Commentary: A step forward, yet a long road to abolition remains

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

A year has passed since U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to the world, in a speech from Prague, to take bold steps toward "a world without nuclear weapons." The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which will serve as the basis for U.S. nuclear policy for the next five to ten years, was released on April 6, a year and a day since the Prague address. The contents of the NPR fall short in comparison to the wishes of a large number of A-bomb survivors (hibakusha) and others who hope to see nuclear weapons eliminated at the earliest possible date. Still, the NPR is certainly a step forward.

For the past 65 years, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, previous U.S. administrations have adopted ambiguous policies with regard to the criteria for the use of nuclear weapons. However, the current U.S. administration has now, for the first time, declared that it will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that observe the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). This aspect of the NPR constitutes that "step forward."

"Most immediate and extreme threats"

The Nuclear Posture Review includes these encouraging signs: 1) The United States will not conduct new nuclear tests or develop new types of nuclear weapons, 2) The nation will, in accordance with Article VI of the NPT, work with Russia and the other nuclear weapon states to make efforts to reduce nuclear weapons gradually, and address the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and 3) The nation will do its utmost to prevent nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation, which are considered the "most immediate and extreme threats" facing the United States and the international community today.

At the same time, the "negative security assurance" whereby the United States has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states, will have little impact on the nuclear deterrence policies of the United States and the other nuclear weapon states. If the United States, the country holding the greatest military power, had taken the initiative in pronouncing that it would not engage in preemptive strikes and that the sole purpose of its nuclear arsenal would be to deter nuclear attack, this could have led to a substantial reduction in "the role of nuclear weapons," which President Obama has advocated.

The new disarmament treaty on strategic nuclear weapons that will be signed in Prague on April 8 between the United States and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev cannot be said to constitute a substantial reduction of nuclear weapons. The treaty will reportedly require the United States and Russia to each reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and delivery vehicles to 800 within seven years from the ratification of the agreement.

Though the two nations plan to continue negotiations for further reductions, at the current pace there is little hope that all nuclear weapons will be eliminated by 2030, the target promoted by "Global Zero," the entity comprised of former high-ranking government officials and experts from around the world, including the United States and Russia, let alone the year 2020, the deadline championed by Mayors for Peace.

Moreover, the Obama administration, which has advocated for nuclear reduction, is asking Congress for a considerable increase in the budget for nuclear weapons for fiscal 2011 to "sustain a stable deterrence."

The Nuclear Posture Review was released after a delay of approximately three months. The original draft shepherded by the U.S. Department of Defense is said to have been even more conservative. President Obama and others have made modifications to the original proposal to finally form the new document. The NPR is undoubtedly a product of compromise between the president and factions opposed to disarmament, including the military.

A moral norm

The Obama administration has left open the possibility of carrying out nuclear strikes against North Korea and Iran. What is now needed is the perception that the use of nuclear weapons themselves, as annihilators of human beings and other living things, as well as the environment, is a crime against humanity. More than anything else, we must develop such a moral norm.

Anyone can share the vision set out by President Obama, who has vowed to seek the elimination of nuclear weapons. However, public sentiment opposed to nuclear arms must be stirred not only in the United States but in the world at large so nuclear disarmament can be advanced and these weapons can be abolished from the earth.

With this "step forward" toward nuclear abolition in U.S. nuclear policy, the antinuclear efforts of the Japanese government and the citizens of the A-bombed nation are now strongly needed.

(Originally published on April 8, 2010)