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10:50 27 May 2016

OPINION: After Hiroshima

By Scott D. Sagan
STANFORD, California, May 26, Kyodo

President Obama's visit to Hiroshima highlighted both the importance of his vision of a world without nuclear weapons and the difficult path ahead to get there. Nuclear disarmament remains an essential long-term goal because nuclear deterrence is not a perfectly reliable strategy to maintain our security. Yet with new nuclear threats emanating from North Korea, Russian aggression against the Ukraine, and Chinese nuclear and conventional arms build-ups, the disarmament goal seems even more distant today than in 2009, when Obama first laid out his vision in the Prague Speech. Fortunately, there are practical steps that can still be taken to move us in the right direction.

Anyone who walks around Hiroshima or Nagasaki no longer thinks about nuclear weapons only in the abstract. Visitors are vividly reminded that two atomic bombs killed hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children in the past; and visitors also more clearly understand that modern nuclear weapons could kill hundreds of millions of innocent men, women, and children in the future.

The history of the Cold War, with its numerous close calls to nuclear disaster, also reminds us of the fallibility of human beings and the military organizations that we have created to manage nuclear stockpiles. Each new state that acquires nuclear weapons only heightens these dangers.

Relying on nuclear weapons for our security is like walking on thin ice. The fact that we have done it for such a long time must not blind us to the inherent risks involved, and it should not lead us to have false confidence that we can safely walk across the thin ice of nuclear deterrence forever.

President Obama has correctly highlighted two U.S. commitments. The first is the commitment under Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty "to pursue negotiations in good faith" related to nuclear disarmament. The second is the legal commitment, enshrined under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to follow the "principle of non-combatant immunity" and never deliberately target civilians again.

Even in these troubled times, three further steps forward can and must be taken. First, the United States and Japan can reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, while maintaining essential deterrence, by increasing conventional military capabilities. The so-called nuclear umbrella should not become a nuclear crutch which we rely upon excessively. Second, the United States and all other nuclear states should honor the pledge to maintain arms control negotiations, working in good faith, to reduce stockpiles over the long term. Third, we need much more public discussion -- among future leaders and common citizens, among soldiers and statesmen, among young people and old -- about moral principles and legal responsibilities in times of war. Polls show that support for the principle of noncombatant immunity is shallow among Americans and that many would drop an atomic bomb again on an enemy's city today.

Taking these steps would move us further away from the human tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and closer to a world without nuclear weapons.

(Scott D. Sagan is the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University)




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