Commitment to Nuclear Non-proliferation: New Directions under the Obama Administration (in Japan)

Speech of John Isaacs
Executive Director, Council for a Livable World &
Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
December 2009

I am delighted to be invited to Japan, the only country to suffer directly nuclear destruction, to discuss nuclear weapons policy.

I am also eager to learn first hand about the momentous political change in this country after the recent elections. Transition from one party that has long dominated is never easy or smooth. But to its credit, Japan has accomplished this change more easily than most other countries.

It is an exciting and historic time for both our countries, two close allies, with new governments, that face new historic opportunities together.

When in my twenties, I had the great privilege of visiting this vibrant country.

At that time, I did climb Mount Fuji.

I understand that there is Japanese saying that "one who never climbs Mount Fuji is a fool, and one who climbs twice is twice the fool."

I am happy to say that I have no interest in climbing the mountain again.

My greatest memory of that day, aside from the challenging climb, is sleeping in one of the mountain huts most of the way up, waking up in the pre-dawn hours to climb the remaining distance to watch sunrise from the top.

Only to find myself in a steady stream of people who had similar ideas.

Only to find a cloudy and overcast morning that prevented all good views.

Ah well, the photos that other people took on clear days were great.

During that visit in 1970, I was also able to visit Hiroshima to witness for myself the site of the dropping of the first atomic bomb.

I learned something first hand about the great devastation wrought by the most destructive weapons ever developed by mankind.

I learned that some of the most brilliant minds in the world can make life saving discoveries as well as more efficient killing machines.

Since that time, I have devoted most of my life to end the terrible nuclear arms race that raged at the time between the United States and the Soviet Union and to avoid nuclear war.

For it is important to remember that while the world is concerned over the impact of global warming, starvation in too many countries, worldwide pandemics and the threats of terrorists or biological weapons attacks, only nuclear weapons have the capacity to obliterate entire cities with one bomb and entire countries in massive nuclear exchanges and perhaps destroy most life on this earth.

To repeat, only nuclear weapons have the capacity to obliterate entire cities with one bomb and entire countries in massive nuclear exchanges and perhaps destroy most life on this earth.

A New Beginning in Washington, D.C.

But we have entered an era of great change on nuclear weapons issues.

The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has provided an opportunity for unprecedented progress on nuclear weapons issues.

However you feel about the role of the United States in initiating the atomic age, whatever you think of the long American and Soviet arms race, it is my firm belief that the United States must provide leadership to end the nuclear arms race – and move towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

But other countries must play an important role as well – and particularly Japan. More on that later in this talk.

On April 5 of this year, President Barack Obama delivered one of the most significant speeches of the nuclear age.

At that time, he said:

“I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.â€�

He pointed out:

“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.�

President Obama’s forthrightness about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need to take immediate action to avoid a nuclear holocaust constitute the most significant remarks by an American President on nuclear disarmament in the last half century.

And he followed two American Presidents who were disappointments on nuclear issues:

  • President Bill Clinton, who failed to reduce significantly nuclear weapons despite the historic opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union.
  • President George W. Bush, who promoted a policy that made nuclear weapons a central tenet of American national security and acted not only to preserve thousands of nuclear warheads, but would have built a new generation of nuclear weapons. Fortunately, Congress denied funding for this.
  • The problem that President Obama is addressing is serious.

    Almost 65 years after the dawn of the atomic age and despite many international negotiations to deal with the problem of nuclear weapons, there remain an estimated 23,000 nuclear weapons held by nine nuclear powers.

    To repeat, 23,000, most much larger than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Over ninety percent of those weapons are in the hands of the United States and Russia.

    Plus, there is sufficient nuclear material across the globe that could be fashioned into hundreds of thousands of additional nuclear weapons.

    These weapons present the risk of catastrophic accidents, errors or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

    We have been fortunate not to have had nuclear bombs explode in populated areas since 1945, but this luck may not last forever.

    North Korea has twice tested nuclear bombs in this neighborhood and Iran threatens to develop their own in the volatile Middle East.

    The risk is not so much that these countries are likely to launch nuclear attacks on their neighbors but rather to launch a nuclear arms race in Asia or the Middle East.

