Obama's Hiroshima Visit Can't Undo the Past. But It Can Change the Future
May 19, 2016 Katrina vanden Heuvel / The Washington Post Op-ed & Paul Meyer for Open Canada & Ray Acheson /Reaching Critical Will
As the White House announced that President Obama would visit Hiroshima, Japan, it immediately pledged that the he would not apologize for the US dropping atomic bombs on that city and Nagasaki during World War II. But the real reckoning in Hiroshima should be about the future of nuclear weapons. Unless the president acts and speaks forthrightly, his visit may mark the ashes of his own promise to move toward a world freed of the threat of nuclear annihilation.
WASHINGTON (May 17, 2016) -- As the White House announced that President Obama would visit Hiroshima, Japan, it immediately pledged that the he would not apologize for the United States dropping atomic bombs on that city and Nagasaki during World War II.
But the real reckoning in Hiroshima should be about the future of nuclear weapons, not the past. Unless the president acts and speaks forthrightly, his visit may mark not only the ashes of Hiroshima but the ashes of his own promise to move toward a world freed of the threat of nuclear annihilation.
In his first major foreign policy address, delivered in Prague in April 2009, President Obama trumpeted "America's commitment" to a "world without nuclear weapons." To accept their continued existence, he warned, was to accede to their eventual use.
But the use of even a single nuclear bomb was too horrible to contemplate. Nuclear disarmament, he acknowledged, would not come easily or quickly. It would take "patience and persistence," but the goal of complete disarmament should drive strategy and concrete actions.
Some important steps were taken after that speech. Substantial reductions in nuclear weapons were negotiated with Russia and remain on track. The role of nuclear weapons was reduced in US national security strategy. The successful Iran negotiations curbed the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons development and revived momentum for the nonproliferation movement.
World leaders focused new attention on the threat of nuclear terrorism. The president hosted summits focused on securing loose nuclear-weapons-grade materials across the world.
But 15,000 nuclear weapons remain in the world. The United States and Russia keep thousands on hair-trigger alert. The Senate blocked ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Objections from Pakistan have frustrated progress on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.
The administration's Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy limits the use of nuclear weapons to "extreme circumstances" but does not rule out first use of them. The administration has committed to creating a new generation of nuclear warheads and the systems that deliver them, estimated to cost $1 trillion over the next three decades.
NATO's anti-ballistic-missile system just went live in Romania, despite Russian objections that it violates the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russia is responding to the US buildup on its borders by threatening to move nuclear-armed Iskander missiles to the Polish border. The United States denounces that as a violation of the INF Treaty also.
Former defense secretary William Perry warns flatly that "the danger of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than during the Cold War." Perry points to not only the terrorist groups such as the Islamic State that would buy or steal nuclear-weapons-grade materials, but also the rising tensions between Russia and the United States, both armed with massive arsenals, with portions on hair-trigger alert.
On the eve of his fourth and last Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, President Obama once more reasserted that nuclear security will not be possible so long as nuclear weapons exist. "As the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons," he argued in a Post op-ed, "the United States has a moral obligation to continue to lead the way in eliminating them."
The president calls for "patience and persistence." But what we've witnessed is the power of old ideas, large bureaucracies, entrenched interests and renewed enmities to strangle even modest efforts to move in a new direction.
To reverse course, some clear and bold steps are needed. US nuclear weapons should be taken off hair-trigger alert. Nuclear weapons should be limited only to deterrence, not to be used in any other circumstance. Building a new generation of nuclear weapons should be shelved in favor of recommitting to efforts to pursue a course to rid the world of these weapons.
The United States, Perry argues, could sensibly get rid of its ground-based missiles and warheads, which are both vulnerable and redundant. The president should act to engage Russia and seek to reduce the growing tensions that threaten to lead to a dangerous new buildup.
The president might use the trip to Hiroshima to summon the United Nations to prepare a global summit to define the path to a verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons.
The president's trip to Hiroshima cannot undo the past. What it can do is mark a renewed commitment to a future without nuclear weapons. But for the words to have any meaning, they have to be accompanied by deeds. The president still has time to act.
Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel's archive or follow her on Twitter.
Read more on this subject: * Barack Obama: How we can make our vision of a world without nuclear weapons a reality
* The Post's View: Why Mr. Obama should visit Hiroshima
* Paul Waldman: Why Republicans aren't more outraged over Obama's trip to Hiroshima
* Katrina vanden Heuvel: The new nuclear arms race
* John O. Pastore and Peter Zheutlin: Remove the hair trigger
After some extended internal debate, the White House has announced that US President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima on May 27 after a G7 summit meeting in Japan, making him the first sitting American president to pay such a visit to the city synonymous with atomic devastation.
