Michael KreponTo Hiroshima

Secretary of State John Kerry joins other foreign ministers placing flowers at the cenotaph of the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on Monday. Visits by high-level U.S. officials to Hiroshima are heavily freighted, unlike those to Tokyo, where over 100,000 civilians were killed in firebombing raids in March 1945. Hiroshima is different, of course. Tokyo is remembered for the horror of a world war that was waged against cities and civilians as well as on battlefields. Hiroshima is remembered for the weapon used to destroy the city and the people living in it.

Secretary Kerry is right to visit the cenotaph. No sitting President has done this. President Barack Obama can be the first next month. I’m betting that he will. There, as a witness to history, he can recommit his administration to important unfinished business – advancing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In his Prague speech on April 5, 2009, Mr. Obama pledged to “immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.” He and his administration did nothing of the sort. But there is still time before leaving office to reaffirm the CTBT and provide some momentum for his successor to advance the Treaty’s prospects.

Mention of the Prague speech, like the fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, has evoked a raft of punditry of how well or poorly Mr. Obama has done on his ambitious nuclear agenda. A President who does not aim high will have little to show for his or her efforts. President Obama aimed very high, and by this measure, fell considerably short of his ambitions.

The President left himself wide open to criticism by expressing in his Prague speech the goal “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” But this is the right goal, one that bears repeating, as almost every American President starting with Harry S Truman has done. This is one of many reasons for the President to visit Hiroshima.

Mr. Obama traveled a disappointedly short distance toward this goal in the New START Treaty, whose mandated reductions will be achieved in two years’ time. And then what? The President has clarified his willingness to go deeper, but not unilaterally. The Treaty’s intrusive monitoring regime can be utilized for deeper reductions, but Mr. Obama has not had a partner for deeper bilateral reductions in Vladimir Putin.

Strategic arms control with China, the second-most crucial US strategic relationship, is not on the horizon. The Obama administration worked hard to establish the preconditions for Beijing’s engagement in the form of confidence-building rules of the road to prevent dangerous practices at sea and in cyberspace. Beijing, like Moscow, has not been a willing partner. The paper on which these agreements were reached is flimsy, but they are a start.

The Obama Administration has made no such headway on rules of the road for space, now an arena of vigorous strategic competition by China, Russia, and the United States. The State Department chose to shunt aside Mr. Obama’s stated ambition to actively seek a space Code of Conduct when running for the White House. Instead, Foggy Bottom “led from behind” the European Union on the space Code of Conduct, which was a recipe for failure.

As this initiative languished, examples of dangerous military practices in space grew longer, marked by Chinese non-kinetic anti-satellite tests,  troubling Russian “proximity” operations, and a significant increase in the Pentagon’s budget for space. Instead of reaffirming the need for a space Code of Conduct, State Department officials no longer mention it in speeches. The Obama Administration still hasn’t forthrightly claimed ownership of a Code of Conduct despite the importance of space as a domain for major power conflict or cooperation. The marked deterioration of US-Russian relations has effectively closed the door on the space Code of Conduct, at least for the near term.

Mr. Obama’s most significant accomplishment relating to nuclear weapons reflected his biggest risk: an agreement with Iran that significantly and verifiably constrains Tehran’s ability to make nuclear weapons. Success will depend on Tehran’s implementation practices, which will be quite observable, and US domestic politics, which are unpredictable.

President Obama’s legacy on securing fissile material that could be used for “dirty” bombs, improvised nuclear devices, and warheads is mixed. The President deserves high marks for making this a priority and for convening the Nuclear Security Summits. But the accomplishments of this process in the civil nuclear domain could be more than offset by the growth of fissile material stockpiles for nuclear weapons and by impending decisions to begin reprocessing in Asia.

The CTBT never received the attention Mr. Obama promised. Only modest preparatory work has been done to advance public understanding of the Treaty’s value – and this quite late in the administration. A trip to Hiroshima can only partially redeem the President’s pledge to advance the CTBT, but only if linked to a strong push for a UN Security Council resolution this fall that

  • declares that nuclear testing would trigger proliferation and undermine international peace and security;
  • declares that the conduct of a nuclear test explosion would defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT;
  • determines that, in light of the threat to international peace and security posed by any further nuclear weapon test explosion, it is necessary to maintain a continuous, real-time global nuclear test monitoring capability and associated data processing, analysis, and reporting to provide states, including members of the Security Council, with timely, high-fidelity information necessary to detect, identify, and locate nuclear test explosions whenever they may occur; and
  • recognizes the vital contribution of the Provisional Technical Secretariat and Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, including the International Monitoring System and International Data Centre, in providing the monitoring capabilities necessary to promptly detect, identify, locate, and attribute nuclear weapon test explosions.

Not exactly the immediate and aggressive pursuit of U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that the President promised, but it’s the best he can now do. His supporters and his audience in Japan deserve to hear no less than this.

(Continued here.)


  1. Rabia (History)

    This is the same President Obama who released a budget proposal for 2017, which includes billions of dollars for controversial modernization programs for each leg of the nuclear triad — land-based, sea-based and aircraft missiles — and cuts to nuclear nonproliferation programs. This is troubling for a number of reasons, never mind the irony that this spending spree comes from the same man who delivered a 2009 speech in Prague pledging “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
    Hiroshima was an excuse to implement their policies.

  2. E. Parris (History)

    In terms of America’s” long-term commitment,” it is interesting that the weapon used on Hiroshima was very crude, and there was a strong incentive to quickly follow with a second nuclear weapon–this one a much more complicated, implosion-type device. Could it be that the diplomatic focus on the inhumane impact of nuclear weapons might be a not-too-subtle message to North Korea that the civilized world will not allow a reckless and unpredictable nation to join the nuclear club? The Korean war (remember that?) was fought with Japan in mind. It appears that the time has come to remove North Korea as a world threat and nuisance. North Korea’s young dictator should be able to comprehend that message.

  3. J House (History)

    “The President left himself wide open to criticism by expressing in his Prague speech the goal “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

    Well, in his two terms, the President has certainly failed in that regard. Today, N. Korea has not only detonated multiple nuclear bombs, but is in the act of reprocessing nuclear weapons-grade fuel (possible to be sold to the highest bigger, including Iran).
    The Iran ‘deal’ merely delays the inevitable…a nuclear armed Iran and Saudi Arabia possessing nuclear weapons..

  4. Gregory Matteson (History)

    In all the talk about this President’s failings on nuclear issues I think it is well to remember that his predecessor declared that nuclear tests by North Korea would not be tolerated under any circumstances, just weeks before the first North Korean test. Following the test, even the crickets were silent as samples came in verifying the test. Bringing the hammer down on recalcitrant nations is a much different proposition than is rhetoric.

  5. Michael Krepon (History)