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While Japan has made nuclear disarmament a pillar of its diplomacy, in fact the existence of U.S. nuclear weapons has been critical to Japan’s postwar peace and prosperity. The U.S. nuclear arsenal provided an extended deterrent — a nuclear umbrella — that sheltered this country and protected it from external threats.

Japan was (and is) not the only country to nestle under that shield: All U.S. allies enjoyed a similar status. The United States is the only country today that affords its allies this protection and that role complicates otherwise straightforward policy adjustments in the post-Cold War era.

Since taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama has tried to change the course of U.S. nuclear policy. His call to work toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons was not just campaign rhetoric. In his speech in Prague last year, Mr. Obama laid out his vision of a nuclear-free world. The new U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed just weeks ago, is a step toward the realization of that vision. But a treaty is not a policy; it is a means to an end. Every U.S. administration conducts a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a document that outlines U.S. nuclear policy and strategy. The NPR provides guidance for U.S. nuclear planners, but it also explains how an administration thinks about nuclear threats, nuclear weapons and how it intends to deal with them.

The Obama administration published its NPR earlier this month. The first thing worth noting is that the NPR was late. It was originally scheduled to be released earlier this year, but reportedly consensus was hard to come by. Early drafts are said to have not gone far enough toward matching the president’s vision. Such suggestions of fierce internal battles might lead one to expect a document containing something to irritate most readers. On that count, this NPR does not disappoint.

The most important elements of the new NPR are the insistence that nuclear weapons should play a diminished role in U.S. military strategy, and the unequivocal statements that the U.S. “will not develop new nuclear weapons” and that its program to extend the life of nuclear weapons “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.” That is in fact pre-existing U.S. policy, but the macho rhetoric of the last administration — and selective leaks of the previous NPR — made that hard to believe.

Reducing reliance on nuclear weapons diminishes the chances that such weapons will be used in a crisis. Equally important, it sends the signal that such weapons are not needed to promote national security. Putting nuclear weapons at the very heart of a country’s defense strategy makes them seem more important to other nations, encouraging them to strive for the same capabilities. Reducing the utility of nuclear weapons also helps support opposition to their use and proliferation.

Some critics complain that the new U.S. policy does not go far enough; that rather than merely reducing its reliance on nuclear weapons, the U.S. should adopt a “no first use” policy that would prohibit the use of nuclear weapons unless the U.S. had been attacked with them first. The NPR says the administration aims to make deterrence “the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.” The U.S. pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against states that are signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and are in compliance with all obligations under that treaty. That pledge, however, still allows the U.S. to maintain pressure against states, such as North Korea and Iran, that have a cavalier impression of NPT commitments. Hopefully, they will realize that such an attitude can bring dangerous consequences.

But this policy raises questions for U.S. allies, for they too rely on U.S. arsenals for safety and security. Thus, the fourth objective of the new NPR is to “strengthen regional deterrence and reassurance of U.S. allies and partners.” The credibility of the U.S. commitment to its allies’ defense is essential if those nations’ nuclear ambitions are to be capped. It would be tragic if U.S. attempts to reduce its nuclear arsenal spurred other nations to develop or acquire their own. This is a particular concern for Japan, and the U.S. has commenced official and unofficial dialogues to address Japanese concerns and provide reassurance.

Identified as the first of the NPR’s five key objectives is “preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.” The NPR notes that “the threat of global nuclear war has become remote, but the risk of nuclear attack has increased.” This week’s nuclear security summit provided an official communique recognizing that risk and endorsing Obama’s four-year goal. It also specified plans by certain countries to strengthen nuclear security, and actions to be taken by attending nations to reduce nuclear materials. Optimism may be in order. After the new START treaty, the NPR and the nuclear security summit, the goal seems within reach.

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