Column 1 The COVID-19 Crisis and the Nuclear Threat in the World
The COVID-19 that broke out in Wuhan in late 2019 quickly spread across the globe, causing a major threat to the entire world in 2020. It brought as well (1) criticism of the Chinese government’s delay in reporting the crisis, (2) a general decline in organizational credibility of the United Nations prompted by the dubious initial reaction of the World Health Organization, (3) an appeal for international cooperation in developing and disseminating vaccines, and (4) a marked difficulty among democracies in enforcing preventive measures.
While the popular concern about the immediate threat of the coronavirus pandemic tends to obscure the threat of nuclear weapons, the concern in reality intensified regarding the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control regime, the rapid expansion of Chinese nuclear and conventional forces, Iranian nuclear development, and the North Korea’s increasing nuclear warheads and missiles. It is clear from the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that once nuclear weapons are used, human fatalities and the collapse of medical services will far exceed any other catastrophe. With more than 14,000 nuclear weapons existing in the world today, the devastation will eclipse Hiroshima and Nagasaki to an incomparable degree. It has been pointed out that nuclear warfare even on a relatively small scale could cause a serious nuclear winter in the world, threatening the very existence of humankind.
It was this concern about the horrific humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons that ushered in the movement that led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017, which came into force on January 22, 2021. Unfortunately, there is no immediate prospect for nuclear weapons being abandoned, as none of the nine weapon possessors have joined the TPNW. However, as the treaty adherents increase and come to form a majority in the world, it will start to strengthen the norm that nuclear weapons are the kind of weapons of which manufacture, possession, and use cannot be allowed. Even among the NATO nations and other allies of the U.S.—which claim that, being dependent on extended nuclear deterrence, they cannot join the TPNW—there are voices emerging in Belgium, the Netherland, Spain, Canada, and Australia that they should join the TPNW while maintaining their alliances with the U.S. It is time for Japan, which suffered from the use of nuclear weapons and has been actively promoting global nuclear disarmament in the years since, to consider examining if it is truly impossible to join the TPNW. Indeed, the Japanese government has been advocating to work on bridging the gap between the pros and cons of the TPNW. There are voices in Japan that are calling for sending an observer to the first conference of the States Parties to the treaty.
As there is no immediate prospect that nuclear weapons will disappear, it would be prudent to do our best to reduce—if not eliminate entirely—the risk of nuclear weapons’ use. To this end, we must work on strengthening nuclear arms control, keeping lids on nuclear proliferation, strengthening measures to prevent accidental nuclear use, and lowering the salience of nuclear weapons in national security policies. Japan, even if it must rely on the U.S. nuclear deterrence for the time being, should actively engage itself in such efforts.
Nobuyasu Abe: Former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs and former Commissioner of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission