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For his key role in establishing Japan’s commitment to nonnuclear principles in 1967, Prime Minister Eisuke Sato went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet it was recently revealed that he privately referred to the three principles as “nonsense” and allowed a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier to enter a Japanese port.

As was the case with Sato, those who now seek to build nuclear and missile defenses in an increasingly insecure world do not offer any credible rationale for the continuing nuclear arms race.

The world is divided into nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” The former group includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, who are the only recognized nuclear powers; India and Pakistan, who are declared nuclear powers but not recognized; and Israel and North Korea, who are suspected of possessing nuclear weapons. The “have-nots” include the overwhelming number of NPT signatories, including Japan.

Toward the end of the recent U.N. conference held by the 187 signatories to the 30-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the world’s five recognized nuclear powers reiterated their commitment to eventually eliminating their nuclear weapons. This news only brought smiles from other participants.

The events before and since this meeting highlight the duplicity of the nuclear powers and the strategic dilemmas facing the nonnuclear states. The NPT conference failed to establish timetables to eliminate nuclear weapons, to reduce tactical and strategic arms or to account for the number of weapons the nuclear powers possess. With the exception of China, no nuclear power has agreed to prohibit the first use of nuclear weapons.

At the conference, nonnuclear states criticized the United States and Russia for moving too slowly to reduce their nuclear arsenals. There were calls for the implementation of the START II Treaty, which would reduce long-range nuclear warheads from 6,000 to 3,500 on each side. Israel — who along with India, Pakistan and Cuba has not signed the NPT — was called upon to sign it and open its nuclear sites to international inspection.

The latest NPT document represents a faceoff between the states that desire a nuclear-free world and those that want to maintain their nuclear arsenals, and raises several issues.

First is the question of credibility. The U.S. is the chief nonproliferation advocate but has little credibility. Its nuclear policy seems hypocritical and encourages proliferation. The U.S. lost its moral high ground on the issue of nuclear proliferation when Congress rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which cannot take effect until all 44 nuclear-capable states ratify it.

The second issue is the nuclear powers’ continued modernization of their arsenals. In addition to modernizing its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. is also contemplating building a national missile defense, which would allow it to undercut or even neutralize China’s small nuclear force. Moving ahead with this plan could trigger an arms race involving not only Russia and China but also India and Pakistan, heightening tensions along the world’s newest nuclear frontier.

Even if they slow down their nuclear testing under international pressure, both India and Pakistan are determined to retain their level of “minimum deterrence,” and are engaged in intense competition in mid- to long-range missile development technology and delivery systems.

Finally, one is forced to ask why the U.S., in peacetime, continues to keep over 4,000 nuclear weapons on alert and why it is considering spending billions of dollars on a risky missile shield that fails to provide security for Washington’s allies and is unwanted by them?

Despite dramatic reductions in its nuclear forces in the post Cold War era, Russia continues to modernize its remaining nuclear weapons, especially its submarine-based systems. Moscow formally signed the CTBT, but it also articulated a new nuclear doctrine, placing more reliance on nuclear weapons than it previously did.

France, keen to retain its independent nuclear deterrence, appears unwilling to engage in multilateral arms control until the U.S. and Russia reduce their arsenals to its level, and is modernizing its sea-based deterrent force. Britain also wishes to retain a sea-based deterrent, using a mixture of strategic and smaller tactical warheads. Israel, enjoying tacit U.S. support, has remained “a screw-turn away” from completing its sizable nuclear arsenal.

The nuclear powers refuse to learn past lessons regarding the effectiveness of their nuclear arsenals. Washington’s vast array of nuclear weaponry proved irrelevant in Korea and Vietnam and the U.S. has been forced to coexist with tiny Cuba. Moscow’s massive nuclear arsenal did not save the Soviet Union from breakup. Israel’s nuclear arsenal did not make its position secure in southern Lebanon.

The interlocking framework of agreements that have been cobbled together and referred to as the nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Japan, the world’s second leading economic power, is also the world’s only nuclear victim. As such, it can use its moral power to challenge the prevailing strategies of the nuclear protagonists. Should Tokyo abandon its current evenhandedness toward the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan, however, its own nonnuclear stance will, to borrow the phrase of Prime Minister Sato, be truly viewed as “nonsense.”

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