WASHINGTON/TOKYO -- For the first time in the 71 years since the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, a sitting U.S. president visited Hiroshima, the first of two cities in the world to have experienced nuclear bombing. The focus will now be on how Japan and the U.S. will harness this historic occasion to bring about a world without nuclear weapons.
At Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in the early evening of May 27, President Obama, with his back to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial -- more commonly known as the Atomic Bomb Dome building -- and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe standing not far from him, began to speak.
The White House had said earlier that the president would make few-minute remarks, but Obama stood at the podium with pages of his "remarks" in hand, making what could be considered a "speech" that lasted about 17 minutes.
Following their respective remarks, Obama and Abe walked together toward the Atomic Bomb Dome, accompanied by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. It is said Obama told Abe then that he was glad to have been able to make it to Hiroshima, to which Abe responded that the visit would undoubtedly become a huge step toward a world without nuclear weapons. Obama then apparently said to Abe -- calling him by his first name, Shinzo -- that there were still many things they had to tackle together, and that the visit was just the beginning.
Obama's passion for nuclear disarmament is not something that emerged once he became president. It began at least 30 years ago as a student at Columbia University, where he chose to do research on the topic of effective U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms management.
In a now famous speech Obama made in Prague in the spring of 2009, shortly after he assumed the presidency, he conveyed America's commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. He stated that "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act." But in the seven years since, he has continued to face deep chasms between ideals and reality. Negotiations with Russia on nuclear disarmament have stalled since around the time Vladimir Putin, seeking a Russian resurgence, returned to the Russian presidency in 2012. China has increased its nuclear capacity, and North Korea has carried out repeated nuclear tests. The Obama administration itself has put a lot of work into updating its nuclear capabilities.
The past three times that Obama visited Japan, he did not visit either Hiroshima or Nagasaki out of consideration for those in the U.S. apprehensive about such a move. In the latest visit to Japan, believed to be his last as a sitting president, Obama's aim was to once again boost momentum for nuclear disarmament and build his political legacy.
However, tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine have continued, and the two countries are far from coming together to resume nuclear disarmament negotiations. How much can Obama, whose second and last term as president ends next January, do in that time?
Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, an organization working toward the elimination of nuclear stockpiles, served as an adviser to Obama on nuclear disarmament policy in the 2008 election. He points out that progress has been made in the areas of nuclear security and nuclear nonproliferation, but not in the area of nuclear disarmament. To improve this state of affairs, Cirincione argues, the U.S. must immediately meet the limit for the number of strategic arms allowed by the Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms -- known as the New START Treaty -- that it signed with Russia, instead of waiting until the February 2018 deadline.
Cirincione said that the U.S. could take additional measures, such as slashing its nuclear development budget by a total of $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Moreover, Cirincione advocates that the U.S. government call on all members of the U.S. Congress to visit Hiroshima to gain an understanding of the destruction that nuclear weapons have wrought.
In his remarks following those of President Obama at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Prime Minister Abe emphasized his position of cooperating with the U.S. toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, saying, "We will make sure to realize a world without nuclear weapons. Even if the road ahead is long and difficult, it is the responsibility of those who are living today to make continuous efforts."
However, it is also true that, in terms of national security, Japan relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January this year, and is aiming to build smaller A-bombs to be carried by its missiles. Japan's neighbors China and Russia also possess nuclear weapons.
Against this backdrop, the Japanese government has been the target of criticism for its passive approach to nuclear abolition. At the United Nations General Assembly meeting in December last year, the "Humanitarian pledge for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons," which called for the reinforcement of a legal framework toward nuclear abolition, was passed with 139 countries voting in favor. Japan abstained, likely out of consideration for the U.S., which opposed the resolution.
Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida has said that Japan wants to serve as a "bridge" between non-nuclear states that are calling for swift nuclear disarmament and nuclear powers such as the U.S. But instead, Japan is looked on with distrust from both sides.
Obama's visit to Hiroshima has left a deep impression domestically and globally of a strong Japan-U.S. bilateral alliance. In his remarks at Hiroshima Peace Park, Abe characterized the alliance as one that "creates hope in the world," but he failed to explain how the two countries will seek to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Still, there are areas in which Japan can lead the world toward nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. The government decided to transfer highly enriched uranium and plutonium that had been used in experimental reactors at universities and other facilities out of the country. In April, Japan and the U.S. released a joint statement on nuclear security cooperation that included the removal of nuclear fuel from Japan and its transfer to the U.S., emphasizing both countries' efforts toward nuclear nonproliferation.
What will be sought next is a strategy -- as the only nation to have experienced nuclear bombing -- that is free from obsolete thinking and age-old political shackles.