Hiroshima Memo: Rising above the worsening state of nuclear weapons

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

February 5 marked the one-year milestone since the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (new START Treaty) between the United States and Russia went into effect following the exchange of ratifications by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Munich, Germany. Within seven years from the date of its effectuation, the United States and Russia are obliged to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and launchers of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and bombers to 800 each.

The international community, hoping for a substantial reduction in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, welcomed the new START treaty. Expectations were high for further progress in nuclear disarmament negotiations, including tactical nuclear weapons, between the two major nuclear powers. Conversely, however, in the year the new treaty has been in effect, U.S.-Russian relations seem to have reverted to the kind of prickly rapport that vexed the two nations in the Cold War era.

The primary sticking point is the U.S. missile defense system in Europe. The U.S. claims that missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland are intended to deter threats from Iran. Russia, in return, has expressed distrust of these intentions and contends that the U.S. missile defense system undercuts its own nuclear capability and affords the United States a military advantage. Russia has gone so far as to raise the possibility of withdrawing from the new START treaty.

In the United States, the military, the arms industry, and conservative politicians preach the need to deploy a missile defense shield in Europe and President Barack Obama has bowed to this pressure. Meanwhile, those European nations which host the installations are doing so more for the economic benefit than for an added measure of security. To realize security, in the true sense of the word, the deployment of a missile defense shield is not the answer. What is needed for security, not only for the United States and Russia but for the world at large, is a commitment by these two powers to pursue further reductions in their nuclear arsenals and seek ways to build mutual trust.

If U.S.-Russian arms reduction efforts stall, when these nations should be leading the international push for nuclear disarmament, this would provide the ideal excuse for inaction on the part of other nuclear states as well as justification for countries seeking to acquire a nuclear arsenal of their own. Such outcomes would be clearly reflected in the state of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

China is moving swiftly to bolster its military might, including its nuclear weapons capability. In North Korea, Kim Jong-un has followed in his father’s footsteps and inherited the family dynasty. Like his late father, the new leader will no doubt seek to shore up North Korea’s strength. In South Asia, Pakistan is intent on increasing the number of its nuclear weapons and missiles to keep pace with similar moves on the part of its rival, India.

Meanwhile, tensions are rising in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear program. Israel, despite holding its own nuclear arsenal, is threatening to launch a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, arguing that such action would be too late after Iran comes to possess its own nuclear arms. If war should break out between these two nations, its impact would be far-reaching, affecting not only the combatants but the entire world, including Japan. And if Israel comes to feel its survival as a nation is at stake, there is the grim possibility that it would resort to a nuclear attack.

If Iran achieves a nuclear capability, its Arab neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, would likely follow suit. To prevent this proliferation of nuclear arms, placing economic sanctions on Iran is not a sufficient response. There must be a fundamental transformation of the entire Middle East, with the aim of making the region completely free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and offering no exception for Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The final document produced by the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference contains an agreement calling for an international conference to be held this year which will explore the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Last fall Finland was appointed to serve as host country, but at this point it appears that the conference itself might not be realized.

The United States accounts for more than 40 percent of the world’s total military spending. The reality is that the United States, which maintains an overwhelming military advantage in both nuclear and conventional arms, has been allocating larger nuclear-related budgets than in the Cold War era, building new nuclear facilities and repeatedly conducting new types of nuclear tests using lasers and other technology. In a speech he made in Prague in April 2009, President Obama called for “a world without nuclear weapons.” It is now painfully true that very few people continue to take his words seriously.

Sixty-seven years after the end of World War II, Japan continues to linger under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and has been unable to shake a subservient role to the United States with respect to diplomacy. Though Japan calls itself the only country in the world to have suffered nuclear attack, and has been making appeals at United Nations conferences for nuclear arsenals to be reduced and eliminated, it is unable to lead the international community in a convincing fashion.

Where is the path that might lead us out of this frustrating state of affairs involving nuclear arms? It can be found in the proactive steps being taken by a group of nonnuclear-weapon states, many nongovernmental organizations, former high-ranking officials of national governments, lawmakers of different stripes, and experts in the field. They have denounced the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons and are seeking to develop closer ties with an eye to facilitating the resumption of negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention. Another crucial factor is cooperation with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other key figures, who have shown support for Mayors for Peace, the worldwide network led by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nonnuclear-weapon states, as well as the public at large, are raising their voices more strongly than ever against the nuclear powers, including the United States and Russia, calling for them to reduce and eliminate their nuclear arsenals. These antinuclear advocates maintain that nuclear arms are inhumane weapons that must not be used and that stockpiling these weapons results in a waste of human and material resources, making people of all nations unhappy. Promotion of a significant reduction in the numbers of nuclear weapons would no doubt deepen trust and cooperation among the nuclear powers and help enormously in the effort to prevent nuclear terrorism as well.

The disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant has dramatically changed the attitudes of people in Japan toward the nation’s dependence on nuclear energy. The U.S. nuclear umbrella, though a military issue, is the same in the sense that it concerns a reliance on nuclear power. But this nuclear umbrella can never truly preserve the nation’s security. To the people of Japan, who know the horrors of nuclear war firsthand, the idea of relying on nuclear deterrence is fundamentally irreconcilable with our past.

I remain hopeful that the vision of denuclearizing the world, in which people recognize that human beings cannot coexist with nuclear power, will ripple across the earth from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our efforts may not bear fruit quickly, but our voices are clearly being heard by many who have recognized the fact that using power to achieve political ends, symbolized most plainly by nuclear arms, will not solve the global issues facing the world today.

(Originally published on February 6, 2012)