    As former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz once said, “Proliferation begets proliferation.�

    These problems accentuate the challenges to the global nuclear non-proliferation regime enshrined in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty signed in 1968 to which 189 countries now belong.

    This regime threatens to unravel:

    1. Because the nuclear weapons states such as the United States and Russia have taken insufficient steps to fulfill their part of the deal of bringing into force a treaty barring nuclear weapons testing and eliminating nuclear weapons, and

    2. Because the world community has been unable to stem the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran – or the nuclear weapons programs of Israel, India and Pakistan.

    President Obama understands these challenges.

    In his April Prague speech, President Obama pointed out:

    Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.

    President Obama not only believes in the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, he has also surrounded himself at the highest levels with experts on nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear weapons policy.

    Vice-President Biden, as former Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, developed an in-depth knowledge on these issues over decades. And Gary Samore at the National Security Council, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman and the President’s Science Adviser John Holdren also have a deep personal commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.

    President Obama has also sought international support for his nuclear agenda.

    As I indicated before, this campaign cannot only be a United States effort.

    On September 24, he secured unanimous United Nations Security Council approval for the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons.

    That meant the agenda won the support of Japan, China, Russia and 12 other countries.

    Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama

    Soon afterwards came the unexpected awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, an award given in part due to “Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.�

    This vision expressed at President Obama’s Prague speech and at the United Nations is vitally important.

    However, as all students of politics and government understand, there has to be follow-through to realize this vision.

    At the time of the United Nations vote on September 24, Prime Minister Hatoyama made an important point: “The period up to the NPT Review Conference in May next year will be critically important in testing the ability of the international community to take pragmatic steps forward towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.�

    Indeed, this next six months will be an important period to determine if the President’s vision is to be realized.

    Interim steps to realize the President’s nuclear weapons vision

    To his credit, the President has proposed a series of steps to implement his vision and move in the direction of a world free of nuclear weapons.

    1. New nuclear reductions treaty

    The United States and Russia have been engaged since earlier this year in negotiating a new treaty to reduce nuclear warheads and stockpiles – and then to move on to further reductions between these two countries and the other nuclear powers.

    At this point, the United States and Russia are close to concluded that agreement that should bring about a reduction of deployed nuclear weapons of about 30%.

    I had hoped it would be concluded by December 5, when the last major nuclear reduction treaty expires, but it looks as though negotiations will be completed by the end of this month.

    There is widespread support for this treaty in the United States, and I anticipate it will be approved and enter into force in the spring of 2010.

    Procedures in the United States Constitution require 67 Senators out of the 100 to approve that treaty, but I expect that treaty to be approved despite some scattered opposition among a few hardliners.

    This is a first step. President Obama has pledged to engage in negotiations towards deeper cuts in the nuclear arsenal.

    2. Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

    The Obama Administration has vowed to seek a new United States Senate vote on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – a treaty defeated by the United States Senate in 1999.

    The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions, on the surface of the earth, underground, in the atmosphere and underwater.

    The treaty, once it enters into force, will make it more difficult for countries to build nuclear weapons, and those that have them to develop new or more advanced weapons.

    182 countries have signed the treaty and 150 have ratified.

    However, nine major countries which must ratify the treaty have not, including the United States, China, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Israel, Egypt, Indonesia and Iran.

    It is expected that if the United States ratifies, China, Indonesia and Israel will follow suit, leaving only five states that need to ratify.

    There is a chance that there will be a new vote in the United States Senate around mid-2010, but there continues to be opposition within the major U.S. minority party, the Republican Party, and it is not clear what will happen.

    Currently, the Administration needs seven Republican votes to get consent to ratification.

    It will take skillful work by the Obama administration to win approval of the test ban treaty – and then for the treaty to enter into force after approval by the other hold out countries.

    3. Fissile materials treaty

    The President pledged to reinvigorate international negotiations to end the production of fissile materials for military purposes that can be used in nuclear weapons.

    In May, the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, based in Geneva, Switzerland, broke an 11-year impasse by approving a program for action.

    The agreement appeared to open the door to the negotiation of a treaty.

    However, that consensus among the 65 countries in the Conference on Disarmament has broken down, particularly hindered by Pakistani objections.

    The treaty’s fate now must wait a new effort next year.

    4. Securing all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.

    President Obama pledged a major campaign to secure all vulnerable nuclear material across the globe within four years.

