Commentary / Japan

Use the moral authority of Hiroshima

by Ramesh Thakur

Hiroshima suffered from the first wartime use of the atomic bomb. The overriding goal of the Hiroshima Roundtable is to ensure Nagasaki remains the last city to be attacked by the bomb. The sixth annual meeting on Aug. 22 and 23 was held against the backdrop of a uniquely dangerous period in the atomic age.

Geopolitical tensions have spiked across the world. No arms control negotiations are currently underway to reduce global nuclear stockpiles. A hostile security environment, proliferation of nuclear weapons and emergence of new technologies have increased the risk of accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons. While efforts to check North Korea’s nuclear ambitions by diplomatic negotiations are welcome, several summits have yielded negligible concrete results. The successful Iran nuclear deal was abandoned by U.S. President Donald Trump and unilateral sanctions reimposed, putting the United States in material breach of the U.N.-endorsed agreement.

The binary East-West nuclear divide of the Cold War has morphed into interlinked nuclear chains, for example, between Pakistan, India, China and the U.S.

For the first time in history there are two international treaties for setting global nuclear policy directions and norms: the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Nuclear-Weapon Prohibition Treaty (NWPT). This calls for investing diplomatic efforts at harmonization so the two treaties do not undermine each other.

Also for the first time since the 1960s, independent nuclear weaponization is being seriously proposed for the European Union, Germany, Australia, Japan and South Korea, contributing to the nuclearization of the 21st century.

The net result is an exceptionally high degree of disquiet in most countries with the continued existence of nuclear weapons and accompanying doctrines of their use. The discomfort level has increased over the last four years with the growing normalization of the discourse of nuclear weapons-based national security policies and found expression in the adoption of the NWPT at the United Nations in July last year.

The Hiroshima Roundtable worked hard to identify a road map to the shared destination of national and collective security free of the existence, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. There are three parallel pathways: the abolition of nuclear weapons through a progressively reduced reliance on them for national security; lessening reliance on nuclear deterrence by nuclear armed states and allies sheltering under their nuclear umbrella; and reductions in nuclear risks through concrete practical measures.

The premise behind the call to reduce and abolish nuclear weapons is simple but powerful: Any use of nuclear weapons would be a crime.

The risks inherent in their continued existence — that they will someday be used through deliberate intent, by accident, rogue launch or system malfunction, or through the inexorable logic of an escalation spiral — are real and unacceptable because of the gravity of the horrific consequences.

To reduce risks and eliminate nuclear threats, all nuclear armed states must affirm the continuing validity and relevance of the Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.

In addition, they should reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their national security strategy, and not create new roles for them. The stalled nuclear arms control agenda must be restarted, with negotiations for reductions in nuclear stockpiles, postures and deployment practices.

Preventing the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and universalizing it progressively, extending New START by five years to 2026, completing the ratifications required to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force, and commencing negotiations on a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty, are examples of concrete actions to restore faith in the so-called progressive approach to nuclear arms control.

The security of a nation need not depend on nuclear deterrence, but the reality is that several countries currently do rely on nuclear deterrence. To reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, we must make sincere efforts to appreciate under what circumstances, and against which contingencies, the national security planners of the nuclear armed and umbrella states believe nuclear deterrence is credible and works. We must then make equally sincere efforts to identify and recommend similarly credible and practical nonnuclear-weapon alternatives for defense against these threats to their national security.

Nuclear armed states too must undertake a realistic assessment of the risks of nuclear weapons use, by intention or inadvertently, built into nuclear deterrence. They must strengthen strategic reassurance of umbrella allies through agreements, commitments and deployments of conventional forces, and strengthen the deterrent capabilities and postures of conventional forces so these can progressively take over the functions currently tasked to nuclear weapons.

To be compliant with international humanitarian law, they must reaffirm in particular the principles of noncombatant immunity, proportionality and necessity, as applying to all military doctrines. They should also sign the protocols to regional nuclear weapons-free zones. The creation of additional zones in conflict-prone regions would be an additional positive development.

Participants were gravely concerned at efforts by nuclear armed states to increase the roles of nuclear arms in response to non-nuclear threats, lower the threshold for their use and expand the use of nuclear threats. To reverse these disturbing trends, they should commit to “No First Use” of nuclear weapons and enshrine this in domestic law.

The nuclear armed and umbrella states of the Asia-Pacific region should institute strategic policy dialogues (a) among nuclear allies, and (b) between potential nuclear adversaries, in order to enhance transparency, reduce trust deficits, and promote mutual confidence.

All nuclear powers are modernizing and upgrading their nuclear weapons, delivery systems and infrastructure. Confidence building and risk reduction measures have to keep pace with developments in technology and resulting adjustments to nuclear postures. For example, Moscow and Washington inked the Incidents at Sea Agreement in the 1970s and the Dangerous Military Activities Agreement in the 1980s. These need to be modernized to cover current U.S.-Russia relations.

Similar negotiations must also be started between other nuclear powers, for example China and the U.S., and India and Pakistan, to reduce nuclear risks. All states should commit never to use cyber capabilities to subvert or sabotage nuclear-weapons systems.

East Asia suffers from a paucity of security architecture to manage nuclear risks. Governments should establish a regional security architecture, which includes North Korea, as a multilateral venue for conflict management and confidence building that includes but extends beyond the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

On the 50th anniversary of the NPT coming into force, the 2020 NPT Review Conference should adopt practical steps to realize the original commitment by the international community to implement states’ individual and collective responsibility for nuclear disarmament.

Ramesh Thakur, a professor emeritus in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.