Hiroshima Memo: The two tides of U.S. nuclear policy and the challenge facing Japan

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

This past September, a paper entitled “National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century” was jointly released by two incumbent secretaries of the Bush Administration. One is Samuel Bodman, Secretary of Energy, and the other is Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, the heads of the departments directly involved in the development and use of nuclear weapons.

The main thrust of their paper is the contention that “Nuclear forces continue to represent the ultimate deterrent capability that supports U.S. national security.” And so, they argue, “Maintaining a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear weapons stockpile and supporting infrastructure is of vital importance to U.S. interests.”

In this regard, “We seek replacement of existing warheads with Reliable Replacement Warheads (RRW) of comparable capability” to enhance the safety of warheads and to ensure explosions without nuclear testing.

This paper by the two secretaries is in direct contradiction to the opinion put forward in 2007 and 2008 in the Wall Street Journal by four former high-ranking U.S. officials. These officials, including former Secretaries of States George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, have advocated for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Although there are points of agreement between the two views, such as recognition of the risk of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons or nuclear material as well as the current dilemma involving the proliferation of nuclear weapons to North Korea and Iran, each side suggests a different direction for the nation’s nuclear policy. The paper by the incumbent secretaries, in fact, toes the line of policy that the Bush Administration has espoused.

The paper stresses, “Extended deterrence is key to U.S. alliances, both in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and in Asia, assuring allies and friends of the credibility of U.S. security commitments.” It expresses concern that “In the absence of this ‘nuclear umbrella,’ some non-nuclear allies might perceive a need to develop and deploy their own nuclear capability.” Although the countries referred to as “allies” are not mentioned, the implication of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan is clear.

On the other hand, the argument that nuclear weapons should be abolished is based on factors beyond the risk of nuclear terrorism. Another crucial concern is that U.S. nuclear deterrence and its traditional dependence on deploying a large number of nuclear weapons will accelerate the modernization of Chinese nuclear capability. This development, in turn, will be seen as a threat by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and make them tempted to become nuclear powers, too. At the same time, India will feel pressed to bolster its nuclear strength to compete with China and Pakistan will follow suit to keep pace with India. The state of nuclear weapons in the world will go from bad to worse. 

As groups of Japanese citizens, including A-bomb survivors, have been making dogged efforts for nuclear abolition, the Japanese government has regularly raised the country’s standing as the only nation to have suffered an atomic bombing. Political leaders in the U.S., however, regard Japan as a potential nuclear power. In a survey on nuclear weapons conducted by the Hiroshima Peace Media Center in May and June of this year, the Japanese government was sharply criticized by individuals and NGOs abroad for its actions.

A woman from the United States wrote, “The Japanese people are the ones trying to get the message out. The government, though, sends mixed signals as a result of its support for an illegal war, its attempt to avoid the consequences of its own “peace constitution,” its enactment of ancient war rituals, and its commitment to producing and stockpiling plutonium.”

Although the Japanese government submits a resolution appealing for nuclear disarmament at the United Nations General Assembly every year, it maintains a national policy of affirming nuclear deterrence under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. And given the current political climate in Japan, where some leaders of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party are outspoken in their view that the nation should consider becoming a nuclear power and top officials of the Self Defense Forces, such as former Air Force commander, Toshio Tamogami, have advocated for offensive weapons, it is only natural that concerns are held over Japan’s nuclear capability.

The Japanese government’s attitude was shown clearly in Prime Minister Taro Aso’s reaction to reporters who asked his expectations of Barack Obama, a supporter of nuclear disarmament, following the presidential election. Aso responded coolly that making rapid progress toward abolition of the world’s nuclear weapons would not be easy, even under the Obama Administration. Despite being the leader of the country that suffered the atomic bombings, Aso revealed no hint of enthusiasm for joining hands with the next president of the U.S. and other political leaders to make efforts toward nuclear disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Japan has been dependent on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for more than half a century. This dependence, even after the end of the Cold War, is so deeply-ingrained in a large number of Japanese politicians, not only within the Liberal Democratic Party, that they are barely aware of the current risks involving nuclear weapons in the world.

In their opinion piece of January 2008, George Schultz and the other figures stressed the importance of sharing a vision of abolition, “the vision of moving toward zero,” and without it, “we will not find the essential cooperation required to stop our downward spiral.”

I wonder how many Japanese politicians are guided by such a vision, believing that nuclear weapons can and must be abolished. If Japan is seen by people around the world as a potential nuclear power, it cannot play a persuasive role in regard to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

In nuclear policy alone, there has been a sense of stagnation during the last eight years under the Bush Administration. The citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki naturally hold new hope for President-elect Obama, who advocated change during the presidential campaign and has expressed the aim of abolishing nuclear weapons. The people of Japan must now do the same and change Japanese politics in order to move toward a more peaceful and nuclear-weapon-free world.

(Originally published on November 17, 2008)

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