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Japan and NATO Are Ready for the U.S. to Reduce Nuclear Weapons

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It has been nearly a year since President Obama's now famous Prague speech, announcing America's commitment to a nuclear weapons-free future. A key test of that commitment is at hand: the current U. S. Nuclear Posture Review. The Obama administration might use it to announce a plan for a deeper reduction in nuclear stockpiles, a shift in nuclear policy to "sole purpose" (i.e., retaining nuclear weapons solely for purposes of deterring others from using such weapons) and begin the process of phasing out nuclear deterrence itself.

The Obama administration can take any or all of these steps, but it can't take them in a vacuum. They would have profound and complex effects on the rest of the world, an important litmus test for which is how they would be received in Japan.

Japan is the only nation to have experienced wartime use of nuclear weapons. It has a strong, passionate anti-nuclear movement, and advocating global nuclear disarmament is part of its national psyche. It also has three nuclear-armed states in its neighborhood, all of which were at war with Japan during the 20th century. U.S. nuclear weapons protection through extended deterrence has been integral to Japan's security. Japan has depended on U.S. nuclear deterrence, yet it wants nuclear disarmament.

For the past 60-plus years this apparent schizophrenia has been managed by the government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, through public pronouncements supporting nuclear disarmament on the one hand, while at the same time reaffirming the importance of nuclear deterrence in the Japan-U.S. relationship, and mentioning the supposed difficulty (read 'near impossibility') of achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world.

Recent Japanese media reports say that Japanese officials secretly lobbied the U.S. to maintain high numbers of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal and to modernize its nuclear weapons including through the development of new types of weapons. Japan's reliance on nuclear deterrence has even led some senior Japanese officials and opinion leaders, including the late finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa, to question whether it might be appropriate for Japan to develop its own nuclear deterrent, especially in light of North Korea's recent tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

This dynamic has made some officials in the United States nervous about being perceived as reducing the commitment or capacity of the U.S. to 'protect' Japan under the extended nuclear deterrence relationship. It has given ammunition to those opposing any significant reduction in nuclear policy and capabilities currently being discussed in the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review.

It was therefore highly significant when incoming Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in December 2009 sent a letter to Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates, decrying the pro-nuclear advocacy of officials from the previous Japanese government, and supporting President Obama's vision for a nuclear-weapons-free world. It called specifically on the U.S. to consider adopting a "sole purpose" policy, which would effectively rule out the first-use of nuclear weapons including the threat or use against chemical, biological or conventional forces. Okada has also proposed a North-East Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, which would reduce even further the role of nuclear weapons in the region.

Okada's proposals are receiving encouraging (and unusual) cross-party support in Japan and South Korea. Today, 204 Japanese parliamentarians sent a letter to President Obama supporting the call for the U.S. to adopt a 'sole purpose' policy, and asserting that Japan will not seek the possession of nuclear weapons if the U.S. adopts such a policy. Endorsers of the letter included parliamentarians from all political parties. High-level endorsers from the opposition included former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and Former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Taro Kono.

The idea of a regional nuclear-weapon-free zone has inspired a newly established cross-party group of Japanese and South Korean parliamentarians to meet for the first time next week to discuss its feasibility. The plan would involve North Korea agreeing to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for which they would receive guarantees that nuclear weapons would not be deployed in South Korea or Japan. All three countries would also receive assurances from China, Russia and the U.S. that nuclear weapons could not be threatened or used against them.

Okada's proposals are by no means guaranteed to succeed. A similar initiative to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in NATO doctrine, proposed in 1998 by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, failed due to opposition by the US and lack of support from other NATO countries.

But this time, there seems to be new potential for change in NATO, consistent with the disarmament visions of both Okada and Obama. Germany and Norway have renewed calls for a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in NATO, with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle calling for removal of remaining US nuclear forces deployed in Europe. There has also been a flurry of parliamentary letters and resolutions from key NATO states calling for these proposals to be agreed in the current review of the NATO Strategic Concept, and supporting the U.S.-Russia negotiations on stockpile reductions.

This gives President Obama a historic opportunity to use the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review to announce reduction in nuclear stockpiles, a "sole purpose" policy, and the beginning of the end of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. If he does it, Japan and NATO are likely to support him, and none of the 192 States Parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, meeting in New York this May for a NPT Review conference, will have an excuse to block negotiations. That makes this Nuclear Posture Review a critical turning in the road toward a nuclear weapons-free world President Obama started walking in Prague. May he continue following it.