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The nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle; the knowledge that yielded the nuclear bomb cannot be unlearned. That does not mean the world must merely accept the existence of such weapons of mass destruction (WMD), however. Rather, it requires more vigilance in halting their spread and more creative efforts to convince governments to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals.

In this effort, a special burden of leadership falls on the United States and other nuclear-weapons states. That means devaluing the utility of such weapons and reinforcing the international instruments that could, ultimately, render them illegal.

According to a new report by the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, an independent panel of more than a dozen international experts funded by the Swedish government, there are some 27,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, more than 12,000 of which are deployed. Given their destructive potential, there is no disagreeing with the commission’s conclusion that these figures are “extraordinarily and alarmingly high.”

More troubling still is the likelihood that these numbers will grow. The nuclear powers Ethe U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain Econtinue to modernize their arsenals. The seeming value of such weapons has convinced other nations to follow them. India, Pakistan and Israel are “gray” states with nuclear arsenals that remain outside the purview of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The world is now struggling to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. The development of missile defense systems and the weaponization of space provide further impetus to expand nuclear arsenals.

The WMD Commission has 60 suggestions on how to halt and then reverse this process. Foremost among them is the need for all countries to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Mr. Hans Blix, chairman of the commission, believes that U.S. ratification of the CTBT would trigger nuclear dominoes Eprompting China to emulate the U.S., which would encourage India and Pakistan to do the same.

Equally important is the need for a fissile material cutoff treaty to end the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium that can be used to make nuclear weapons. Negotiations on such a treaty have been stalled for years; the U.S. just proposed a new draft that would ban the production of new fissile material, but would leave existing stocks alone.

That is the sort of double standard that the WMD Commission cites as the most corrosive influence on efforts to eliminate WMD. There are intense efforts to halt the spread of such weapons, but there is little attempt to cut existing arsenals. As the commission complains, “the nuclear-weapons states no longer seem to take their commitment to nuclear disarmament seriously.” This undermines the global consensus that is the foundation of any serious program to eliminate WMD.

Sadly, the U.S. in particular appears to have abdicated its leadership in this effort. Washington downplays its NPT obligations to disarm Eas evidenced by the draft fissile materials treaty Eand continues to modernize an already overwhelming arsenal.

The WMD Commission minces no words: Disarmament has been hampered by “an increased U.S. skepticism regarding the effectiveness of international institutions and instruments, coupled with a drive for freedom of action to maintain an absolute global superiority in weaponry and means of their delivery.” Mr. Blix practically pleaded with the U.S.: “If it takes the lead, the world is likely to follow. If it does not take the lead, there could be more nuclear tests and new nuclear-arms races.”

Japan’s position is delicate. This country has refused to develop such weapons, even though the capability and materials are within its grasp. Rather, Japan’s status as the only nation to have experienced an atomic bombing seared an antinuclear-weapon sentiment into the national consciousness.

In addition, defense strategists agree that the nuclear option undermines, rather than enhances, Japan’s national security. Yet Japan is also nestled beneath the U.S. nuclear umbrella; it enjoys some of the benefits those weapons create (such as they are) without “dirtying its hands.”

Japan’s position is defensive: It cannot threaten its neighbors with WMD. It should continue to reaffirm the national commitment to never develop such weapons. Tokyo should also continue to press other nuclear-weapons states, including its ally the U.S., to reduce their arsenals. Moreover, Tokyo could ask the U.S. to rethink the role of nuclear weapons in its defense of Japan Ein such a way as to undercut arguments regarding the utility of nuclear weapons. This would echo the WMD Commission’s argument that “the first line of defense against the spread of nuclear weapons is indeed to make states feel that they don’t need them.”

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