russia have countervailing policy aims that serve to limit the extent to which they support US policy in this area. For both China and Russia, the strategic choices are finely balanced. Neither power can hope to attain global leadership on a par with the United States in the near future, yet both can and do aspire to regional great power status. The possession by allies of nuclear weapons (Iran in Russia’s case, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan in the case of China) is tempting precisely because it will limit the potential for the USA to use military force in ‘their’ regional spheres of influence. In addition, for Russia, strong commercial ties, particularly with respect to the export of civilian nuclear energy technology and expertise, have counted against support for stronger sanctions and UN condemnation of Iran’s nuclear power programme. On the other hand, both Russia and the USA also share a genuine concern over the potential for political instability and state collapse to leave nuclear material in the hands of non-state actors. Domestic political strife in nuclear-armed Pakistan shows that this is far from an idle concern.

In the case of China, cooperation over non-proliferation is bound up in a much wider set of policy aims. At times, cooperation over North Korea and Iran has been used as a bargaining chip with the USA over other issues, such as the future of (and arms supply to) Taiwan. In general, while China’s support for multilateralism (itself a way for it to counter tendencies towards US unilateralism) leads to support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, the strength of this commitment tends to fluctuate depending on the broader state of China’s bilateral relations with the USA. The NATO air strike on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, US cooperation with India on civilian nuclear energy by the Bush administration and the strengthening influence of India in Afghanistan all limited Chinese cooperation on nuclear proliferation. In addition, China is a staunch defender, in accordance with the NPT, of a non-nuclear state’s rights to civilian nuclear technology. Nevertheless, this will remain a fraught path for Chinese policy, and hence for relations with the USA, as demonstrated by North Korea’s testing of new and more powerful nuclear devices and missiles in spring 2009.

In the case of both Iran and North Korea, the ability of the USA to use its military power to achieve its ends is tempered by the enormous costs of such action; yet its ability to use collective power, in concert with key regional powers and Security Council members China and Russia, depends on finding bargains with them that do not threaten other US priorities. Both China and Russia can make life difficult for the USA: both have a veto on the Security Council; both can export nuclear and missile technology, effectively undermining the non-proliferation regime concerning nuclear weapons; and both can be uncooperative on the settlement of various regional issues – for example, problems relating to Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea. However, aside from frustrating unilateral US efforts, they have no interests in staging a direct confrontation with the USA.

The obvious role for the USA, therefore, is as the global power that acts as an external balancer to these essentially regional powers. It is possible that the current readjustment of the balance of power in Asia, as well as the armament of many major states in the region against one another, can be peacefully managed by the USA using its forward military deployments around the edges of the region as a sign of its intentions and as a means of deterring local attempts to disrupt the regional balance. For this strategy to be successful, however, the USA will need the cooperation of the major states in the region if faced with a serious attempt to disrupt the status quo. This policy might founder if several states within the region began to balance against the USA, but this looks very unlikely any time soon. It also presupposes the continued ability of the USA to forward base its armed forces – something that is increasingly being questioned in, for example, South Korea and Japan.

Activity 5

Make a few notes in answer to the following question:

In assessing US relations with Russia and China, is Lenin or Kautsky the better guide?


There are certainly elements to these states’ competing ambitions in regional theatres, notably Asia, where Lenin’s view of inter-imperialist rivalry strikes an obvious chord. If one adds to that competition over access to energy resources, especially between the USA and China, in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, it is easy to see echoes of the competitive relations among European powers in Lenin’s day. Yet it may be that common interests, such as they are, over security issues and, especially in China’s case, over economic issues, will see a more Kautskian logic emerge among these emergent ‘great powers’. Nevertheless, the current development of capitalism in both China and Russia, and their limited integration into the world market and liberal systems of international economic governance, means that relations are likely to remain markedly different from the deep co-operation that has been fashioned among the liberal capitalist powers.

In the longer term, both economic integration within the region and changing assessments of the costs and benefits of seeking security through a finely balanced and nuclear-armed balance of power might bring about greater political cooperation, mutual security guarantees and a diminishing concern with the military–strategic balance of power. If stably managed, this might allow China and Russia to join Japan alongside the ‘West’ as members of a global concert of powers – Russia is already a member of the G8 – for the international economy. (Other important regional powers, India in the sub-continent, Indonesia in South-east Asia, Brazil in Latin America, etc., might also eventually join the club.) If matched by the growth of liberal political change in these states, then it might approach the distant future envisaged by the liberal theorists of international order – the Pacific Union anticipated by Kant (1991; first published 1795). However, the limited range of options open to America in responding to challenges of the kind posed by Iran and North Korea will make this a testing area for Obama’s foreign policy.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371