The Dangerous Naivety of ICAN
Image Credit: Facebook/ ICAN

The Dangerous Naivety of ICAN


Last week in Moscow, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton confirmed President Donald Trump’s earlier comments that the United States would withdraw from the 1986 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This followed the U.S. abandonment in May of the P5+1 Iranian nuclear deal and the stalling of the North Korean nuclear talks. Even before recent events, the state of global nuclear security was already far from robust. Indeed, in January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock forward to two minutes to midnight, a threshold previously reached only once before, in 1953, following the first U.S. and Soviet hydrogen weapons tests.

Given myriad negative developments, both state and nonstate actors are looking for ways to bring nonproliferation and disarmament back on track. As an umbrella state, with the United States as its sole ally, should Japan continue to support a measured, gradualist, and inclusive approach to disarmament, while remaining ostensibly non-nuclear under U.S. protection, or should it abandon this approach as the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) suggests? Should Japan sign the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which ICAN champions? And is this treaty a viable option for Japan?

The TPNW essentially commits a state to unilaterally renounce nuclear weapons, something Japan has already done through the 1971 “Three Principles” that declare it shall never possess or manufacture nuclear weapons, nor allow such weapons within its territory. Japan’s signing of the TPNW, while redundant, should on the surface, present no problem.

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The June 2018 legal analysis of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, however, asserts that although maintaining a security alliance with a nuclear power, such as the 1960 U.S.-Japan security treaty, is in theory permissible under the TPNW, the TPNW requires an umbrella state to publicly renounce its umbrella state status. In practice, legal issues aside, renunciation might well lead to the termination of such a security arrangement.

The July 7, 2017 tripartite press statement of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France condemned the TPNW as a treaty that “risks undermining the existing international security architecture which contributes to the maintenance of international peace and security,” affirming that all nations “share a common responsibility to protect and strengthen our collective security system in order to further promote international peace, stability, and security.”

From a realist perspective, the serious threats Japan faces, evidenced most recently by North Korea overflying missiles across Japanese territory, dictate that in the absence of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, Japan would have no options other than to become defenseless or develop its own independent nuclear weapons deterrent, something Japan does not wish to do and which the world certainly does not wish to see.

History shows that to contain the nuclear menace, the participation of the nuclear weapon states (NWS) is essential, and endeavors without their involvement futile. Ironically, ICAN, through the TPNW, is attempting just such a path.

Manifest to ICAN’s philosophy is the concept that nuclear weapons do not confer security upon a state. Unfortunately, this naïve belief is no more than a reworking of the peace movement thinking of the 1950s, which argued that nuclear weapons would disappear if only every party would behave reasonably and, moreover, that if nuclear weapon states disarmed, their security would be enhanced through the goodwill and reciprocity of other NWS following suit.

As an argument against such unilateralist dogma, North Korea clearly illustrates how nuclear weapons do confer security. The Kim regime not only survives, but has succeeded in forcing America to the negotiating table, extracting a huge concession through the U.S. cancellation of joint military exercises with South Korea. One can question the morality of nuclear weapons, but to deny their utility in terms of guaranteeing security and extracting tangible benefits from adversaries is simply foolish.

ICAN views nuclear weapons as merely a conceptual problem. Consequently, those who disagree with ICAN, including Japan, are subjected to its judgmental ire, threatened, and ostracized. Tim Wright, Asia-Pacific Director of ICAN, using the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims as political pawns, stated, “[Japan’s] failure [to sign the TPNW] is a betrayal of the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors).” In her first visits to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, following the award of ICAN’s 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the executive director of ICAN, Beatrice Fihn, asserted that Japan would become an “outlier” if it did not accede to the TPNW.

ICAN’s non-nuclear aspiration is already articulated in Article VI of the 1968 nonproliferation treaty (NPT), which commits NWS to disarm. While ICAN questions the NPT’s effectiveness, global weapon stockpiles have, in fact, fallen from a peak of about 65,000 to around 10,000 today. In terms of nonproliferation, only five nations have acquired a nuclear weapons capability since 1968 (including South Africa, which dismantled its six operational warheads in 1989). This contrasts positively with President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 prediction that the world would see as many as 25 nuclear powers by the 1970s.

A key danger ICAN presents is its divisive operational approach of stigmatizing TPNW nonsignatory states. This is contrary to the inclusive strategy of the NPT, which recognized nuclear weapons as a global problem that could only be addressed collectively. While ICAN claims the NPT and TPNW are not in conflict, they are fundamentally antithetic, with one promoting a unified approach and the other division.

ICAN appears to have little interest in other, more practical disarmament strategies, such as proposals to eliminate all land-based intercontinental-range ballistic missile systems. These most dangerous nuclear weapons must, by their very nature, be maintained on constant hair trigger alert, with all of the attendant risks this entails. ICAN, however, viewing all nuclear weapons as homogenous, has no interest in such gradualist strategies, even though they may be achievable and confer immediate security benefits. ICAN refuses to envision a “safer” nuclear world as an interim disarmament step.

It is time to recognize ICAN for what it is, a well-intentioned but simplistic and utopian force. Furthermore, we must similarly recognize the TPNW as a destabilizing and counterproductive initiative that undermines the NPT and ultimately makes the world a more dangerous place.

Japan, realistically, cannot sign the TPNW, any more so than other umbrella and non-nuclear NATO states. And Japan must not fall into ICAN’s stigmatization trap of being portrayed as a hawkish, nuclear weapons-loving state just because it has not signed ICAN’s treaty. In a world more complex and nuanced that ICAN would have us believe, Japan should continue to promote nonproliferation and denuclearization, no matter hard that may be, through proven, established mechanisms and diplomacy.

Yukari Easton is a researcher and an ACE-Nikaido Fellow at the East Asian Studies Center at University of Southern California whose research focus is upon international relations, diplomacy, and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

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