Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: Moving Past Deterrence



Section five of ten of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2017 peace proposal, “The Global Solidarity of Youth: Ushering In a New Era of Hope.”

Paper cranes offered by US President Barack Obama during his historic visit to Hiroshima in 2016 Paper cranes offered by US President Barack Obama during his historic visit to Hiroshima in 2016 [Photo by Frank Fujimoto/CC BY-NC-ND]

Next, I would like to offer concrete proposals regarding three priority areas crucial to the realization of the peaceful, just and inclusive societies that are the aim of the SDGs:

  1. Prohibiting and abolishing nuclear weapons;

  2. Responding to the refugee crisis; and

  3. Building a culture of human rights.

With regard to the first of these, in December 2016 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a historic resolution calling for the start of negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. The resolution calls for a first conference to be convened at the end of March and a second from mid-June to early July, both at UN Headquarters, and encourages participating governments to exert their best efforts for the early conclusion of a treaty.

In our world today, there are still more than 15,000 nuclear warheads. Progress toward nuclear disarmament has stalled, while plans for modernization of nuclear arsenals have progressed. The threat posed by nuclear weapons is, if anything, growing.

US President John F. Kennedy (1917–63) used an anecdote set in ancient Greece to warn us of this danger. The sword of Damocles, in the form of the threat of unimaginable destruction wrought on humanity and the global environment, remains suspended above our heads. It is not a thing of the past. Rather, as the General Assembly resolution emphasizes, the need to solve the nuclear issue is “all the more urgent.”

In this regard, I would like to make several proposals.

related article A People’s Declaration for a World without Nuclear Weapons A People’s Declaration for a World without Nuclear Weapons Civil society plays a vital role in giving a human face to global problems and encouraging global action. Now is the time for civil society to build momentum to establish the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons as a form of people-driven international law. The first is for the earliest possible holding of a US-Russia summit in order to reinvigorate the nuclear disarmament process. A truly weighty responsibility bears down on the shoulders of these two leaders, whose countries possess massive nuclear arsenals that threaten the lives of everyone living on Earth with the potential to reduce to ash the civilizations humanity has forged over the millennia.

Ever since tensions dramatically heightened between the two countries over the situation in Ukraine three years ago, the chill in bilateral relations has been such that it has been compared to a new Cold War. Since the 2011 entry into force of the New START Treaty, nuclear disarmament negotiations have been at a standstill, and there are questions regarding the status of the treaty from 2018 on, when the present round of reductions is slated to be completed.

Donald J. Trump, who was inaugurated as US President on January 20, called Russian President Vladimir Putin after his election victory, and in their conversation they agreed to aim for an improvement in bilateral relations. I strongly hope that the leaders of these two countries, which between them possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear stockpiles, will engage in earnest discussions about the nuclear weapons issue and work toward an easing of tensions.

More than twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, the policy of nuclear deterrence is still in effect, and approximately 1,800 nuclear weapons are on high alert, meaning they can be launched at an instant’s notice.

Let us consider the significance of this fact.

In a recent speech, former US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry recounted an episode from his time as Under Secretary of Defense in the Carter Administration. He spoke of the shock of receiving a late-night emergency communication from the watch officer at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) indicating that 200 Soviet missiles were in flight heading toward the US. Although this was quickly understood to be a false alarm, had this information been accurate, the President of the United States would have had only minutes to make the momentous decision whether or not to launch a counterstrike.

The logic of deterrence requires that even if one in no way desires nuclear war, one must be able to demonstrate the readiness to retaliate at any time as a means of forestalling an enemy strike. Further, in order to prove that this is not just a matter of words, the capacity for an immediate counterstrike must be maintained. Under these conditions, one’s guard cannot be let down even for a moment, and the threat of imminent nuclear war becomes a constant and unavoidable burden. This, I think, describes the reality of nuclear deterrence that started in the Cold War era and continues to this day.

Looking back, when second Soka Gakkai president Josei Toda made his declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons in 1957, the contours of the nuclear deterrent posture were taking definitive shape. Both the US and the Soviet Union were testing hydrogen bombs in an escalating competition to create ever more powerful weapons, and there was a shift in the focus of delivery systems from bombers to ballistic missiles.

related article Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching by  William Aiken,  director of public affairs, SGI-USA Reflecting upon the SGI-USA community, William Aiken provides a Buddhist perspective on the future trends for religion in the US. In August 1957, one month before President Toda made his declaration, the Soviet Union successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), giving it the capacity to launch and direct a nuclear weapon strike against any location on Earth. Further, on September 6, just two days before his declaration, disarmament negotiations focused on the reduction and prohibition of nuclear weapons that had been conducted under UN auspices for nearly six months collapsed. Intensive deliberations involving the US, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and also Canada had failed to produce agreement, and the negotiations were indefinitely suspended.

President Toda identified the deterrence doctrine as the underlying reason for the ceaseless race to build more of these weapons that can wreak catastrophe on humankind. He saw that justifications for the possession of nuclear weapons—that they represented a deterrence force that maintained peace—focused solely on protecting the countries possessing them, while remaining coldly indifferent to the immense sacrifices that would be exacted from the greater part of humankind.

This is why he stated that his goal was “to expose and rip out the claws”—that is, to confront and overcome the underlying thinking that justifies the possession of nuclear weapons.

The US-Soviet nuclear confrontation was compared at the time to “two scorpions in a bottle.” What was largely forgotten was that many countries other than the nuclear-weapon states were also in the same bottle, along with their several billion inhabitants. Likewise, the sting-or-be-stung confrontation has obscured the critical reality of the apocalyptic nature of nuclear weapons, which makes them fundamentally different from all others.

