Nuclear Forbearance and Strategic Culture: The Curious Case of Japanese Pragmatic Pacifism

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By Jason Poirier Lavoie

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In a hostile and anarchic world, states must be actively driven to seek and promote their security or risk being at the mercy of other states. This self-help mechanism is particularly acute in regions of high tension, where a rising power is challenging the order, or even potentially making a bid for hegemony. Perceived as one of the great equalizers, nuclear weapons are often acquired under these pretenses. Any state can effectively insure themselves against domination or coercion, by holding on to the nuclear deterrent. Despite the strategic benefit of nuclear arming, there are still states who have the extensive capability and resources to acquire nuclear weapons, but choose not to. These same states, even if faced with rising external threats, continue their policy of nuclear forbearance. If security is the state’s primary preoccupation, and external balancing is theoretically unreliable, then states should seek to autonomously secure themselves. Why then do states choose not to acquire nuclear weapons for the purposes of security? This question is highly relevant today as we are witnessing an erosion of the American nuclear umbrella and nonproliferation regime and a rise in the assertiveness of Russia and China on the global stage. If the non-proliferation regime is to remain effective, then we must explore
and reinforce the reasons why states continue to choose forbearance. This paper will find that the answer can be found in the strategic culture of certain nations in the form of norms and ideological reactions to the nuclear option, acting as an informal obstacle. The state then, as a consequence of the domestic preferences, signs on to formal international regimes that reflect the nature of the popular will. In this paper, I will argue that democratic states are subject to popular opinion with regards to the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons. If the people see the bomb as a sign of prestige, nationalist pride, and a provider of security, then barriers that would normally prevent an elite from pursing nuclear power can be dismantled. More often though, we find that there is a citizen aversion to nuclear power; a nuclear taboo. This serves as the ultimate barrier for elected officials in democracies. Even if faced with an external threat, leaders will resort to other methods of dispute resolution than to acquire the bomb, despite the fact that they have the financial and technological capability. To test this theory, I will use the case of Japan and its historical nuclear forbearance. This case is insightful since they meet most of the criteria of both theories of proliferation and non-proliferation. They face an increasingly assertive and aggressive China, they benefit from American nuclear extended deterrence, they are a global leader in nuclear power, and have the technological knowledge to acquire the weapon.