Although his Secretary of State John Kerry had paid such a visit in April and several US ambassadors had previously attended commemorative ceremonies in Hiroshima, the political significance of a presidential visit would be of an entirely different order of magnitude.
Hence the concern of his advisors as to how such a visit would play in the American political scene and their haste to proclaim that Obama will not offer any 'apology' for the actions of his predecessor some 70 years ago.
What beyond the symbolism of a presidential presence at the atomic bomb dome of the Hiroshima Peace Park Memorial can one expect from Obama's visit? Will it be an opportunity for the president to deliver a speech that can serve as a 'bookend' for his celebrated Prague speech of April 2009, when he committed the US to help bring about a world without nuclear weapons?
As the founding member of this club and as a country that, as the US president acknowledged in his Prague speech, bears a special moral responsibility as the only country to have used a nuclear weapon against another, expectations will be high for what Obama says during his Hiroshima visit.
Let's hope that his remarks will not be simply another exercise in soaring rhetoric devoid of tangible deeds on behalf of a world without nuclear weapons.
One modest action in the right direction would be to instruct US diplomats to participate in the August meeting of the Open Ended Working Group when it finalizes its report to the world's assembly. (Read more online.)
President Obama will become the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, Japan on May 27. The White House says he will not apologize for the dropping of an atomic bomb on the city in World War II. (Reuters) The Windup Ban Chronicle Ray Acheson /Reaching Critical Will
A ban on nuclear weapons is coming. Already, before the Chair presents his final report and recommendations to the General Assembly, that message has been received loud and clear.
* 127 states have signed the Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. These states submitted a proposal to the OEWG calling for the urgent pursuit a new treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
* The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States has submitted a proposal calling for the start of "a multilateral diplomatic process for the negotiation of a legally binding instrument for the prohibition of nuclear weapons".
* Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, and Zambia sponsored a proposal to convene a negotiating conference in 2017 for a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. Austria, Jamaica, and others indicated their endorsement of this recommendation.
* Five Pacific Island states -- Fiji, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, and Tuvalu -- submitted a proposal setting out possible elements to be included in a treaty banning nuclear weapons.
Now, the question for the Chair is whether or not he will reflect this overwhelming support and clear recommendations for the prohibition of nuclear weapons in his report to the General Assembly.
The question for the nuclear-supportive states -- who have articulated their support for nuclear weapons more strongly than ever before -- is whether they will try to block a document with a clear recommendation from the majority of states. The question for those states wanting to pursue a prohibition is if they will accept anything less than what they have passionately and rightfully demanded at this meeting.
The debate at this session of the open-ended working group crystallised two positions on nuclear weapons: they are good for security, or they are bad for security.
Those states arguing that nuclear weapons are good for security seem to hold two notions of security in their mind -- that of the state, and that of human beings, the environment, and global justice.
Those emphatically rejecting any perceived security benefit of nuclear weapons have a more holistic view of security. For these, as Jamaica articulated, disarmament is about people. All people.
"We appreciate that major a factor contributing to resistance to change is often the fear of the unknown and apprehension to depart from a known course of action, even in the face of failure," noted Shorna-Kay Richards of Jamaica in her closing remarks.
But those calling for prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons also have fears, she explained: "fear for our security; fear for our survival. Indeed, we fear that the 'grand bargain' which enabled the coming into the being of the NPT, which is not being implemented in both letter and spirit as well as the backtracking on commitments freely undertaken, keeps us on the brink of massive nuclear violence and threatens the very survival of humanity."
Fear, however, has brought courage. The demand for prohibition in the face of resistance from nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-supportive allies is a bold, historic move. It opens up space for progress across so many areas and can have a significant impact on the dynamics of international relations, peace, and security.
Ms. Richards quoted Maritza Chan of Costa Rica, who in 2015 said "democracy has come to nuclear disarmament." Indeed, we have seen greater participation by developing nations in nuclear weapons discussion through the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.
We have seen parliaments in nuclear-supportive states such as the Netherlands and Norway demanding progressive positions on prohibition from their governments.
We have seen an overwhelming chorus of voices on the final day of the open-ended working group calling for a fair report that reflects the views of the majority and does not allow the tyranny of the minority to limit collective progress.
The opportunity for change and progress is upon us. States now have a choice: they can shrink from the difficulties that any forward movement requires, especially forward movement that a powerful minority opposes.
Or, they can seize this opportunity boldly and move ahead to establish a conference to negotiate a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons What we know is that there is a concrete proposal for negotiation a nuclear weapon ban treaty on the table.
We know that it is supported by the majority of states and civil society. It may not be an easy path ahead, but that must not stop us. A ban is in reach, now.
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