By stating that “we, the citizens of the world, have an inviolable right to live,” Toda sought to dispel the illusions surrounding nuclear deterrence theory. He declared that it was impermissible for any country to threaten this right and that the use of nuclear weapons can never be justified.

Deterrence theory truncates people’s range of thought. Proponents believe simply in the efficacy of deterrence and refuse to consider the catastrophic outcome should deterrence fail. Likewise, they refuse to face the reality that, irrespective of deterrence, a nuclear detonation through accident or malfunction is always a possibility.

This failure to think things through to their logical conclusion equally affects those under the extended deterrence of the so-called nuclear umbrella.

The reality is that each of the ribs that compose this nuclear umbrella is in fact a sword of Damocles. This inhumane doctrine of national security is premised on the willingness to inflict the misery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the people of another country. Should the launch button ever be pushed and a nuclear exchange begin, irreparable damage would be suffered not only by the parties to the conflict but by neighboring countries and Earth as a whole.

The logic of deterrence places the security of one’s own country on one side of the scales of justice, on the other side of which are the lives of vast numbers of ordinary citizens and the living ecology of the entire planet.

There is no way to justify nuclear weapons-based security doctrines premised on the loss of millions of lives and the destruction of the global ecology.

If we consider this in the context of Amartya Sen’s discussion of justice which I touched on earlier, security policies that seek to prevent a nuclear attack from another country could be said to correspond to the niti form of justice with its emphasis on the legitimacy of the objective. In light of the nyaya conception of justice focused on the legitimacy of the outcome—that is, what actually happens to people and their lives—it becomes clear that there is no way to justify nuclear weapons-based security doctrines premised on the loss of millions of lives and the destruction of the global ecology.

The right of self-defense against military attack is recognized in the UN Charter, and the validity of a niti perspective on security cannot, in light of international law, be dismissed out of hand. But I would like to challenge the thinking that accepts nuclear weapons as a continuing necessity.

Throughout human history, the idea of deterrence has been used to justify the possession and development of ever newer and more lethal weapons. But as humankind’s history of nearly ceaseless war demonstrates, deterrence has broken down and conflict has been the result on innumerable occasions. How can we be confident that deterrence, which has failed so often in the past, will prove infallible in the case of nuclear weapons?

In his recent work Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, Ward Wilson has pursued this question. Wilson reviews humanity’s 6,000-year history of war and group violence. To look at just the sixty years after the end of World War II is, in his words, to claim to have detected a trend based on 1 percent of the data. He comments, “Particularly when one is dealing with a phenomenon that is apparently deeply rooted in human nature, this seems incautious.” He asserts that proper consideration of this question requires the kind of millennial perspective developed by Arnold J. Toynbee that takes in the rise and fall of multiple civilizations.

Indeed, it is precisely because deterrence is something deeply rooted in human nature that we need to confront head-on the great risks that lie hidden in its depths.

The idea of the inherent dignity of life has been developed in Buddhism through just such an in-depth exploration of human nature, and I believe it is pertinent in this regard. I would like to quote the following words of Shakyamuni, attributed to him when he was mediating a conflict between two tribes over water rights.

“Look at those who fight, ready to kill! Fear arises from taking up arms and preparing to strike.”

It is noteworthy how Shakyamuni observes the workings of the hearts of those facing a hostile confrontation: They did not take up arms in fear of the opponent, but rather were filled with fear the moment they took up arms. While they might have felt rage toward an adversary that was trying to take their water, they were not possessed by fear. But the moment they were armed, prepared to strike deadly blows against their adversaries, their hearts were filled with dread.

Longtime contributing editor to the Washington Post David Emanuel Hoffman eloquently depicted how such fear-driven psychology almost produced a particularly nightmarish scenario during the Cold War.

In the early 1980s, Soviet leaders began to draw up plans for a system that would function even after a nuclear attack had destroyed the country’s political leadership as well as the normal military chain of command. More than anything, they feared losing the ability to retaliate. They envisioned a fully automatic, computer-driven system that would guarantee a retaliatory strike under any circumstance. The project was eventually modified, however, because the military rejected the idea of launching a nuclear strike without the involvement of any human element. Instead, the decision-making authority was to be transferred to surviving officers in deep bunkers.

In other words, a nuclear retaliatory system that could not be stopped by human agency was actually being planned in the final years of the Cold War. Although this never went beyond the conceptual stage, this ultimate form of deterrence embodies the deep-seated fear that arises from the possession of nuclear arms.

related article A Shared Vision A Shared Vision Daisaku Ikeda argues that amidst a “pathology of peacelessness,” the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons signals an approach to security grounded in human rights and the dignity of all. Last October marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Reykjavík Summit, a milestone that initiated the process that brought the Cold War to an end.

When General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union proposed a meeting with US President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) in Iceland’s capital, the halfway point between Washington and Moscow, he bore in mind the Chernobyl disaster that had taken place six months previously and which had left him deeply concerned about the risks of nuclear war. Similarly, President Reagan is said to have found the idea of maintaining peace through the threat of mass slaughter by nuclear war intolerable.

Because both leaders harbored grave concerns about nuclear weapons, their discussions advanced to the point that they were on the brink of agreeing to their complete elimination. Although in the end they could not reach that agreement, the following year they concluded the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, setting in motion the process of nuclear disarmament.

Now is the time for the United States and Russia to return to the spirit of Reykjavík and find common ground toward global peace.

The UN conference that will negotiate a treaty for the prohibition and eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, scheduled to start in March, includes in its agenda measures to reduce and eliminate the risk of nuclear weapon detonation resulting from accident or mistake. The United States and Russia have repeatedly experienced such risks throughout and even following the Cold War. I urge the leaders of these two countries to engage in dialogue toward taking their weapons off high alert and to make significant new progress in nuclear arms reduction.

Previous    Next

─── other articles ───

our story

page top