Lessons on Averting Nuclear War



Section eight of thirteen of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2018 peace proposal, “Toward an Era of Human Rights: Building a People’s Movement.”

A torchlight procession in Oslo on the evening of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony [Photo © ICAN/Ari Beser]

Continuing, I would like to make a number of specific proposals regarding the resolution of global issues from the perspective of protecting the life and dignity of each individual.

The nuclear weapons issue is the first thematic area about which I would like to make concrete proposals.

In July 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which comprehensively prohibits all phases of nuclear weapons—from their development, production and possession to using or threatening to use them—was adopted at the UN with the assent of 122 nations.

When the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued its advisory opinion in 1996 that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to international law, it was unable to render judgment regarding the extreme case in which the very survival of a state was at stake. The TPNW is a blanket prohibition recognizing no exceptions, including this one.

In December 2017, a second signing ceremony for the TPNW was held at the UN, timed to coincide with the ceremony at which the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, demonstrating continuing efforts to achieve the Treaty’s entry into force. On the other hand, however, there is a persistent perception within the nuclear-weapon and nuclear-dependent states that the Treaty’s approach is unrealistic.

There are, in fact, examples of countries which, having possessed nuclear weapons, then chose the path of denuclearization. South Africa is one such example; it began dismantling its nuclear weapons in 1990, the year after President F. W. de Klerk made a speech in parliament in which he undertook to end the apartheid system of white minority rule. This was followed by South Africa’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1991 and by the signing of the Treaty of Pelindaba, which declared the African continent a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ), in 1996.

The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco) establishing the world’s first NWFZ states in its preamble that it seeks not only to banish the scourge of a nuclear war but also to achieve “the consolidation of a permanent peace based on equal rights” for all. In other words, it came into being through the intertwined pursuit of denuclearization and human rights.

The ideal of international human rights law is the quest to protect the life and dignity of each individual in all national settings, a quest in which the continued pursuit of nuclear arms has no place.

related article Building Global Solidarity Toward Nuclear Abolition (September 8, 2009) by  Daisaku Ikeda, President, Soka Gakkai International In his Nuclear Abolition Proposal released on September 8, 2009, SGI President Ikeda suggests a five-part plan towards creating a foundation for a world without nuclear weapons. As tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program demonstrate, there is real concern within the international community that nuclear weapons once more represent a mounting threat and source of intimidation. Another worrying development in recent years has been the ongoing diplomatic dispute between the United States and Russia over possible violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

At the core of nuclear deterrence policy is the threat of their use. In giving deeper consideration to the problems that inhere in this approach, I am reminded of the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–75) who identified “sovereignty” as an expression of the kind of free will that seeks to prevail over others. Arendt contrasted this kind of freedom with that of ancient Greece where freedom was something embodied in interactions with others, as words and actions imbued with a kind of “virtuosity.” According to Arendt, this understanding of freedom has, since the start of the modern era, been supplanted by a freedom of choice rooted in the individual will—a free will from which acknowledgement of the existence of others is absent:

“Because of the philosophic shift from action to will-power, from freedom as a state of being manifest in action to the liberum arbitrium [free will], the ideal of freedom ceased to be virtuosity in the sense we mentioned before and became sovereignty, the ideal of a free will, independent from others and eventually prevailing against them.”

The most extreme example of a sovereignty that seeks to prevail over others is seen in states that pursue their security objectives through the possession of nuclear weapons and the threat of the catastrophic destruction they can wreak.

In one sense, the history of international law can be seen as the repeated effort to clarify the lines that sovereign states must not cross and to establish these limits as shared norms. In On the Law of War and Peace, Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), distraught at the wars that convulsed Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, called for recognition of the continued humanity of those we consider to be enemies and of their right to have promises made to them kept.

In the nineteenth century, this idea took the form of prohibitions on certain weapons and acts in time of war and, in the twentieth century, in the wake of two world wars, led to the prohibition of the use or threat of use of military force in international relations by the UN Charter. To date, treaties banning biological and chemical weapons and, more recently, landmines and cluster munitions have made clear that these are weapons whose use is impermissible under any circumstances. This has resulted in a decrease in the number of countries that continue to desire their possession.

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention. At present, 192 states are parties to the convention, and approximately 90 percent of the world’s stockpiles of chemical weapons have been destroyed. Once an international norm has been clearly established, it carries a weight that shapes not only the behaviors of individual states but the course of the world as a whole.

Beatrice Fihn, the Executive Director of ICAN, stressed this point in her speech at the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony:

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. “No nation today boasts of being a chemical weapon state.

“No nation argues that it is acceptable, in extreme circumstances, to use sarin nerve agent.

“No nation proclaims the right to unleash on its enemy the plague or polio.

“That is because international norms have been set, perceptions have been changed.”

