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The myth of nuclear deterrence

August 11, 2014

NAGASAKI PEACE SYMPOSIUM: Panel calls on world to overcome myth of nuclear deterrence



NAGASAKI--How Japan, as a country that relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, should lead global efforts to reduce and abolish nuclear weapons was a major theme of a recent international conference.

The message from the International Symposium for Peace 2014 conference titled “The Road to Nuclear Weapons Abolition: Overcome ‘Nuclear Umbrella’” was that Japan and other countries under the nuclear umbrella must first reject the theory of nuclear deterrence.

The Aug. 2 event drew experts of international politics and nuclear weapons issues from Japan and Australia.

The annual symposium is held alternately in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to offer a venue for experts to discuss nuclear disarmament with citizens of the two cities that were hit by atomic bombs in August 1945.

The panel members were: Gareth Evans, chancellor of Australian National University who served as the country’s foreign minister between 1988 and 1996; Hiromichi Umebayashi, director of the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University; Fumiko Nishizaki, a professor of U.S. diplomatic history at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Arts and Science; and Mitsuru Kurosawa, professor emeritus of international law at Osaka University.

Rei Nakanishi, a popular songwriter and best-selling novelist, was invited as a guest speaker at the symposium.

On the stage, popular opera singer Shinobu Sato sang Nakanishi’s newly released anti-nuclear weapons song “Remember” with junior high school students from the nearby city of Isahaya.

In his lecture, Nakanishi raised concerns about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s constitutional reinterpretation and other measures to strengthen Japan-U.S. military cooperation.

“While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says Japan must become a ‘proactive contributor to peace,’ it is utterly contradictory for a country to pursue peace with weapons in its hand,” Nakanishi told an audience of 400 at Nagasaki Brick Hall.

“To pursue peace simply translates to not waging a war, and squarely facing the atrocities of warfare, which is still omnipresent, should be the starting point for us to work toward peace,” Nakanishi said.

Following are summaries of the opening remarks by the four experts. They were abridged and reorganized by The Asahi Shimbun, which co-sponsored the event with Nagasaki.

* * *


None of the nuclear-armed states has committed to any specific timetable for the major reduction of stockpiles, let alone their abolition. Across Asia, nuclear stockpiles are growing. The six-party talks process has not done anything to curb North Korea’s nuclear provocations, and there is continuing uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear program.

Confronted with these realities, it is tempting to become overwhelmed with pessimism, but we would be failing to meet our own obligations to do anything and everything to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, nuclear weapons. So what is a realistic global disarmament agenda to be advocating in the present environment?

First, we have to make not just the emotional but intellectual case for abolition to challenge head-on the Cold War mind-set that we all benefit from nuclear deterrence, and in the case of U.S. allies, from sheltering under its nuclear umbrella. The world today is not one, if it ever was, in which the governments in Moscow or Washington are likely to hurl swarms of nuclear missiles at each other, nor is it a world in which China or the United States would conceivably ever intentionally start a nuclear war against the other.

Nuclear weapons are simply not the deterrent or strategic stabilizer they may seem and encourage proliferation more than they restrain it, because so long as any country has nuclear weapons, others will want them.

Second, we have to make the argument for nuclear disarmament, and for a timeline in getting there, in a way that is seen as credible by policymakers. There will need to be two distinct stages: first “minimization,” then “elimination.”

Third, we have to focus hard on getting some movement on numbers. The obvious place to start on numerical reductions has always been bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia, but such negotiations are obviously for the time being at a dead end. If bilateral and multilateral arms reductions are going nowhere for now, the only way of getting reductions in numbers is going to be unilateral.

The smart place to start, and one that might conceivably even be domestically politically salable, would be for the United States to wave goodbye to the land-based component of its triad, which is wildly expensive to maintain in an environment where there are huge budgetary imperatives to massively cut expenditure.

The fourth need is to persuade the nuclear-weapon states to rethink their resistance to the humanitarian consequences movement. The unhappiness of the nuclear-weapon states with any talk of humanitarian impact is not a new phenomenon. This is an issue on which they have always felt uncomfortable, because they fear the consequences of it becoming central to the argument about the future of nuclear weapons.

The fifth and final strategy, which is my highest immediate priority, is to start a serious movement to reduce reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

The U.S. allies, including my own country, who are presently sheltering under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, should be prepared to make clear our acceptance of a much reduced role for nuclear weapons in our protection. The Obama administration has wanted its Asian and European allies to go down the path of accepting a declaration by it that the ‘sole purpose’ of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter a nuclear attack, not any other kind.

But any such move was halted by the resistance of South Korea and a number of NATO allies. This has not been an easy issue for Japan to deal with, torn between the horror of its 1945 experience and its passion for nuclear protection, but a more robust commitment to really leading the way on nuclear disarmament would pay it real dividends. For us to continue to be as hypocritical as arguing that everyone else do as we say but not as we do, when it comes to reliance on nuclear weapons for our security protection, certainly does not help the nonproliferation agenda.


As a means to overcome the theory of nuclear deterrence and reduce reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the Japanese government can work to create a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Northeast Asia.

There are five nuclear-free zones in the world today, and their achievements illustrate that it requires tripartite mechanisms to ensure a nuclear-free zone.

In addition to the ban on the countries in the region from arming themselves with nuclear weapons, nuclear powers outside the region must engage “passive security” that they will not use, or intimidate to use, nuclear weapons in the zone. A joint watchdog organization must also be set up to ensure the mechanism is working.

In Northeast Asia, experts are discussing an idea to create a nuclear-free zone covering Japan, South Korea and North Korea. Three nuclear powers in the six-party talks--the United States, Russia and China--should agree to engage “passive security” to help achieve the goal. I believe it is a practical idea for Japan to reduce reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.


The United States and Russia have called on North Korea, Iran and other countries to comply with a nonproliferation framework while arming themselves with thousands of nuclear missiles. These two camps appear to have conflicting goals, but they are working hand in hand in effect to encourage nuclear proliferation and hinder nuclear arms reduction.

What we need in our path toward nuclear abolition is talk of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons from a victim’s perspective. What we have experienced in the past shows that there clearly is a moral boundary that shouldn’t be crossed when it comes to nuclear weapons. We must start our commitment to efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, having it as our starting point that we cannot tolerate the damages of nuclear weapons.


The process of effectuating the land-mine ban treaty has left us with a good lesson for our efforts to ultimately abolish nuclear weapons. The treaty was first signed and brought into effect by countries that do not hold land mines, without the United States, Russia and other countries that are reliant on land mines.

The presence of the treaty still gave moral advantage to the opponents of land mines and a tool for them to pressure countries owning land mines. I believe the same strategy could be employed by non-nuclear nations.

First, they should sign a treaty to ban nuclear weapons and then pressure nuclear powers to abandon their nuclear arsenals using the treaty as leverage.

The myth of nuclear deterrence must be also challenged so that nuclear powers can no longer justify possessing nuclear weapons. Nuclear powers should be also encouraged to adopt a “no first use” policy in which they ban themselves from using nuclear weapons unless first attacked by an enemy with a nuclear arsenal. It will give nuclear weapons a much reduced role.

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