Obama’s last chance to provide global leadership in pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons

Kevin Rafferty says the outgoing US president, now less beholden to public opinion, should visit Hiroshima during this month’s G7 summit, while working to bring China and India further into the global fold

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 3:00pm

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was moved almost to the point of blubbering when he visited the memorial to the victims of the world’s first atomic bomb in Hiroshima this month.

If he is as serious as he claimed, he should tell his boss, President Barack Obama, that he too should break away from the meaningless palaver of the G7 summit in Ise next month to make a pilgrimage to Hiroshima, only 400km away.

Obama should pay homage to the atomic victims of that searing morning of August 1945, and – more important – try to revive his grand promise when he took over as president to promote “a world without nuclear weapons”. It’s Obama’s last chance.

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Before he sets off for Japan, Obama should also ask G7 host Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, to invite President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the summit and add a new agenda item that China and India should become permanent G7 members, with Canada and Italy dropping out.

At Hiroshima’s peace museum, Kerry wrote: “Everyone in the world should see and feel the power [of the Hiroshima memorial]. It is a stark, harsh, compelling reminder not only of our obligation to end the threat of nuclear weapons, but to rededicate all our effort to avoid war itself.”

Since he wrote the words rather than speaking off the cuff, Kerry was, presumably, deadly serious. Even so, a sceptical observer has to ask why it took a serving US secretary of state 71 years after the atomic bomb to go to Hiroshima, and why then only as part of a G7 delegation. Why, too, did American officials resist the suggestion that the G7 summit be held in Hiroshima?

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When he came to office in 2009, Obama declared his commitment to creating “a world without nuclear weapons”. Today, in spite of the deal with Iran, nuclear tension is increasing, especially as North Korea flaunts its increasing nuclear ambitions.

Globally, there are 15,375 nuclear weapons stockpiled, 93 per cent in the hands of the US and Russia. This is down from the peak of more than 60,000 in the 1980s, but new, potentially destabilising factors are the increasing number of nations with nuclear weapons (nine, including North Korea), and the flashpoints that could spark war.

Some military strategists, especially on the American Republican right, believe it is a losing battle to contain nuclear proliferation and it would be more honest to allow, say, South Korea and even Japan to join the nuclear weapons club.

When there were a handful of nuclear powers, all loosely members of a global club, they could be trusted to believe that use of a nuclear weapon would lead to mutually assured destruction

This would really be dancing with the devil, besides setting Beijing’s nerves on edge. US isolationists say it is none of America’s business to provide a nuclear umbrella protecting Korea and Japan, claiming it allows them to develop economically without paying fully for their defence. Let the Koreans bomb themselves to bits, suggested one Republican “thinker”. Unfortunately for Washington, the US would not be able to hide from any nuclear fallout. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has the US in his sights.

When there were a handful of nuclear powers, all loosely members of a global club, they could be trusted to believe that use of a nuclear weapon would lead to mutually assured destruction (or the very apt MAD acronym). But with new nuclear weapons states, some led by hotheads, and a proliferation of angry local disputes all over the world, there is real danger that “MADness” may be forgotten in the heat of the moment.

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It is not merely conventional military disputes that threaten global security. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to three minutes before midnight last year, citing “[un]checked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernisations and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals”. There are also numerous disputes over land and water rights, not to speak of terrorists with links to nuclear-armed nations threatening to shake up the established order explosively.

Someonehas to show leadership, to haul the world back from the brink of disaster. Visiting Hiroshima and paying his respects to the dead would be a symbolic first step. Obama should take it as US president, and not merely as part of a group of other G7 leaders.

Obama does not have to apologise, but should express sympathy for the 250,000 atomic victims and for millions of others who suffered at the hands of the killing machines of Japan and the US. And he should announce an initiative to work with China and Russia to cut the number of nuclear weapons. But Obama must do more. Supporters claim he has tried to pursue a realistic foreign policy, in contrast to his predecessors with more imperial agendas. But, too often, he has been thwarted by the ugly realpolitik of the real world.

Both China and India must be brought into the global system. They are too big and powerful economically, as well as politically, to be left outside. Europe is over-represented in the G7.

It is common to claim that in the last months of his presidency, Obama is a “lame duck”. But it is erroneous: he has the priceless advantage of the freedom of being less beholden to public opinion. Whoever enters the White House in January will be a true lame duck, until she or he can repair relationships with Congress before making a world mark. Obama has a reputation as a clear thinker: let him show it before it is too late.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator