Obama goes to Hiroshima, but stiffs nuclear talks in Geneva

The upcoming visit may be a first, but if Obama is serious about disarmament, he will not shut the door on discussions with non-nuclear weapon states.

By: /
May 17, 2016
japan hiroshima
The Japanese national flag flutters at half-mast in the foreground of the atomic bomb dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, in Japan August 6, 1998. REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama/File Photo

After some extended internal debate, the White House has announced that U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. to help bring about a world without nuclear weapons?

Leaving aside the atomic bombing of 1945, some would say that a presidential apology is in order for Obama’s failure to deliver on many of the promises he outlined in that speech. A speech, let us recall, that contributed to the decision to award Obama the Nobel Peace Prize later that same year.

Far from advancing his nuclear disarmament-related goals — including the ratification of the Comprehensive (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty, initiation of a fissile material production ban, further reduction of strategic nuclear forces, and diminishing the saliency of nuclear weapons in national strategy — Obama has committed to an unprecedented modernization of these nuclear forces that is estimated to cost more than USD$350 billion over the next decade.

He has also endorsed the perverse Cold War practice of maintaining nuclear-tipped inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on high alert status with all the attendant risks that such a posture represents. His singular accomplishment in hosting the first and last of a series of four Nuclear Security Summits was an underwhelming lowest common denominator process that excluded from discussion the very subjects that he had raised in the Prague speech as requiring attention that would “transcend Cold War thinking.”

With all this evidence of a yawning gap between aims and achievements on the nuclear agenda, one would think that the Obama administration would be eager to find opportunities to enhance relations with non-nuclear weapon states and repair its image as an active supporter of nuclear disarmament.  An opportunity to do so is currently present in Geneva in the form of the Open Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations.

This group was constituted last fall by a widely supported resolution of the UN General Assembly and has just completed two weeks of deliberations after an earlier week of discussions in February. After a few more days of meetings in August the group is slated to submit a report to the 71th session of the General Assembly this fall.

As its title suggests, the objective of the group is to try and identify effective measures to make progress on nuclear disarmament issues that have been neglected for years in multilateral forums. Instead of engaging with the non-nuclear weapon states, the U.S. and the other nuclear-armed states have chosen to boycott these meetings. Given that the Open Ended Working Group was a duly constituted multilateral body operating under UN General Assembly auspices, this rejection to participate is insulting to the others attending (which include Canada, Japan and the rest of the U.S.’s allies) and to the principles of multilateral cooperation in general.  Given the support freely offered by the non-nuclear weapon states to so many of the international security initiatives championed by the U.S., it is grating to see the cavalier fashion in which the U.S. and its nuclear weapon posse is stiffing the Geneva process.  One can imagine the consternation in Washington if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or the other invited leaders of the non-nuclear weapon states had said they would not attend Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit this March until such time as the U.S. agreed to participate in the Geneva proceedings.

Perhaps it is time for non-nuclear weapon states to become more insistent that their priority agenda gets some respect from the members of the nuclear weapons club.

As the founding member of this club and as a country that, as the U.S. 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 U.S. diplomats to participate in the August meeting of the Open Ended Working Group when it finalizes its report to the world’ s assembly.