Through the adoption of the TPNW, nuclear weapons have been clearly defined as weapons whose use is impermissible under any circumstances.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned: “Global tensions are rising, sabres have been rattled and dangerous words spoken about the use of nuclear weapons.” It is precisely because we are living in a time of deepening nuclear chaos that we must earnestly interrogate the assumptions underlying nuclear deterrence policy.

Here, I would like to consider some of the lessons of the Cold War, a time of seemingly ceaseless exchanges of “dangerous words” regarding nuclear weapons and their possible use. A recent TV documentary explored the visit to the United States of Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), the first by a Soviet Premier. The visit took place in September 1959, two years after the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite, which followed in the wake of the test launch of a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile.

While the image of Khrushchev as a dangerous warmonger had taken hold among the American public, resulting in him facing political criticism wherever he went, it was nevertheless clear that he took real pleasure in his interactions with ordinary American citizens.

Despite differences in their respective stances, Khrushchev was able to establish a certain degree of trust between the Soviet Union and the American government. The following year, however, an American U2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, and relations again took a turn for the worse. The Berlin Crisis followed in 1961, and relations reached their nadir during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis where President John F. Kennedy (1917–63) and Premier Khrushchev exercised restraint at the last moment, preventing the worst imaginable outcome.

The documentary ends by imagining Khrushchev’s inner state of mind and posing the poignant question: While there were, of course, reasons that compelled Khrushchev, as a politician, to compromise, can we not imagine that the fond memory of his fleeting encounters with American citizens played a part in preventing him from stepping over the line into nuclear war?

related article “That No One Suffer What We Endured” “That No One Suffer What We Endured” Civil society will play an important role in the universalization of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. To support this, the SGI will launch the second Decade of People’s Action for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. Efforts to build an ever-broader constituency in favor of the Treaty are vital. While this question is, of course, speculative, an awareness of the reality that it is the great mass of ordinary citizens who would suffer and die in a nuclear attack was something that I recognized in Khrushchev’s successor Alexei N. Kosygin (1904–80) when I met him some years later, in September 1974.

At the time, the Soviet Union’s relations with both the United States and China were increasingly tense. Determined to do everything in my power to help prevent nuclear war, I shared with Premier Kosygin what I had witnessed when I traveled to China three months earlier, where Chinese citizens were busily building shelters against the eventuality of a Soviet attack. I had also seen and been deeply distressed by the sight of junior high school students in Beijing digging an underground shelter in their schoolyard.

I conveyed the dread that I had sensed among the Chinese people and asked the Premier if the Soviet Union intended to launch an attack on China. He responded firmly that the Soviet Union had no intention of attacking or isolating China. I carried this message with me when I traveled to China again later that year. This experience drove home for me how important it is for leaders of the nuclear-weapon states to always keep in mind the masses of people—including children—who live under the threat of nuclear weapons.

In a similar vein, we have recent testimony of the shock felt by US President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) in 1982 as he watched a computer simulation of a military exercise in which cities destroyed by a Soviet nuclear attack were displayed as red dots on a map of the United States. With each passing moment, the number of these dots increased until, “before the President could sip his coffee, the map was a sea of red.” Reagan is said to have stood gripping his coffee mug, transfixed by this sight.

This must have been in President Reagan’s consciousness as he later pursued dialogue with the Soviet Union, eventually holding a series of summit meetings with General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom he concluded the INF Treaty.

Bringing these realities to light was the objective of the exhibition “Everything You Treasure—For a World Free From Nuclear Weapons” developed by the SGI in collaboration with ICAN. The opening panels of the exhibition invite viewers to consider what they treasure, the things that are important to them. The answer to that question will, of course, be different for each person. But we are convinced that confronting the reality that the use of nuclear weapons would destroy everything each of us treasures is essential to building the popular solidarity needed to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end.

As seen in the Cuban Missile Crisis, where mutual provocations escalated to just short of the point of no return, there is no way of knowing when the “balance of terror” might break down as a result of miscalculation or mistaken assumption. The leaders of the nuclear-weapon and nuclear-dependent states need to be clearly aware of the ultimately precarious nature of this balance.

In 2002, when tensions between India and Pakistan were running high, US diplomatic efforts played a key role in enabling the two parties to exercise restraint. US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was mediating between the two sides, urged the Pakistani president to remember that using nuclear weapons is not an option. He pressed:

“You want to be the country or the leader who, for the first time since August of 1945, has used these weapons? Go look at the pictures again, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki!”

The Pakistani side was persuaded by this argument, as was the Indian side, making it possible to defuse the crisis.

I think that these lessons of history show that the factors preventing nuclear war to date have not necessarily been the logic of deterrence based on the balance of terror, but actually something else entirely.

One element is the effort not to close off, but to maintain lines of communication between countries in conflict. Another is to keep vividly in mind the scale of human suffering—demonstrated by the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—that any use of nuclear weapons would wreak on millions of ordinary citizens.

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