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A World without Nuclear Weapons: Prospects and Challenges

  • AUTHORNobuyasu Abe, Hiroshima Prefectural Office
  • Apr 17, 2017

Nuclear Disarmament: Gaps between Ideal and Reality

Five years have passed since the first edition of the Hiroshima Report compiling the annual updates on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and nuclear security issues around the world was issued. During the five year period, we have witnessed a downturn from the hopes for the progress towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation to the stagnation. During the first half of the period, we witnessed such successes as the 2010 NPT Review Conference (RevCon) and the conclusion of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2010, heralded by the President Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague advocating “a world without nuclear weapons,” for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Positive developments were also seen even in the latter half of the period, such as the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in 2016, and the decision at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to commence a negotiation of a legally-binding instrument to ban nuclear weapons. The latter half of the period, however, saw more steps backward; the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests; deterioration of the relationship between Russia and the NATO after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, with Russia starting nuclear saber-rattling; nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan; and the development and modernization of nuclear forces by all of the nuclear-armed states. Gaps widened between the hope for nuclear elimination and the reality on the ground.

The Retirement of President Obama

A greatest loss may be the retirement of President Obama as his term expired. Well recognizing the danger of nuclear weapons and holding a firm belief to pursue a world without nuclear weapons, President Obama organized the series of Nuclear Security Summits, and accomplished the JCPOA. For Japan, the most significant event during his presidency was his visit to Hiroshima, the first visit ever by a sitting U.S. president to a city that suffered the atomic bomb paying tribute to the victims. The hope is that President Obama will keep the torch of nuclear disarmament high even after his retirement, and Japan may support his efforts.

A Difficult Time for Nuclear Disarmament

The year 2017 may witness an even more difficult time in the field of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. President Donald Trump, who has succeeded President Obama is known to have uttered a number controversial statements on nuclear issues; North Korea has been aggressively conducting nuclear and missile tests so as to accelerate its nuclear deterrent buildup; and every nuclear-armed state is continuing to reinforce and modernize its nuclear arsenals.

Nonetheless, some still entertain the possibility that nuclear disarmament might advance even under the Trump administration. History has shown that some important nuclear disarmament and arms control measures have actually been achieved under Republican Presidents; Richard Nixon (the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty: SALT), Ronald Reagan (the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty), and George H. W. Bush (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty: START). Let us hope it becomes a reality.

What needs to be done?

What, then, should be done when serious challenges face nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and nuclear security?

1. Keep the torch of disarmament and non-proliferation alive

Despite the negative trends we cannot afford to put out the torch of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Two important conferences will be held in 2017: the UN conference on negotiating a nuclear weapons ban convention (in March and then June/July), and the first Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2020 NPT RevCon (in May). Since the nuclear-armed states have voted against or abstained from voting for the 2016 UNGA resolution calling for the conference, they are not likely to participate in the conference. Nonetheless, since the resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority, the conference will be held, and a treaty banning nuclear weapons will likely be discussed and drafted among the participating countries. Some nuclear-armed states, while staying away from the conference, may raise doubts about the value of the conference and lobby against any premature moves to draft a treaty from outside the conference room. On the part of countries participating in the conference they would have to look to the eventual adherence to a ban treaty by the nuclear-armed states. Therefore, it would be advisable for the participating countries to listen, without prejudice, to their concerns with a view to their eventual adherence. For example, non-participating countries may be concerned about establishing a robust verification system, enforcement mechanism against non-compliance, and the process from reduction to elimination should they proceed to  eliminate all their nuclear weapons as well as measures to ensure each countries’ security—It may become necessary to reflect them in the drafting of a ban treaty.

Since the NPT provides an important legal basis for nuclear disarmament, it is essential to maintain its effectiveness. In view of the fact that the 2015 Review Conference failed to adopt its final document, every effort has to be made to make the coming 2020 Review Conference a success. The preparatory process will start with the first PrepCom in May. This meeting, to be held right after the UN negotiating conference, will be an important step in making the 2020 RevCon successful.

2. Make a big political tide for the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons 

Behind the success of major treaties on nuclear disarmament and arms control in the past, lay a widespread fear among the peoples in countries that nuclear weapons would actually be used. It was this fear that drove countries to those treaties.

In the post-Cold War era today, there is no such serious fear that nuclear weapons are going to be used, nor a nuclear war may break out at any moment, as to cause a big political tide. People are becoming more concerned about global warming, epidemic diseases outbreaks, regional conflicts, and terrorist attacks by extremists pushing the concern among the general public about nuclear weapons use to backstage. In the U.S. and other countries nuclear issues rarely become election campaign issues. Under these circumstances it is not easy to turn the eyes of the political leaders of nuclear-armed states who are pressed by everyday political matters towards nuclear disarmament. Moreover, faced with the growing tension between nuclear-armed states, it is an easy choice for them to show off their nuclear deterrent. However, given the disastrous consequence of a possible use of nuclear weapons, there is no choice but to work towards generating a political tide to seek the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons. This is by no means an easy task. We have to be creative and persistent in conveying experiences and consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, e.g. by making use of such new communication tools as the SNS.

3. Defend the achievements so far made.

The achievements so far made such as the JCPOA, the New START, and the INF treaty, are all indispensable tools to maintain a stable international relations on nuclear issues. Their collapse has to be prevented. Unfortunately, they are threatened by the arguments to abandon the JCPOA, to withdraw from the INF treaty, or to refuse extension of the New START. Preventing setbacks or demise of these valuable achievements is a baseline requirement from where to move nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation forward. While the Nuclear Security Summit process has wound down, it does not mean that the threat of nuclear terrorism has disappeared. It is of critical importance to keep the achievements so far made in this field and carry on the efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism.

4. Assess the current situation in a fair and cool-headed way.

In a world where nuclear-armed states continue building and modernizing their nuclear arsenals and the bilateral tensions continue between the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and China, as well as between India and Pakistan, voices demanding the modernization and strengthening of the nuclear arsenals undoubtedly are becoming louder. However, by assessing the current situation in a calm and fair manner, we have to avoid overreacting to each other and avert escalating nuclear arms race. This is easier said than done. It is the task for experts in the field of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control to work towards sharing their perspectives in a calm, fair, objective, and responsible manner. This is a task that is also expected of the readers of this Hiroshima Report.

5. Develop an argument that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are beneficial even for Conservatives and the Hawks.

If we are to move nuclear-armed states towards nuclear reduction and eventual elimination, an argument better be developed that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, as well as the elimination of nuclear weapons, are for the benefit of their ultimate national interest taking into account their respective security concerns. This is no easy task, but a task we cannot avoid if we are to move the nuclear-armed states.

In conclusion, those who pursue nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and the elimination of nuclear weapons still have a long way to go, and must vigorously tackle the number of challenges they face until they attain their goals. There is no time to waste.

This essay was originally published in the Hiroshima Report by the Hiroshima Prefectural Office.