    At the end of the Cold War, it became apparent that many nuclear weapons and supplies of nuclear materials have been left in insufficiently guarded facilities subject to theft or sale.

    This was particularly true in the former Soviet Union, but in many other countries as well.

    With the threat of terrorism spreading to so many countries, it is important to choke off supplies of weapons or materials that could be fashioned into weapons.

    Here too, the follow-through has been slow. We are hopeful that in the next United States federal budget presented in February 2010, President Obama will launch a vigorous effort to fulfill that pledge.

    Japan plays a unique role in that it is the only non-nuclear weapon state that extracts materials from nuclear waste that can be used in nuclear weapons. Now other non-nuclear weapon states, including South Korea, have expressed interest in acquiring sensitive nuclear technology for their nuclear power programs.

    The acquisition of this dual-use technology and the potential accumulation of weapons-usable plutonium may lead to a more dangerous world. Japan has a unique role to play in determining how to shape the expansion of nuclear energy globally and related sensitive nuclear technology.


    In short, the President has presented ambitious goals, but we will not know for a while how successful he will be in reaching these goals.

    Other important milestone events in 2010

    There will also be important milestone events in 2010.

    Nuclear Posture Review

    First, is the completion of a complete review of United States nuclear weapons policy, usually called the Nuclear Posture Review, launched by the Obama Administration.

    That review has been underway for many months, and should be concluded by early 2010.

    What our community would like to see is for the policy review to significantly reduce the role of nuclear weapons in United States security policy and lay the groundwork for a world free of nuclear weapons.

    We certainly expect the review to produce a more forward leaning policy on nuclear weapons than issued by the past two presidential administrations, but we are not sure how far it will go.

    We are at the same time wary that the lower level officials that are preparing the review do not share President Obama’s nuclear weapons vision. Bureaucratic processes usually tend to favor the status quo.

    April 2010 Global Nuclear Security Summit

    A Global Nuclear Security Summit will be held in Washington, D.C will hopefully lead to an accelerated program for securing, and eliminating where possible, unsecured nuclear materials and weapons across the globe.

    The meeting would give governments a forum to consider cooperative efforts to track and protect weapon-usable materials and to safeguard against nuclear terrorism.

    The summit is expected to include leaders from 25 to 30 nations.

    American leadership hopes that the gathering launches an international discussion on the nature of the threat of nuclear terrorism and develops steps and commitments that can be taken together to secure vulnerable materials, combat nuclear smuggling and deter, detect, and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism.

    May 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

    As I already mentioned, Prime Minister Hatoyama discussed the steps previously discussed as an important prelude to this conference to determine if the international community can indeed take pragmatic steps ¬towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

    Many of these steps, including further reductions in the number of nuclear weapons and the test ban treaty were key promises made to non-nuclear weapon states in 1995 (and reiterated in 2000) in exchange for their support for indefinitely extending the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

    An international conference will be held in New York City in May 2010 to review the status of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty.

    The major goals of that conference are to strengthen the treaty and increase barriers to proliferation.

    As President Obama stated in his April speech in Prague:

    The basic bargain is sound: Countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. To strengthen the treaty, we should embrace several principles. We need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause.

    However, there is a real fear that the Non Proliferation Treaty will unravel.

    As I pointed out earlier, the nuclear weapon states such as the United States and Russia have taken insufficient steps to fulfill their part of the bargain of eliminating nuclear weapons and the world community has been unable to stem the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

    Though expectations are not very high in terms of substantial forward progress at the Review Conference, there may be momentum toward agreeing to a plan of action for the next few years for re-invigorating the Treaty.

    The problem of North Korea

    Clearly one of the barriers to progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons is the distressing problem of North Korea. That country has now conducted two nuclear explosive tests and launched ballistic missiles over Japan.

    Clearly Japan has good reason to be concerned by developments in that country.

    Clearly Japan has to be apprehensive over a nuclear threat so close to its shores.

    I wish that I had a good or easy solution to the problem.

    But I don’t.

    I believe the world community has to be patient with bilateral United States – North Korea and multi-lateral six party talks that also include Japan, Russia, China and South Korea.

    Negotiations are likely to continue to be frustratingly slow and filled with setbacks.

