Debunking the Nuclear Deterrence Myth


Nuclear Abolition News | IPS
By Kanya D'Almeida

UNITED NATIONS (IPS) - When the horrors of the Cold War began to wane in the late 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev met in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik to discuss the "complete abolition of nuclear weapons". Over two decades later, global political leaders continue to assemble enormous nuclear arsenals. [P] ARABIC | GERMAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDFTURKISH

According to 2010 statistics taken from the United Nations NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, nine states currently own - or possess the means to develop and deploy - nuclear weapons. Of these countries, the combined arsenals of the U.S. and Russia account for 95 percent of the weapons.

For years, particularly in the public discourse of U.S. foreign policy, the disarmament debate has been dominated by the Deterrence Theory, which suggests that potential aggressors to a state are deterred by the mere threat of nuclear warfare.

At a panel discussion this week hosted by the NGO Committee on Disarmament, legal experts John Burroughs and Ward Wilson sought to expose the fallacy of this theory and redirect the dialogue on disarmament into more constructive channels.

Wilson, a senior fellow at the Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies (CNS), stressed that the international community needs to undergo a "paradigm shift, a radical change in our approach to disarmament, akin to Copernicus's revolution in understanding the very world we live in."

For years many countries, particularly the U.S., have considered the deterrence theory to be "dangerous, possibly immoral, but certainly necessary", he said.

Yet, according to Wilson's research, the annals of history are filled with evidence that neither the use nor the threat of nuclear weapons have deterred war, induced surrender, or guaranteed victory to any side.

Perhaps the most widely cited example of the potency of nuclear weapons has been Japan's surrender, following President Truman's order to drop Little Boy on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

For years, the U.S. has touted this tragedy as a nuclear success story, using it as a trope with which to prop up, and justify, subsequent nuclear development, Wilson said.

He debunked this idea by calling attention to several obscured facts that never made it into the mainstream, such as the fact that Hiroshima was only one of 68 Japanese cities that had already been mercilessly fire-bombed for months on end.

The number of deaths in Hiroshima caused by the bombing bring its rank to just ninth or tentn on the scale of atrocities in Japan at the time - why, then, did the Japanese only surrender after Little Boy?

The answer, according to Wilson, is a simple matter of myth- making. Many historians, legal experts, and scholars now believe that in reality, Japan only surrendered following the Soviet invasion, prior to the explosion of Fat Man in Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

There are countless legal implications to the debunking of this myth, not least of which are clear violations of international humanitarian law.

John Burroughs, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP), recently co-authored a statement entitled "Ending U.S. Reliance on Nuclear Weapons and Achieving their Global Elimination: Wise Policy and Required by Law", which lays out in detail the illegality of possessing nuclear weapons, for deterrence or otherwise.

"In this environment," write the authors, "the substantial U.S. nuclear arsenal numbering thousands of weapons does not serve U.S. security interests. Nuclear weapons have themselves become the main security threat the United States faces."

The article goes on to contextualise the law of war and of armed conflict as agreed upon in the Hague and Geneva Conventions, as well as in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice.

According to Burroughs, the "fact that the use of nuclear weapons would be unlawful under the law of armed conflict necessarily means that any specific U.S. threat to use those weapons would be unlawful, and strongly suggests that the policy of deterrence is also unlawful. Why would a country possess nuclear weapons if there was not readiness to use them in certain circumstances?" "We are now faced with a sad reliance on the threat of annihilation as a permanent condition. This isn't the kind of world that we should want to live in," Burroughs told IPS. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues, unabashed, to strengthen its formidable nuclear arsenal while simultaneously turning the spotlight of international condemnation onto countries like Iran, North Korea and Syria.

"There is no current obvious way in the international arena to go beyond the court's 1996 advisory opinion to challenge states' reliance on nuclear weapons as 'threats', notably given that the Security Council is run by the nuclear-armed Permanent Five," Burroughs told IPS.

"However, Mexico is now proposing that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court be amended to specifically criminalise the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons," he added.

"It is conceivable that in the near term states parties would adopt this amendment. Adding nuclear weapons to the list of prohibited weapons already in the Rome Statute (poisons and poisonous gases, expanding bullets) would help entrench the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons," he said.

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