U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic Hiroshima visit Friday signifies a step forward in his stated 2009 dream of a “world without nuclear weapons.”
Tokyo and Washington say Obama’s trip offers a chance to recognize the tremendous suffering of innocent citizens caused by the U.S. nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But Obama’s trip also casts light on key questions, including why Japan has welcomed his visit without a formal apology, and how much Obama has accomplished toward his goal of nuclear disarmament amid increasing — and menacing — military buildups in China, North Korea and elsewhere.
The Hiroshima gesture is especially important for Obama, who is facing mounting criticism from nonnuclear powers that disarmament has made little progress since his Nobel Peace Prize-winning speech in Prague on April 5, 2009.
As for Japan, aside from an overwhelming public view that Obama does not need to apologize, experts point out Japan’s no-apology stance underscores the contradicting political reality of a country that has benefited from the U.S. nuclear umbrella throughout the postwar era.
As the only country attacked with atomic weapons, Japan has repeatedly said it has a responsibility to lead the anti-nuclear movement.
However, as a U.S. ally, Tokyo has been reluctant to take proactive steps, despite North Korea continuing to provoke the region with repeated nuclear tests and China causing global concern with its military modernization and atomic arsenal.
At a meeting this month of an open-ended working group for nuclear disarmament in Geneva, where no nuclear power was present, Tokyo joined with members of NATO in opposing a treaty banning atomic weapons that was proposed by nonnuclear powers, including Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia.
Japan even abstained from the U.N. General Assembly vote to launch the working group last September, while nuclear powers, including the U.S. and the U.K. voted against it.
Toshio Sano, Japanese ambassador for the conference on disarmament, said at the meeting that a treaty banning atomic weapons would further alienate nuclear powers and nonnuclear powers. They are scheduled to convene another meeting in August to compile a report with a possible vote on the treaty.
But the nuclear states and some nonnuclear states such as Japan believe it is unrealistic to abandon this means of deterrence at a time when such threats are increasing, particularly from North Korea.
In fact, the gap between nonnuclear and nuclear powers has widened since Obama’s landmark speech.
Experts say Obama raised expectations too high, even though he acknowledged the vision for a nonnuclear world might not be achieved during his lifetime.
“In terms of nuclear security and nuclear nonproliferation, Obama fulfilled his pledge. But achieving those goals does not mean making progress for a nuclear-free world,” said Heigo Saito, professor of international relations at Takushoku University.
“When he made that speech in 2009, Obama probably did not have a concrete policy toward that goal,” Saito said.
Obama has emphasized nuclear security and nonproliferation, as reflected in the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, amid the threat that terrorists may acquire atomic weapons.
Since then, Obama has convened the Nuclear Security Summit four times as well as successfully brokering last year’s Iran nuclear agreement.
Under the deal, Iran and the five formally declared nuclear powers — the U.S., U.K., France, China and Russia — as well as Germany and the European Union agreed that some sanctions on Iran would be lifted if Tehran cut back on its nuclear technology.
In terms of nuclear disarmament, meanwhile, Obama’s policy borne little fruit.
The U.S. has yet to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty despite Obama’s promise to do so. After the historic 2010 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), in which Washington and Moscow agreed to reduce their nuclear warheads to 1,550 warheads each by February 2018, both countries have maintained more than 7,000 warheads as of 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The 2010 framework did not take China into consideration. It is now increasingly factored into global management of nuclear weapons, experts say.
In an interview with NHK last week, Obama defended his approach toward nuclear disarmament.
“I think that we have made some modest progress in at least not seeing a huge increase in nuclear stockpiles,” Obama told NHK. “In the major countries that possess nuclear weapons, I think there’s been an emphasis not on building up new weapons.”
Frustrated with Obama’s approach to nuclear disarmament, nonnuclear powers have begun to focus on the so-called humanitarian consequences of nuclear arms in order to meet the goal of banning them.
In one instance, at the third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna in September 2014, at which the U.S. was present, Austria pledged to work with the international community to “prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”
“Since that pledge was made, the word ‘humanitarian’ has become something that nuclear powers want to avoid,” said Hirofumi Tosaki, senior research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
The stance was reflected in the Hiroshima Declaration that was adopted at the Group of Seven foreign ministers’ meeting in Hiroshima last month.
The statement, which calls for a world without nuclear weapons, did not use the term “humanitarian consequences,” but instead said “human suffering.” A Foreign Ministry official said that nuclear powers were hesitant to ink “humanitarian consequences,” which implies a nuclear arms ban, but Japan did not resist.
It remains unclear how much closer Obama’s message in Hiroshima will bring nuclear and nonnuclear powers.
Still, Tokyo believes that one way to do so is to bring global leaders to Hiroshima to see the horrendous destruction nuclear weapons can cause — an idea that was reflected in the Hiroshima Declaration.
“Obama’s visit might only be symbolic, but it is meaningful that Japan and the U.S., two global leaders, keep sending the message that they are committed to nuclear arms reduction,” said Tosaki.
This is part of a series of articles spotlighting the historic visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima this week.