    However, such talks and effective engagement are the only viable option to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons – which should remain the essential goal.

    To paraphrase what Great Britain’s Winston Churchill once said about democracy, negotiation is not a great option but all the other options are worse.

    Japan’s role in the nuclear weapons agenda

    The world is grateful for strong support from the Japanese public for progress on nuclear disarmament. The Japanese Government has long been a quiet partner in the quest for elimination of nuclear weapons.

    Its influence has most been felt in resolutions adopted by the United Nations.

    My hope is that Japan takes on a more public and vigorous role in the efforts launched by President Obama.

    In this regard, I welcome the new Japanese director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and that a Japanese official co-chairs the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

    And it was a positive development to see the joint statement by Japan and the United States on November 13 reaffirming their "commitment to achieve the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

    A vigorous U.S.-Japanese partnership would be helpful in convincing the rest of the world to accept the President’s agenda – and perhaps even influence the United States Senate to vote for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

    To reinforce this partnership, it was useful recently that the two countries reaffirmed the U.S.-Japanese security alliance and the U.S. pledge to protect Japan against any attack.

    When speaking in Japan on November 14, President Obama said: "So long as these [nuclear] weapons exist, the United States will maintain a strong and effective nuclear deterrent that guarantees the defense of our allies — including South Korea and Japan."

    Public opinion polls earlier this year affirmed popular support for the alliance: over 75% of Japanese and Americans continue to value the alliance between the two countries.

    And I hope that the new Japanese government reaffirms the three non-nuclear principles first formalized in 1967 that Japan will not possess, not produce and not permit the entry of nuclear weapons into the country.

    It is extremely encouraging that the new government has supported a no-first use policy in its platform — a significant change in Japan’s policy. A clear signal that Japan understands that first use of nuclear weapons is not necessary to extend deterrence protection to Japan would be a significant step forward to support Obama’s nuclear weapons vision.

    However, there is one area of Japanese nuclear policy that remains a concern.

    Increasingly, opponents of nuclear weapons reductions in the United States claim that Japanese officials in Washington, DC talk quietly and behind the scenes about the need for the U.S. to maintain a large nuclear weapons force and not to rule out the use in nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack on Japan.

    A recent nuclear weapons study in the United States suggested that some in Japan obect to the U.S. Navy’s plan to retire the nuclear-armed Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile, also called TLAM/N.

    Indeed, a recent Kyodo News article reports that Japanese officials aggressively lobbied those preparing that study to endorse keeping these weapons in service despite Navy plans to retire them.

    Such behind-the-scenes maneuvering undermines the very objectives to which Japanese and American leadership profess support.

    It defies common sense to argue that one particular nuclear weapon is required to defend Japan when the United States deploys over 4,000 nuclear weapons and has many more in reserve or awaiting destruction.

    One of the major goals for the nuclear policy review that I outlined earlier is to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons to U.S. security and military doctrine.

    We are hopeful that the Obama Administration will follow the advice of former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who suggested earlier this year that the U.S. declare that the "sole purpose" of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter – and if necessary respond to — the use of nuclear weapons by others.1

    Bolstering the U.S. nuclear umbrella are the powerful American and Japanese conventional armed forces that remain a reliable deterrent to any aggression by North Korea or China.

    But quiet Japanese objections to a change in American policy – perhaps contrary to official Japanese policy – is distinctly unhelpful.

    The implicit suggestion is that Japan might lose confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella and be forced to build its own nuclear weapons.

    I understand the Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada advocates the new policy of limiting the use of nuclear weapons only to respond to a nuclear attack.

    I certainly hope that this becomes the official and unofficial policy of the Government of Japan. This would be a significant contribution to enhancing US and international security.


    I thank you very much for this invitation to speak to you about these critical and timely issues.

    The subject that I just discussed is a topic in many capitals around the world.

    While there is a new vision put forward by a new American President, there is an important and historic role to play for so many other countries, and particularly Japan.

    For if we do not see substantial progress in the next six months, that vision will be in jeopardy.

    I will be happy to accept your questions.


    1. Oct. 21, 2009 in Tokyo at "The Japan-US Partnership Toward A World Free of Nuclear Weapons" as quoted by Masa Takubo in Arms Control Today, Nov. 2009