Most Japanese security professionals currently prefer the United States maintain the option to use nuclear weapons first. But should President Obama declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons by another country, extensive interviews with those same Japanese security professionals indicate they would accept the change.
No first use is already de facto U.S. policy. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where a first use of nuclear weapons would make the United States or our allies more secure. The last nuclear bomb ever dropped, by any nation, anywhere, was seventy-one years ago in Nagasaki. While using nuclear weapons is sometimes discussed as a way to end a conflict or control escalation, the fact is that no one knows what would happen in such a case. The risk of escalation and things getting out of control may be why, despite threatening to use nuclear weapons, U.S. presidents never authorized another nuclear attack.
Japanese security professionals should recall that U.S. attempts to use the threat of nuclear first use to prevent or halt non-nuclear attacks have an especially poor track record in Asia. U.S. threats to use nuclear weapons against the communist governments in North Korea and Vietnam did not deter either of them from pursuing their war aims, or the People’s Republic of China from supporting them.
The questionable deterrent benefits of threatening nuclear first use come with a clearer cost. Intentions to use nuclear weapons for any purpose other than deterring or responding to a nuclear attack invites proliferation. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) is a very basic deal where nations without nuclear weapons agree not to develop them in exchange for a commitment by nations with nuclear weapons to reduce and eventually eliminate theirs. Plans for first use are acts of bad faith that could be justifiably interpreted as a violation of the NPT. As the only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack, Japan is an especially strong supporter of the NPT and its aim of eventually eliminating nuclear weapons.
No Good Nuclear Options for Japan
Japan’s commitment to nuclear disarmament is based on more than history and morality. It’s based on hard realities as well. When the Japanese government debated signing the permanent extension of the NPT in 1995 it commissioned a study assessing the security threats Japan would most likely encounter in the future and whether Japan might need to develop nuclear weapons to cope with them. A nuclear-armed North Korea and rising Chinese nationalism were both identified as long-term security challenges for Japan. Sadly, both threats materialized as anticipated by the Japanese security professionals who conducted the study more than twenty years ago.
Those same professionals found that despite the emergence of these threats there were no imaginable circumstances where possessing nuclear weapons would be in Japan’s national security interests, including a “worst case” scenario where there was a complete collapse of the NPT and Japan’s military alliance with the United States.
“Even in such a case, it is questionable whether there is any value for a trading nation that depends on the stability of the international society to try to secure its survival and protect its interests with its own nuclear weapons. It would more likely undermine the basis of its own survival. Only in a case where destitution reaches a stage where the exchange of damage with an opponent is not a concern anymore, would the geopolitical vulnerability of Japan make the nuclear option a possibility. This, however, is a case where a condition becomes its own goal, and is not worthy of consideration.”
The geographic vulnerabilities identified in the 1995 study are Japan’s limited area and its dense population, which is concentrated in urban centers. The political vulnerabilities are severe damage to Japan’s international prestige, increased tensions with neighboring countries and the fermentation of domestic political unrest. The study concluded a Japanese decision to develop nuclear weapons would hurt Japan’s national security interests by undermining Japan’s security alliance with the United States as well as international efforts to advance nuclear disarmament. And Japan would face enormous economic costs if it were to attempt to develop a credible nuclear force.
Although it has been more than twenty years since Japanese security professionals seriously considered a nuclear option, none of the hard realities identified in the 1995 study have changed. Despite the recent rise in tensions with China and the worsening situation in North Korea, any reassessment of Japan’s nuclear options is highly likely to produce the same result.
Rethinking Extended Deterrence
U.S. defenders of the nuclear status quo argue the threat of nuclear first use is essential to maintaining allied confidence in U.S. security commitments. But a declaration that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter or respond to a nuclear attack from another country not only leaves the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence guarantee for Japan in place, it is a more credible defense policy.
The Japanese security professionals who conducted the 1995 study of Japan’s nuclear options expressed serious doubts about the possibility of U.S. nuclear first use in the post-Cold War era. They argued that traditional nuclear war-fighting concepts that posited first use such as “escalation control” and “flexible response” were outdated. They believed that the moral pressure of international and U.S. domestic public opinion made U.S. threats to use nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict less credible, especially given dramatic advances in the capabilities of U.S. conventional weapons. For these reasons, the study concluded that the “extended deterrence effect—relying on the fear of escalation to a nuclear war (to prevent a conventional war)—is unavoidably and significantly decreased.”
While realizing the threat of U.S. nuclear first use was losing credibility, the authors of the 1995 report still preferred maintaining “the ambiguous position of not having said we would use but not having said we would not use either.” Even though they questioned whether the United States would actually resort to first use, they believed potential adversaries might not have the same doubts. That remains the preference of Japanese security professionals today. But is reliance on this transparently disingenuous psychology really the best way to deter aggression against Japan?
U.S. and Japanese security experts extoll the benefits of ambiguity but often ignore the costs. Pretending that an ambiguous threat to resort to nuclear weapons might deter or halt conventional military aggression makes it easier for decision-makers in both Japan and the United States to put off hard choices about the new investments in the conventional military capabilities needed to prevent a future conflict or prevail if deterrence fails. And blurring the line between nuclear and non-nuclear conflicts makes it more likely that a nuclear exchange might occur, with the possibility of escalation. U.S. military bases in Japan would be key targets for nuclear retaliation. Given the devastation of nuclear weapons, Japanese security professionals should recognize that increasing the threshold against nuclear use should be a priority for Japan.
Going forward, U.S. extended deterrence guarantees for Japan need not be as focused on nuclear deterrence. Conventional responses to conventional attacks are more credible and they greatly reduce the risk of nuclear retaliation against Japan. A shift in emphasis from nuclear to conventional extended deterrence is already underway as part of the “Extended Deterrence Dialog” initiated by the Obama administration in the wake of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. As both sides rethink the question of extended deterrence for Japan, if the U.S. experts counseling Japan on nuclear policy genuinely support a change to no first use, their Japanese counterparts will come to support it, too.
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