Exaggerated Alarm and Destructive Excursions: Anti-Proliferation Policy and The Case of North Korea

November 28, 2017 • GLOBAL ECONOMY, Asia - Pacific, World Development

By John Mueller

The consequences of nuclear proliferation have been substantially benign: those who have acquired the weapons have “used” them simply to stoke their egos or to deter real or imagined threats. However, alarmed anti-proliferation efforts have proved to be exceedingly costly. History suggests that the best policy for dealing the North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is to stop threatening and, as with the Chinese programme, to do nothing.


In 1950, notes historian John Lewis Gaddis, “no one” among foreign policy decision-makers anticipated “that there would be no World War” over the next half century and that the United States and the USSR, “soon to have tens of thousands of thermonuclear weapons pointed at one another, would agree tacitly never to use any of them.”1

However, it could have been reasonably argued at the time that major war was simply not in the cards – that despite the huge differences on many issues, the leading countries of the world would manage to keep themselves from plunging into a self-destructive cataclysm like, or even worse than, the one they had just survived. This perspective was not, of course, the only one possible, but there was no definitive way to dismiss it. Thus, as a matter of simple, plain, rational decision-making, this prospect – the one that proved to be true – should have been on the table.

The pattern continues. Just about everyone, including the whole of the foreign policy establishment, has for decades taken it as a central article of faith that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is an overwhelming danger and that all possible measures, including war, must be taken to keep it from happening.

But the consequences of such proliferation that has taken place have been substantially benign: those who have acquired the weapons have “used” them simply to stoke their egos or to deter real or imagined threats.      At the same time, however, alarmed efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons have proved to be very costly, leading to the deaths of more people than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

This experience suggests, essentially, that the best policy toward North Korea today would be, essentially, to do nothing.

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About the Author

John Mueller is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a Political Scientist at Ohio State University in the United States. Among his books are Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda and (with Mark Stewart) Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism and Are We Safe Enough? Measuring and Assessing Aviation Security.



1. Gaddis, John Lewis, George F. Kennan: An American Life, New York: Penguin, 2011, p. 403.
2. Mastny, Vojtech, “Introduction,” in Vojtech Mastny, Sven G. Holtsmark, and Andreas Wenger, eds., War Plans and Alliances in the Cold War: Threat Perceptions in the East and West, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 3.
3. Hymans, Jacques E.C., Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
4. Mueller, John, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War, New York; Free Press, 1989, p. 123.
5. Dikötter, Frank, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, New York: Walker, 2010.
6. Oberdorfer, Don, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, New York: Basic Books, 2001, pp. 147‑148, 318.
7. Bowden, Mark, “How to Deal with North Korea,” Atlantic, July/August 2017.
8. Ibid.
11. Pillar, Paul, R., “The Terrorist Consequences of the Libyan Intervention,”, March 23, 2011.
12. Mueller, John, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 95-97, 144.

One Response to Exaggerated Alarm and Destructive Excursions: Anti-Proliferation Policy and The Case of North Korea

  1. richard bérubé says:

    May be for having a nuclear weapon, it is the best thing for North Korea not to be attack by the Empire of America and their sbires…..they look at what happened to Irak, Lybia, and Syria and they don’t want the same end….North Korean remember the criminal acts of the american in the Korean civil war of the 1950’s…millions of deaths and their town and village destroy….but by looking at the North Korean we don’t look at the nuclear stock pile of Israel, who by the way didn’t adhere to the international treaty on nuclear energy as weapon and by estimate would own 400 nuclear devices….for my part i think the American Bullies and its allied did more criminal actions in the world than did North Korea, 1 million deaths in Irak, how many in Syria and Lybia

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