Special article on the anniversary of Hiroshima A-bombing by Fumihiko Yoshida, deputy director of The Asahi Shimbun’s Editorial Board

Japan still clings to outdated “nuclear umbrella”

Nuclear deterrence involves deterring potential attacks by threatening to use nuclear weapons. British scholar Sir Lawrence Freedman once wrote: “The Emperor Deterrence has no clothes, but he is still emperor.”

What does this mean?

Europe has remained in a state of peace since 1945. This demonstrates that, in Mr. Freedman’s words, “nuclear deterrence may be a viable policy even if it is not credible.” What would happen if a nuclear war were to break out? Even if every preparation was made to conduct and control the atomic warfare as planned, there would still be fear that it could all spin out of control. It is precisely this fear that has kept the world cautious.

So, even though the emperor has no clothes, which makes his appearance quite suspicious, he is still emperor.

However, there are strong arguments for the position that nuclear deterrence is not an emperor at all. This means nuclear deterrence itself is questioned and denied.

The other day I met with Garth Evans, the former minister of foreign affairs of Australia, during his visit to Japan. When we touched on the subject of nuclear deterrence, he suggested that I read his essay, which I did that night.

The effectiveness of nuclear deterrence, Mr. Evans argues, is highly dubious at best, and completely hollow at worst, when it comes to maintaining a stable peace.

I believe it was a newspaper opinion piece by the so-called “four horsemen” of the United States that inspired former senior government and military officials to start speaking openly about the limits of nuclear deterrence.

The article, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 4, 2007, was jointly expressed by George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, both Republicans and former U.S. secretaries of state; William Perry, a Democrat and former U.S. secretary of defense; and Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

These four men were once strongly oriented toward power politics and had argued that nuclear arms were essential to global security. Now, however, they came together in their support of the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons. This view is based on the understanding that the possibility of further nuclear proliferation and the rising risk of nuclear terrorism will make nuclear weapons a threat to the security of the United States and the world at large.

It was two years ago that I heard Mr. Shultz, the central figure of the four, say on a stage in front of me, “The deterrent effect of a nuclear weapon is very limited.”

During the Reykjavik Summit in the fall of 1986, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union nearly agreed to scrap their entire nuclear arsenals. On the 25th anniversary of this summit, an international conference was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Los Angeles to explore a path toward realizing a world without nuclear arms.

Mr. Shultz sat at ease in a chair on the stage and began to speak. With no hesitation, he stressed the limits of nuclear deterrence.

Mr. Shultz said, “If you examine the doctrine that governs the use of nuclear weapons, you begin to get the sense that it really isn’t very useful.” He also noted that nuclear weapons might have been effective in preventing a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. But modern security threats are very different from those in the past. “What are the problems that we have today? What are the security threats? And very many of them involve terrorist type attacks. What good is the nuclear weapon in deterrent to that? It’s practically irrelevant. What good is it as deterrent to cyberterrorism? Practically irrelevant,” said Mr. Shultz.

Around the end of Mr. Shultz’s term of office as secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, Colin Powell (who later became secretary of state) was serving as national security advisor to the president. When I interviewed Mr. Powell this past June, he described how nuclear deterrence has now run up against reality.

“No sane leader would ever want to cross that line to using nuclear weapons,” he said. “And, if you are not going to cross that line, then these things are basically useless.”

He also revealed an untold story about the 2002 face-off between India and Pakistan.

Mr. Powell told me: “I remember, during a crisis between India and Pakistan (in 2002), calling the Pakistani president (Pervez Musharraf) and saying to him, ‘You and I both know you couldn't use these. You want to be the country or the leader who, for the first time since August of 1945, has used these weapons? Go look at the pictures again, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! And you want to do this, or even think about it?’ Of course, the answer from the Pakistani president was, ‘No, no, no, no.’ The same was true of India. And they stepped back, and the crisis was over.”

Mr. Powell told me this without my prompting. In expressing his belief that nuclear weapons are inhumane, he referred to the power of the photographs which recorded the horror of the A-bombed cities.

But what about Japan? China is striving to modernize its nuclear capability, and North Korea has repeatedly carried out nuclear tests. In such a security environment, the Japanese government is counting on the U.S. nuclear umbrella even more heavily than in the past.

At the same time, the United States, which provides the nuclear umbrella, is seeking to reduce its nuclear arsenal and the role nuclear weapons play under the administration of President Barack Obama, who called for pursuing a world without nuclear weapons in a speech he made in Prague. With Mr. Shultz and Mr. Powell also signaling their support for nuclear abolition, U.S. nuclear policy is shifting in direction compared to a decade ago.

The Japanese government looks very negatively at the “no first use” declaration, which stipulates that nuclear weapons will only be used in response to a nuclear strike. One rationale behind this stance goes: The nuclear deterrent would not be convincing enough unless there is the option of retaliating with nuclear arms if North Korea should use chemical weapons.

So I asked Mr. Powell whether, for the United States, conventional weapons alone are enough to deter North Korea. His response was: “My own personal view is that we probably would not have to use nuclear weapons against North Korea. The conventional forces are significant.” This means that the deterrence the United States is providing Japan is actually not a “nuclear umbrella” but rather a “conventional-weapons umbrella.”

My acquaintances from the United States and other nations have told me that no other U.S. ally depends so heavily on the nuclear umbrella as Japan. If things remain as they are, a situation could occur in which Japan’s concern over a weakened nuclear umbrella would prevent the United States from reducing its nuclear arsenal.

The emperor known as “nuclear deterrence” has no clothes, and what’s more, there is suspicion that the emperor is not really an emperor at all. Still, the Japanese government is the one who kowtows with the most obedience to this “emperor.” For a nation which suffered nuclear attack, this is a highly ironic contradiction.


Fumihiko Yoshida
Fumihiko Yoshida is the deputy director of The Asahi Shimbun's Editorial Board. After joining the Asahi Shimbun in 1980, he worked as a reporter in the departments covering international news, science news, and business news. He served as a correspondent in Washington and as the bureau chief in Brussels. Since 2012, he has also been a visiting professor at International Christian University (ICU). His books include Kaku Kaitai (Dismantling Nuclear Weapons), published by Iwanami Shoten; Shogen Kakuyokushi no Seiki (Testimony, Century of Nuclear Deterrence), published by Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc.; and Ningen no Anzenhosho, Senryaku (Strategy of Human Security) and Kaku no America, Truman kara Obama made (Nuclear America, from Truman to Obama), both published by Iwanami Shoten. He also edited Kaku o Ou (Pursuing the Atom), published by Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc.