【Report】Ritsumeikan – ANU Public Lecture: “Nuclear Weapons and Alliances: Theoretical Insights and Implications for Policy” (Prof. Stephan Frühling, November 17, 2022)

On November 17th, 2022, Prof. Stephan Frühling, a professor at the Australia National University, gave a lecture on the role of nuclear weapons and US alliance politics.

Professor Stephan Frühling
Professor Stephan Frühling

Prof. Frühling mentioned that it is problematic that little comparative study has been done on the role of nuclear weapons and US allies. This is an important issue as there are voices within some US allies that advocate hosting or sharing US nuclear weapons or even possessing its own nuclear capability.

To understand the role of nuclear weapons in US alliances, Prof. Frühling argued that looking at US alliances through the lens of “supply and demand” is helpful. The US nuclear force is seen as supply, and allies demand nuclear security.

However, the framework does not capture why US allies’ practical cooperation with its patron differs from country to country. It is puzzling that although US allies want to be under the US nuclear umbrella due to their physical insecurity, they are often reluctant to host or allow US nuclear weapons to be brought into their countries. Prof. Frühling sought to explain this puzzle by using realism and institutionalism. The former hypothesizes that nuclear weapons cooperation reflects external balancing and power asymmetries between the US and its allies; the latter sees cooperation on nuclear weapons to reflect the structured interaction and organized practices inherent in individual alliances.

Professor Stephan Frühling
Prof. Frühling delivering his lecture

He argued that realism explains the existence of the US alliances in the first place, the US monopoly on the decisions to use nuclear weapons, and the US-ROK alliance relationship during the Cold War. Institutionalists, in turn, best explain the idiosyncratic objectives of allies in the use of nuclear weapons, why the US and its allies share divergent views on the use and purpose of nuclear weapons, why the debates on nuclear weapons and deterrence intensify when US alliances are transforming or under tension, and the increase in US information sharing on nuclear weapons.

Taking on the institutionalist argument, Prof. Frühling offered the following implications for scholarship and policy: Nuclear weapons are an important mechanism to produce a common understanding of escalation, strategy, and purpose of the alliance; The “hardware” cooperation forces the need for “software” (policy) consensus; Nuclear weapons cooperation is the key to trust and common strategic frameworks, which are crucial in alliance integration; US reassurance is not only a question of Washington's nuclear force structure, posture, and policy.

Essentially, Prof. Frühling argued that the debates on nuclear weapons provide an excellent venue to establish a consensus between the US and its allies not only on nuclear weapons but, more broadly, the purpose of the US alliances. Thus, the challenge for the US and its allies for the Twenty-first Century, where geopolitical tensions are growing once again, is to move beyond mere consultations on US nuclear policy to establish a common purpose. He advocated developing a joint consultation mechanism in the Indo-Pacific region composed of the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea that discusses the US nuclear deterrence assessments, posture, and policies.

The lecture concluded with a vibrant Q&A session, during which members of the audience asked interesting questions, such as those regarding how Japan can learn from the case of Australia, the challenge for the US and its allies in the future, and the paradigm of realism.

Written by Yusy Widarahesty and Daichi Morishige
(Doctoral Students at the Graduate School of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University)

>Attendees for this public lecture
Attendees for this public lecture

Q&A session