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Why Hiroshima speech will mean so much to President Obama

Modes of thought

In Hiroshima, President Obama could knit together two major themes of his foreign policy: nuclear disarmament and the imperative to reach out to enemies.

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    Japanese women walk past the A-bomb dome in Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan, in this file photo.
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President Obama’s decision to visit Hiroshima offers a neat bookend for a president with a penchant for symbolism and a former law professor with a soft spot for the teachable moment.

Seven years after his first major foreign policy speech offered a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, Mr. Obama will underscore the enduring importance of that goal on May 27. He will become the first sitting United States president to visit Hiroshima.

But early indications are that he could also use the moment to drive home a deeper lesson: how the profound evolution in the US-Japan relationship since World War II shows that former arch enemies can become allies with a shared vision for peace and security.

Both points are fundamental to Obama’s worldview and have intertwined on the Iran nuclear deal – arguably the most significant foreign policy achievement of Obama’s two terms. For those reasons, the visit to Hiroshima will almost certainly become a key piece of the Obama legacy, but it will also underline how much more remains to be done.

“President Obama has already established that he is personally deeply committed to seeing that nuclear weapons are never used again, so the test for him in Hiroshima is going to be if he can and will put forward some positive proposals for the next steps for reaching that goal of a nuclear–weapons-free world,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. “If he can do that, it will make this a significant visit, instead of just a historic and symbolic one.”

The decision to visit Hiroshima has been an aspiration of Obama’s since he took office. On his first visit to Japan as president in 2009, Obama floated the idea of visiting either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the two cities hit by US atomic bombs in 1945.

“The memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are etched in the minds of the world, and I would be honored to have the opportunity to visit those cities at some point during my presidency,” Obama said then.

The visit later this month will come during a previously planned trip to Japan and Vietnam.  

Some critics blast as the visit as tantamount to an “apology tour.” Obama sees it as an opportunity to reaffirm the themes he first offered in April 2009 in Prague.

The difficulty of ridding the world of nuclear arsenals does not mean the world should give up on disarmament, he is likely to say. And as the sole country ever to use an atomic bomb in war, the US has a “moral responsibility” to “act” – as Obama said in Prague – to rid the world of nuclear weapons.    

Obama’s disarmament efforts have been hard. He can point to a new START Treaty with Russia, a Nuclear Security Summit process targeting “loose” nuclear materials, and the controversial Iran nuclear deal as achievements, Mr. Kimball says.

But heightened tensions between the US and Russia – the countries with the largest nuclear arsenals – and North Korea’s “unrestrained” nuclear program present roadblocks.

Indeed, some foreign policy analysts say the prospects for further progress in the waning months of the Obama presidency are remote. Obama would better use his time to underscore how two former enemies are now allied in defending global freedoms in a world of creeping authoritarianism, they say.

Obama should “stand by” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “and reflect on our ability to move past the gaping wounds of war,” writes Michael Austin, a Japan and Asian security expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, on the think tank’s website.

He should “laud the long record of partnership among democratic nations that emerged from the ashes of war” while also reaffirming “the liberal world’s commitment to preserving and defending today’s precarious global order.” 

There are indications Obama might do that.

“[Obama] will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” wrote Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, on the Medium website. “Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.”

But it seems unlikely that a president with a flair for the symbolic – and one who received the Nobel Peace Prize his first year in office in part for his call for a world free of nuclear weapons – will forgo the opportunity to touch up his nuclear-free vision when he finally visits Hiroshima.

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