Tensions between the world’s nuclear-armed states are on the rise. Progress on nuclear disarmament is stalled. Washington and Moscow are on track to replace their excessive nuclear arsenals at enormous cost; other nuclear-armed states are slowly improving their capabilities.
U.S. president-elect Donald Trump appears poised to build up nuclear tensions even further. His Dec 22 tweet that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear arsenal” and reported comments the next day welcoming an “arms race” could signal a radical shift away from decades of bipartisan U.S. policy to reduce nuclear stockpiles and the risk of war.
In response, America’s allies, particularly Japan—the only country to have suffered nuclear attacks—must redouble efforts to head-off renewed nuclear competition, reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use, and move the world toward the prohibition and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
In the coming year, Japan along with other “middle powers”—such as Brazil, Germany, Indonesia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden and South Africa—need to press Moscow and Washington to slash their nuclear arsenals. At nearly 2,000 deployed warheads each, their arsenals vastly exceed what is necessary to deter nuclear attack.
Responsible states must also forcefully call upon all nuclear-armed states to halt to their nuclear build-ups, including by signing and ratifying the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and by refraining from developing and deploying new types of nuclear weapons.
Japan and other states can also help reduce the salience of nuclear weapons by actively participating in the forthcoming negotiations on a new “legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”
By a 113-35-13 margin, the U.N. General Assembly voted on Dec 23 to launch talks on a nuclear weapons ban treaty beginning on March 27. That decision follows three international conferences in 2013 and 2014 to consider the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use and discussions by an open-ended working group on disarmament in 2016.
In order to attain a world free of nuclear weapons, it will be necessary, at some point, to establish a legally-binding norm to prohibit these weapons. As such, the pursuit of a treaty banning the development, production, possession and use of nuclear weapons is a key step along the way.
Although most of the world’s nuclear-armed states will boycott the negotiations, this unprecedented new process could help to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use—a worthy goal that is consistent with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and outgoing President Barack Obama’s shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
Contrary to some skeptics’ beliefs, this process is not a distraction from other disarmament work, nor will it undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In fact, the strong support for negotiations on a ban treaty is a logical and constructive international response to the failure of key nuclear-armed states to fulfill their NPT disarmament commitments.
Under pressure from Washington, Tokyo voted against the U.N. resolution for the ban treaty talks. But to his credit, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said on Oct. 28 that Japan intends to join negotiations. That is the right move for the government in Tokyo and for disarmament.
Japan’s participation would help improve the quality of the outcome, ensure that security and humanitarian factors are taken into account, and would help re-establish Tokyo as a strong leader for a world free of nuclear weapons.
The process will not be easy. To be effective, the ban treaty will need to:
—specify which activities related to nuclear weapons possession, planning, development, production and testing are prohibited. Each of these prohibitions must be effectively verifiable, even if this negotiation does not elaborate how the monitoring and verification regime would work.
—compliment and perhaps enhance existing treaties that prohibit or limit certain nuclear weapons-related activities, including the CTBT, the current nuclear weapons free zone treaties, and the NPT, among others.
—provide a pathway or pathways for states that now possess nuclear weapons or are part of alliances with nuclear-armed states to join the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty in the future.
The negotiators should seek a formula that is meaningful but also draws the widest possible support from states participating in the negotiation. Consensus should be the goal but not a requirement for agreement on the final outcome. States such as Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, and China, each of which expressed reservations about the initiative, should nonetheless participate.
Achieving and maintaining a world without nuclear weapons requires bold and sustained action. The coming ban treaty negotiations are not an all-in-one solution, but do represent an important and new contribution.
As President Obama said last year when he visited Hiroshima: “We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”