Words Are Not Enough in Hiroshima

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By Michael Krepon: 

President Barack Obama will deliver reflective thoughts in Hiroshima Friday, May 27, but this occasion deserves more than words; it also requires actions that do justice to the cause of reducing nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons that Hiroshima represents.

The president’s appearance is rich with irony. His presidency coincided with a period of unprecedented partisan rancor on Capitol Hill. He has had to work alongside Vladimir Putin, who brandishes the bomb while disregarding neighboring borders. Without bipartisan support and help from the Kremlin, no president can achieve far-reaching gains in reducing nuclear weapons. Obama delivered a speech in Prague at the outset of his presidency in which he sought a world without nuclear weapons. He received the Nobel Peace Prize, in large measure for this commitment. He leaves office bequeathing to his successor what could be a trillion dollar plan to modernize all three legs of the U.S. nuclear Triad – missiles, submarines, and bombers.

Obama has accomplishments to his credit. He succeeded in negotiating a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, signed in 2010, that provides for modest reductions, but which leaves the Pentagon, as his administration has acknowledged, with strategic forces in excess of U.S. needs. Deeper cuts won’t be taken unilaterally so as not to send the wrong signal to Putin.

Obama convened a series of Nuclear Security Summits focusing attention on poorly safeguarded fissile material in civilian custody that could be used for nuclear weapons. The progress made on this front, however, could be offset by growing arsenals and stockpiles of fissile material dedicated to making bombs in Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea. Even Japan’s stocks of plutonium could rise greatly under current plans.

Most importantly, Obama has been able to negotiate a ten-plus year cessation of critical activities necessary for Iran to make nuclear weapons and the removal of over 90 percent of Tehran’s bomb-making material. In doing so, he advanced U.S. and Israeli national security while sparing U.S. service men and women yet another open-ended war in the Middle East.

These accomplishments are meaningful and hard won, but further progress has been blocked by the sharp downturn in relations with Russia and implacable opposition by Republicans on Capitol Hill. The Republican Party, which once negotiated historic arms control and reduction treaties, now treats them as if they were Obamacare.

So what can the President do or promise at Hiroshima that will give his visit lasting meaning? Obama’s visit to Hiroshima is an important gesture, but gestures are more meaningful when backed up by commitment — and commitment rings hollow when not backed up by action. The President’s words at Hiroshima will soon be forgotten. Or worse, they will be remembered more as a rebuke, like the passage of his Prague speech in which he promised to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Because Hiroshima is forever linked to the mushroom cloud and the message of “Never Again,” the most appropriate commitment Obama could make there would be to help his successor secure the U.S. Senate’s consent to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that bans nuclear testing for all time, everywhere.

The United States has championed this Treaty for four decades, beginning when atmospheric tests threatened global public health. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was finally signed twenty years ago. It has languished ever since because the United States and seven other countries haven’t ratified it. President Bill Clinton sought ratification in 1999 and was rebuffed by Republican Senators, presaging partisan battles ever since. President Obama promised in his first election campaign and in his Prague speech to “immediately and aggressively” pursue U.S. ratification. He did not keep this promise. Obama can now make a belated and partial gesture toward the Test Ban Treaty, whose rationale is forever linked to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

China, India, Pakistan, and Israel won’t ratify the Treaty until the United States does. If they follow Washington’s lead, steps can be taken for the Treaty’s entry into force. In Hiroshima, President Obama could help his successor ramp up support for the Treaty by pledging to co-sponsor a meaningful U.N. resolution this fall on the 20th anniversary of its signing. It’s time for all major powers to recommit to the Treaty, everything it stands for, and its continuous, real-time, global monitoring system to detect cheating. Japan, which now sits on the Security Council, could partner with the United States and other major powers in sponsoring this resolution. This would be a fitting commitment for Obama’s solemn visit to Hiroshima.


Michael Krepon is Co-founder of the Stimson Center, which was named after Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who advised President Truman on the use of the atomic bomb to end Word War II.

Photo credit: U.S. Government Work via Flickr
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