contributor perspectives

Jun 1, 2016 | 08:00 GMT

8 mins read

The Lesson of Hiroshima for Nuclear Weapons' Future

Board of Contributors
Philip Bobbitt
Board of Contributors
To think that nuclear weapons, or even war, might one day be abolished is somewhat naive.
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama went to Hiroshima to mark the occasion of the use of a nuclear weapon against a civilian population in wartime. He was right to do this. A greater triumph even than the military victories won over fascism in World War II has been the conversion of the fascist states of Germany and Japan to members of the alliance of market-based, human-rights-respecting democracies. A recognition of the suffering at our hands of the populations of those states that are now our allies is a noble and wise act.

But the president did not go to Hiroshima merely to make an empathetic gesture. He went to make an argument, reflecting a profound and well-thought-out commitment that has been the basis of much of the foreign policy of his administration. Because the argument was slightly smothered in his speechwriters' prose, it may be worthwhile to examine its elements.

At Hiroshima, the president was starkly reminded — and wished to remind us — of "humanity's core contradiction: [that] the very spark that marks us as a species… our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will… gives us the capacity for unmatched destruction." He went on to note:

"How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause … The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well."

"We must," the president said, "change our mindset about war itself."

No doubt some of the president's audience thought these sentiments were contrived; after all, the United States' nuclear stockpile has been reduced less during the Obama administration than during any other post-Cold War presidency. Some in the audience might've felt the president's position was contradictory; briefers to the press explained that the president's decision to visit Hiroshima was in part intended to reward the Japanese prime minister for his efforts to increase military cooperation between the United States and Japan, releasing Japan from its pacifism. And some of his listeners might have thought that the president was idealistic to a naive degree in light of North Korea's manic efforts to rapidly increase its nuclear weapons arsenal and perfect the ballistic missiles to deliver them to targets including the United States and Japan.

But these reactions don't really take the president's argument seriously. Nor do they engage with the widespread view of war that the president shares with most of his countrymen. This is the view that war is a socio-psychological pathology that, with the right cognitive therapies — the stories we tell ourselves that shape the way we understand events — healthy societies will abjure. That's why the president said we must "tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted," even though the events that led to Hiroshima can scarcely be said to have been the consequence of an American misunderstanding of the cruelty of war or the humanity of its victims.

Even the spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, when asked for a reaction to the Hiroshima address, issued a statement saying, "A world without conflict is a vision we should all share."

Should it be? War is a legal as well as a strategic event. It commonly occurs when one state resists the aggression of another state, for aggressors do not seek war but rather the fruits of threatening war. The easiest way to avoid conflict is to postpone it.

The Importance of Deterrence for Nonproliferation

I remember walking along the lanes of my hometown in Texas and seeing the crisp signs on the white-picketed lawns. The signs said, "Stop War — Get Out of Iraq." So we got out of Iraq, and for us the war stopped, for a while. It seems plain that it is the president's earnest desire to stop American warfare in Afghanistan, despite his campaign rhetoric in 2008 that this was the right war, the war that the United States must pursue to victory (in contrast to the mistaken war in Iraq). Despite this desire, however, the United States is increasing its military commitments in Afghanistan because "stopping" the war means losing it.

As with so much else in American foreign policy, the legacy of Vietnam still exacts its costs. If we had simply folded our tents in 1963, 1964 or even 1965 and abandoned the ally to whose defense we were committed by treaty, wouldn't that have stopped the war? And since we were going to lose it anyway, someday, wouldn't that have been the more humane course? Wouldn't the recognition of the common humanity shared by North and South Vietnamese, shared with Americans and our soldiers, have counseled the end of war rather than its perpetuation?

As a general matter, I'm skeptical about this view of warfare. My own view is that war is not a pathology that, with proper hygiene and treatment, can be wholly prevented. War is a natural condition of the State, a constitutional structure that was organized to be an effective instrument of violence on behalf of society. Unless the only moral value a society holds paramount is the refusal to inflict violence — even to prevent further violence — wars cannot be finally avoided.

War is a natural condition of the State, a constitutional structure that was organized to be an effective instrument of violence on behalf of society.

But that is the general matter — what about the specific? What about the idea that the world will be better off if we abolished nuclear weapons? Actually, Japan is an odd place to make this claim because its political and moral rehabilitation could never have been achieved without American nuclear weapons and the specific pledge to protect Japan with those weapons. Otherwise, Japan itself would have been forced to acquire a nuclear arsenal and its militaristic legacy would have returned with a vengeance.

We often neglect the role of nuclear deterrence in achieving the goals of nonproliferation. Though it sounds paradoxical, it was the deployment of American nuclear forces that achieved the truly great victories of nonproliferation with respect to Germany and Japan, two states that faced a mortal threat and had the wealth, technology and technocracy to deter that threat through the acquisition of nuclear weapons. That they did not is a matter of extended deterrence, a concept often and unfortunately neglected.

"Central deterrence" is a function of the threat to target a national homeland to protect the homeland of the threatening, deterring party. For example, the U.S. central deterrent consisted of the threat to attack the Soviet homeland to protect the American homeland from attack. The term reflects a relationship between the vital objectives whose very centrality to the State gives them the highest value to the deterring country and thus assures both the willingness to run the highest risk of retaliation or pre-emption and the will to inflict a level of harm commensurate with the necessity to protect central objectives. "Extended deterrence," by contrast, projects nuclear deterrence beyond the absolutely central into other geographical, non-homeland theaters. Extended deterrence was the objective of the policy according to which the United States promised to retaliate with nuclear weapons if the states of Western Europe or Japan were attacked. Extended deterrence is the single most effective instrument the United States has to prevent major-state proliferation because it permits states to develop their societies without entering the nuclear arms competition and yet remain safe from nuclear attack.

The elimination of nuclear weapons, by removing extended deterrence from the strategic calculations of states, is in fact the greatest step the society of states could take toward the militarization of its constituent members. What is really wanted is the denuclearization of regions, about which I've written before

In fact, we are entering a period in which the information revolution that has brought us GPS, smartphones, big data and so much else will render nuclear sites more vulnerable than they have ever been, one consequence of which will be that lowering the number of weapons will have the paradoxical effect of increasing the likelihood of their use. Either the vulnerability of small arsenals will tempt other states to launch pre-emptive strikes they would hitherto have regarded as reckless, or the owners of these arsenals will put their weapons on hair-trigger, launch-on-warning status to prevent pre-emption or disperse them in ways that make them vulnerable to capture by insurgents and terrorists.

The problem with the president's analysis isn't simply that it is out of sync with these developments. It is that he refuses to ask what weapons are for. Compellence or deterrence? What are wars for? Aggrandizement or resistance? And the reason the president does not make these inquiries is because he knows that the point of view of one society, like that of one person, is always relative to that person's, that society's self-centeredness. In World War II, the Japanese believed they were fighting against racist imperialism; perhaps they even saw themselves as resisters. One man's terrorist, so the cliche goes, is another man's freedom fighter. Thus the president sees the only way out of this conundrum to lie in the common humanity of all people, removing the point of view of a single person or state as the determinative factor in the characterization of relationships.

It's an argument we must take seriously and about which I will write more in future columns. For now, it is sufficient to say simply that we must approach such proposals with caution.

Philip Bobbitt is a leading constitutional theorist whose interests include international security and the history of military strategy. He currently serves on the faculties of Columbia Law School and the University of Texas, where he is the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Jurisprudence, and Distinguished Senior Lecturer, respectively. He has published eight books. His bestsellers include The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002) and Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (2008). His most recent book is The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2014).

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